Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ ages gracefully

By  Casey Dolan

A studio shot of Miles Davis during the

A studio shot of Miles Davis during the “Kind Of Blue” sessions. (Courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment/Don Hunstein)
“I ain’t never heard no blues played like that!” — Attributed to Cannonball Adderley by Miles Davis and referring to a solo by John Coltrane in an early live performance of the Miles Davis Sextet

“It wasn’t intended to be the zeitgeist album, but it just happened.” — Erin Davis

When Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb entered Columbia’s 30th St. studio March 2, 1959, they had little idea that the music they were about to create would stand as a hallowed monument in the history of jazz — music that would become as unimpeachably revered as the recordings of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, or Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Savoy and Dial.

 Miles Davis’ smoky 1959 album, Kind of Blue, remains part of the essential American cultural fabric and, like the grayness of smoke itself, mixes a palette of obsidian African resonances and rhythms with the whiteness of a European art-music tradition.

The result is a compositional reduction of simple chord changes following modes (read scales) that waft effortlessly through a room like an undulating mist. It has served as a catalyst and template in every musical genre.

Big bang theory

The album did not emerge as a “Big Bang” inside Miles Davis’ head, as many would like to imagine.

It was the repository and worksheet for many ideas that had been floating around at the time — from gigs at Café Bohemia to discussions at bandleader Gil Evans’ bustling downtown apartment; from the Ballet Africaine dance performances that Miles Davis’ dancer girlfriend and future wife, Frances Taylor, introduced him to right up to the modal theories put forth by composer-arranger George Russell in his book, “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.”

Even though the influences were varied and the personnel marvelously diverse, at its root Kind of Blue represented an essential shift toward simplicity in jazz. As the sole surviving “cast member” and a man who turned 80 the very day of President Obama’s inauguration, drummer Jimmy Cobb says, “There was a change of the music at the time from show tunes with a lot of changes. Maybe it was a lot easier [for listeners]. Not a big challenge to the brain.”

That may be a key to why it is still the best-selling jazz album in history, with more than four million in sales, certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America Oct. 7, 2008.

Erin Davis, the trumpeter’s youngest son, confirms this. “You could start there as a beginner or you could end there as someone with experience. If you put on some hard bop for someone who’s never heard jazz before, they usually cringe. They won’t appreciate the level of Charlie Parker or Dizzy. You just can’t. First time? Unless you play the instrument yourself, you’re not really going to get it. Whereas you put on Kind Of Blue? Aw, this is really cool sounding.”

Jazz writer Don Heckman elaborates on the musical material itself: “The idea of modal improvising had been floating around the New York jazz scene for a few years already. It’s hard to imagine that Kind Of Blue would have taken place without the prior presence of George Russell. Russell’s premise that long, modally oriented lines could be projected over any given harmonic scheme, no matter how complex, was being argued and discussed by players all over the city. Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece,’ from his 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans, influenced, as well, by Satie, was an indication of what would come in Kind Of Blue, and one could make a convincing argument that Evans (motivated by his own interest in Russell’s ‘Concept’) was the most powerful influence upon the musical direction of Kind of Blue.”

New packaging

Since its initial release Aug. 17, 1959, Columbia Records, now Sony, has reissued it many times in a variety of packages, changing the original artwork over the years — a close-up of Miles taken during a performance at the Apollo Theater — and correcting mistakes in both sequencing (the early pressings had the tracks on the second side, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches,” interchanged) and the speed at which the album was mastered (the master tapes had been recorded at less than 15 ips which created a quarter-tone sharpness in intonation. This was not recognized and corrected until 1992).

On Sept. 30, 2008, Sony Legacy released its most lavish presentation of Kind Of Blue in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the album.

The release is slightly preemptory as the two original sessions occurred March 2 and April 22, 1959. The box (blue, naturally) contains two CDs with the original album, studio chatter, alternate takes (“Flamenco Sketches” and a false start for “Freddie Freeloader”) on CD1, and the second side of the criminally overlooked album Jazz Track, with the same lineup, a couple of outtakes and a blindingly fast live version of “So What” on the other. A DVD has both a 55-minute documentary on the making of the album (including interviews with, among many, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Cobb, Bill Cosby, Ron Carter, Q-Tip, Eddie Henderson, Horace Silver, Meshell Ndegeocello, studio engineer Frank Laico, photographer Don Hunstein, John Scofield, and Carlos Santana) and a TV special, “Robert Herridge Theater: The Sound Of Miles Davis,” which aired in 1958 and features a quintet minus Adderley and substituting Wynton Kelly for Bill Evans.

 There is also a vinyl record, also blue, and a hardcover book which contains a slightly revised breakdown of the studio talk transcribed by author Ashley Kahn and given a more lengthy (and different) treatment in his “Kind of Blue: The Making Of Miles Davis’ Masterpiece.” An evocative essay by Francis Davis puts the album into a historical context, and in contrast, Gerald Early writes about Kind Of Blue as a crucial expression of African-American consciousness. A poster features Miles in the studio’s recording room and prints of some of the more famous Hunstein photographs of the session are included (many of which are being shown in “The Genius of Miles Davis” exhibit currently in West Hollywood).

A Miles Davis Sextet timeline by Bob Belden and Ken Vail, grandfathered from the previous Sony box set of “Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” was used without Belden’s awareness.

Belden says sadly, “I wish I would have been allowed to update the timeline. Since it was first published in 1996, I have amassed more details which would have shed more light on the process of how Miles and his musicians got from A-Z, as detail brings the past to life in a dramatic way.”

But Vince Wilburn Jr., Miles Davis’ nephew, and Erin Davis, representing Miles Davis Properties LLG, had very few problems with the way Sony dealt with the material, now or in any of the past box sets.

According to Wilburn, “Adam Block and Steve Berkowitz [senior vice president /general manager and vice president of A&R at Sony Legacy, respectively] shoot us different ideas…. We bounce back and forth what we like, what we don’t like, what can be released, what cannot be released. It’s a give and take…. The beauty of it is that it flows. That helps. I’d love to make up something for the press. You know, ‘We fight every three weeks’ … but it’s cool. I mean, there were some rough edges a while ago, ’cause the music was getting out on the streets, people going into the vaults. I had to be the enforcer on that. I was pissed. That was the only run-in we’ve had with Sony.”

The extra tracks on CD1, some of which have been released before, contain studio talk that corresponds relatively closely to Kahn’s book transcriptions of the sessions, with a few exceptions: Miles’ gentle chiding of bassist Paul Chambers for not following Bill Evans’ cues and certain spoken attributions which have been changed (Adderley instead of Evans, for example). Regarding the brief dialogue between Chambers and Miles, drummer and Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., says, “Oh, we can’t put that in there.” Erin Davis laughs and says, “Miles gone wild.”

Session secrets

But the point is that Davis was not wild, and the studio chatter reveals as much of a relaxed bonhomie as the music.

Cobb says of the sessions, “Most of the time Miles was easy to work with. Everybody was like family.”

His own recruitment into that “family” reads as a jazz fairy tale: “Miles called about 6 p.m. in the evening,” adds Cobb. “[He] said that he wanted me in the band. I had worked with Miles in the Symphony Sid All Stars before I had worked with Dinah Washington. I’d also sat in a few times if Joe [Philly Joe Jones, the sextet’s previous drummer] didn’t show. He had a gig in Boston. ‘When did it start? Tonight! 9 p.m.’ I hung up the phone and was scrambling … called a cab … caught the shuttle. The band was already on the stand playing ‘Round ’Bout Midnight’.”

All his memories of Kind of Blue are fond.

“Cannonball had a large vocabulary and loved to talk,” says Cobb. “He was impressed with one of his professors [back in Florida]. We met in Florida and had chicken pot pies. [“Cannonball” is a corruption of “cannibal,” a childhood nickname based on Adderley’s voracious appetite]. He asked me about guys in New York, and that was the start of our relationship.”

And then there was the rest of the cast.

 “’Trane was a soft-spoken guy, engrossed in the music,” says Cobb. “He’d play a 20-minute solo. Miles would let him do it. He might say, ‘John, why don’t you play 27 choruses instead of 28?’ Bill was OK, a laid-back kind of college-looking dude — different from what everyone else was. He was discovered by Cannonball [who acted as] a roving agent for Riverside Records. That was how Wes [Montgomery] got signed. Wynton [Kelly, who replaces Evans on “Freddie Freeloader”] doesn’t get enough credit. Paul was a very sweet guy, very nice and had a couple … two or three kids by that time.”

Rehearsals were non-existent or minimal. “Not many rehearsals. They just came in that day with an idea and worked with it,” says Cobb.

What results is an immensely listenable album. This is both its greatest asset and, perhaps, its liability.

According to Heckman, “Without complex harmonic schemes, without the complex, bop-driven improvisational lines associated with those harmonies — typical of late-’50s jazz — it made (and makes) for easy listening, especially for casual or inexperienced jazz audiences. But one could also make a case for that particular asset as a shortcoming, at least in terms of the very different (some might say more limited) demands that the modal settings made upon the improvisers.”

That, of course, raises the issue of whether the album has been overly praised.  When one thinks of the many landmark jazz albums, does Kind of Blue deserve to stand at the apex? Heckman thinks yes and no.

“Musically, I’d say yes, [it is overly praised]. I just wish that some of the George Russell work from the ’50s — especially the Jazz Workshop album (with extraordinary playing from Evans) and the ‘New York, New York’ big band album, with Coltrane, Evans, Art Farmer, Max Roach, etc. — would receive even 10 percent of the attention Kind of Blue gets. But it’s certainly not overly praised in terms of its commercial success. Whatever its limitations, it’s still high-quality music, and any time high-quality music sells a zillion copies, I’m all for it.”

Under the microscope

This “high quality” music bears a brief reexamination.

“So What,” the opening track, encapsulates everything which follows. The intro, so secretive and quiet (Evans’ first chords are pianissimo), sounds like a Debussy prelude. Its composition has been variously attributed to Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Gil Evans. My own feeling (and Jimmy Cobb’s) is that it might be Gil, but it’s shaped by Miles and Bill, and the main loping, hummable bass figure, which makes up the main portion of the track, is pure Miles.

The swing of the band, the utter casualness of the performance (which reaches a height in Miles’ blues-oriented solo, one of Kind Of Blue’s sterling moments), underscores the relaxed nature of the entire album. It’s really only a two-chord piece, and the second chord is just a modulation a half-step up.

A couple of interesting notes are that the Coltrane of 1964 is manifest in his solo, with hints of that skittering, scalar questing he was to develop further, and Adderley is definitely the odd member of the party. Heckman says, “He has always seemed to me to be out of context on Kind Of Blue, still playing his bebop licks, seemingly unaware that the background geography had changed.” But I prefer to think of him as making a purposeful nod to the past and acting as a bridge to the future.

“Freddie Freeloader” is the jauntiest track, albeit a mid-tempo one, on the record. It’s a blues number and a perfect vehicle for Wynton Kelly’s piano playing (his only appearance on the album). The head begins with a natural six in the melody, but ends with a flatted sixth and, thus, a rather strange blues. 

“Blue in Green,” Miles’ mother’s favorite track, according to Erin Davis, is Bill Evans’ sublime moment. Controversy still exists on who the composer is (Miles Davis or Bill Evans) with Ashley Kahn providing much detail, but my money is on Evans. This is as “impressionist jazz” as can be imagined and sounds like something he would write. Coltrane (who almost backed out of playing on the tune) plays beautifully restrained, as if proving that the man who could raise mountains with the immensity of his saxophone could reveal his sweet, sensitive, poetic self. And Miles, himself, shows why he defined the sound of a trumpet with a Harmon mute.

“All Blues” is a moody 6/8 beginning with a double trill by Evans, while Coltrane and Adderley play the old barrelhouse-blues figure. Miles plays with the mute again, a melody that sounds straight out of “Porgy and Bess,” but he takes out the mute for the solo and, lo, what a shift in dynamics. Cobb does exceptional snare punctuations here; it’s his best work on the album.

Even on a blues structure like this, Evans plays strange cluster chords, so at ease in his solo that he can stay true to the simple blues changes while exploring dense close harmonies.

And, finally, “Flamenco Sketches,” which has much of the “sketch” about it and little of the “flamenco.” Based on a series of scales, only one of which has that Andalusian flavor, it has been another bone of contention for authorship with, once again, both Davis and Evans claiming credit (or, at least, co-writing credit). Evans has demonstrable grounds this time with the striking similarity to his earlier “Peace Piece.”

Despite its being thoroughly examined over the decades, there are still questions that linger regarding Kind Of Blue. Chief among them concern the involvement of Miles Davis’ subsequent producer, Teo Macero.

The liner notes to the 50th Anniversary box credit Irving Townsend as producer of the sessions, and it is unquestionably Townsend’s voice one hears on the talkback mic, but George Avakian — the man responsible for having signed Miles Davis to Columbia in the first place and producer of ’Round About Midnight, Milestones and Miles Ahead as well as being the recent recipient of the Trustees Award by the National Academy of Arts and Sciences — insists that Macero was pivotal in the production of the record and does not get enough credit.

However, Avakian had already departed for Warner Brothers Records at this time — he left Columbia on his birthday in 1958 — and Townsend was in transition himself. Immediately following the sessions, he was to become an executive producer for Columbia on the West Coast.

Ashley Kahn had originally credited Macero as producer in a 1999 article in Mojo magazine, but later corrected that in his book to read Townsend. Kahn writes that Macero inherited the unedited masters from Townsend and was the producer overseeing mastering and selling the Columbia sales and marketing departments on the album.

Biographer Ian Carr unqualifiably states, “Teo was the producer, the man in the studio control booth, for Kind Of Blue.” Wikipedia gives credit of production to both men but errs when it describes Macero as “[having] produced Davis’ previous two LPs.”

And it should also be mentioned that Macero was the producer of a mid-’80s reissue of the album, thus confusing the history even more. Jimmy Cobb says, “I think Teo was involved. I know Townsend was. I’m not sure.”

Wilburn thinks Macero’s role was minimal, and Erin Davis says, “It depends on who you ask. [Teo would have told] you he wrote the whole thing, too…. I don’t know who was there. They all see things [in a different way]. I mean, this was 50 years ago, so they’re all going to have a different slant. Irving would have a little slant. George would have a little slant. Well, thank you for all you did. If somebody got left out of the credits, you guys should have fixed that back then.”

Extra tracks don’t seem to be a possibility. Kahn emphasizes the point that only three reels from the two sessions exist, positively an anomaly in 1950s recording sessions for major labels. What is on those reels is, for the most part, what is available in the 50th Anniversary Edition, but even Wilburn and Erin Davis aver that more music could exist.

Davis says, “In Europe, stuff surfaces sometime. You know, ‘Who got ahold of this?’” Wilburn agrees, “There’s so much bootleg stuff out there.”

As for rehearsals, everyone laughs and says that the master performances were, by and large, first takes and, in a very real sense, the only “rehearsals” from the sessions.

Cobb is happy these days. He stuck with Miles for six years after Kind Of Blue, then became a member of the Wynton Kelly Trio (with Chambers) and followed that with extensive work with Sarah Vaughan, among many others. Cobb continues to record and play. He was on the Grammy-nominated album Miles From India, did a kickoff thing for the drum channel, and is getting ready to embark on a Kind Of Blue worldwide tour with the So What Band featuring a number of all-stars, including Wallace Roney (the most obvious living inheritor of Miles’ trumpet style), Larry Willis, Buster Williams, Javon Jackson and Vincent Herring.

 The legacy continues.

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