Sunday, July 17, 2022

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

The original 1959 cover of Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis.  Interestingly (if you're Thee Optimist), the cover has the song list on it.  Later covers list the star-studded lineup of musicians who participated in the recording.

If you're like Thee Optimist, then the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is your favorite album of all time.  

Weird, considering that Thee Optimist is often considered a rocker, and a hard rocker at that. 

But it is what it is.

I stumbled upon Miles Davis quite by accident, when I was a young teenager.  It wasn't his music that impressed me at the time - it was his artwork.

Back in those long ago days, there wasn't much on TV.

In New York, we had a handful of channels - 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13.  2, 4 and 7 were the national networks CBS, NBC, and ABC.  5, 9, and 11 were local New York City TV stations.

13 was PBS, the public broadcasting station best known for Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre.  For some reason, I was watching channel 13.  There must really have been nothing on the other stations.

They were showing a documentary about, or maybe an interview with, a very strange man named Miles Davis.  He spoke in a deep, raspy voice, and seemed to have trouble getting any words out.  He sounded like a frog.  

He was thin nearly to the point of emaciation, wearing sunglasses, a loud red baggy suit, with long hair swept back from a balding head.  

To me, he also looked a little bit like a frog, which was good, because his look matched his voice.  As I found out later, he was in the last decade of his life, was in poor health, and had been for a long time.

He was painting a picture.  It was strange, startling, and in the savage untutored abstract style that I tend to enjoy.

It probably looked something like this:

A painting by Miles Davis

"I thought, "Wow.  I like that painting."

But painting was just a hobby of his.  

His real job was being one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century.  


Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, into a relatively wealthy St. Louis area family.  His father was a dentist, and owned a 200-acre pig farm. 

Beginning at age 13, his parents hired private tutors to teach him to play the trumpet, including Joseph Gustat, principal trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

At the age of 18, Davis entered the Juilliard School in New York City, but dropped out after three semesters.  Soon, he had joined the great saxophonist Charlie Parker's band.  He played with Parker for two years until Parker's 1946 nervous breakdown in Los Angeles.

Davis then played in a series of bands, including one led by Dizzy Gillespie, and he also began to lead his own bands.  His nine-piece from the late 1940s recorded several singles for Capitol Records.  These records are considered some of the earliest examples of cool jazz, but they sold poorly or remained unreleased until the 1957 compilation Birth of the Cool.  

By early 1950, not yet 24 years old, Davis had spiraled down into cocaine and alcohol abuse, and finally heroin addiction.  He survived by playing sessions as a sideman, making his own records haphazardly, and working as a pimp.  

He stayed away from New York City during this time.  He lived in Detroit for a while, and also returned to his father's home, locking himself in the guest house in an attempt to get clean.  

In 1954, Davis kicked heroin, inspired by his idol, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.  He returned to New York, the place that would become his home for most of his life.

On August 25, 1959, a beaten and bloody Miles Davis was arrested by cops outside Birdland nightclub in New York City, apparently for escorting a white woman to a taxi.  The cops didn't recognize him.  It was normal for cops to beat up random black guys in those days, instead of just shooting them dead.  Davis was at Birdland that night recording music to be distributed to American soldiers by the US Armed Services. 

Band Leader and Innovator

Beginning in 1955, Davis embarked on a nearly 20-year period of intense productivity, experimentation and innovation that established and cemented his legacy as one of the great musicians of the 20th century.  

He was invited to perform at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival in August of 1955.  He was still relatively unknown at the time, and his performance was widely praised by critics.  He is said to have responded to the accolades with: "What are they talking about?  That's how I always play."

More important, the producer George Avakian from Columbia Records was at the festival, and signed Davis to a major label deal.  At the time, Davis's contract was with the much smaller, jazz-centric Prestige Records.  The Columbia deal would expose him to a larger mainstream audience, and make him a lot more money.

By the late 1950s, Davis's record sales, as well as the respect he received, had exploded.  He was releasing multiple albums each year, both with Prestige and Columbia.  

Albums like Birth of the CoolWalkin' (which is thought to be the recording that invented hard bop), 'Round About MidnightMiles AheadJazz Track, Porgy and Bess were all released around this time, and set the stage for Kind of Blue.

A happy moment for Miles Davis in 1955.  Photograph by Tom Palumbo.  Davis lived with chronic pain from sickle cell anemia for much of his adult life.  He was hooked on painkillers, heroin and alcohol at various times, and had a tendency to lash out violently, especially at people close to him.

The Band

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that by late 1958, Davis had put together one of the best bands in the world.  

His rhythm section was made up of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb (the longest surviving member of the group, dying in 2020 at the age of 91).  He also had legendary alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley 

On tenor sax, he had John Coltrane, also considered one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time.  So venerated is Coltrane, that he is canonized as a saint by the African Orthodox Church, an offshoot of the Episcopal Church.  His official shrine is the St. John Coltrane Church in San Francisco.

Yeah.  And Coltrane was just in the band.

Rounding out the musicians was Davis himself on trumpet, and piano player Bill Evans, yet another band member to have a major impact on generations of later players.  

Evans was the only white guy in the band, and Davis's mostly black audiences often gave him a hard time.  Apparently, he was sensitive about this, so Davis would double down and tease him.

But Davis also said this about him:

"Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.  The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall."

Davis caught these guys at the right time.  They were all pretty young, and jazz musicians of the era tended not to live very long.  Paul Chambers died at the age of 33, Coltrane followed at 40, Cannonball Adderley at 46, and Evans at 51.

Listen to the song "All Blues" from Kind of Blue, in all its 11 and a half minute glory:


Recording and Legacy

The album was recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959, at the Columbia Records 30th Street Studio, often called "The Church," because it was located in an old Presbyterian Church, built in 1875.

Davis was experimenting with a style of music known as modal jazz.  He was moving away from the structured chord progressions common to jazz at the time.  As such, for each song he gave the musicians nothing more than sketches of scales and a melody to improvise over.  

Davis was notorious for being tight with money.  According to legend, he paid each player in the band $25 a session.  With inflation, that's about $250 in 2022, or $500 a person for the whole album.  

Which, uh... isn't bad, I guess.

Later, Bill Evans is said to have come to Davis and mentioned that the song "Blue in Green" was his composition, or at the very least he co-authored it with Davis.  Davis agreed and gave him another $25.

Kind of Blue is widely regarded as one of the best and most influential albums of the 20th century.  Certainly, it is considered by many to be the greatest jazz album.  But its influence is wider than that.

Duane Allman, slide guitarist of the Allman Brothers, once said, "I've listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven't hardly listened to anything else."

Keyboard player Richard Wright of Pink Floyd said the album influenced his playing on The Dark Side of the Moon.  

Rapper and producer Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, Eminem, among many others), said: "It's like the Bible.  You just have one in your house."

Producer Quincy Jones (Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, "We Are the World," 28 Grammy Awards) said: "I play Kind of Blue every day - it's my orange juice."

In 2016, Kind of Blue was certified 5 times platinum, meaning it has sold at least 5 million copies in the United States alone.  It is the best-selling jazz album of all time.

You can listen to the original album in its entirety by clicking here.  It's on vinyl, no less.  Of course, since you're listening to it over the internet, it's still digital.  But you can watch the record spin around.

A photograph from the Kind of Blue sessions.  From left to right, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans.

Words of Wisdom

"Don't play what's there.  Play what's not there."

- Miles Davis, giving instructions to the musicians during the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1959

1 comment:

  1. tfw your favorite album is over 60 years old.