Happy 60th Anniversary to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, originally released August 17, 1959.
On March 2, 1959, Miles Davis and the rest of his sextet stepped into Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City and made musical history. Aided and abetted by Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Paul Chambers (bass) and Bill Evans/Wynton Kelly on piano, he began the first of two sessions (the other occurring on April 22nd) that produced the greatest (jazz) album of all time.
Oh f**k, what do I know?
I’m only going to Google it and write it down. Sure, I’ll wrap it up in complex sentences and as fancy a set of words as I can conjure, but that’s all I’ll be doing.
I mean what the f**k do I know about jazz? S**t, people have written whole books and not just books, weighty mother**king tomes, about Kind of Blue. How can I compare with that in a mere thousand or so words? In short, I can’t.
So, folks, if you want factual information about those sessions, if you want to know why Bill Evans played piano on the majority of the tracks or what made it dramatically different musically, then I suggest you go elsewhere. Hell, I’ll even signpost it for you: try Ashley Kahn’s Kind Of Blue: The Making of The Miles Davis Masterpiece or Richard Williams’ The Blue Moment: Miles Davis Kind of Blue and The Remaking of Modern Music. There you go.
That’s buggered that then. What have I got left? Well, I’ve got what every writer’s got—a bullish heart full of love and a soul that needs baring, both of which are given wings by the contents of Kind of Blue.
In June of 1996 I’d just finished the final exams of my degree at University. While I waited for results, I did nothing. Nada. Nichts. Nowt. Lazy days on lush green lawns under a blue sky that seemed as endless as the wait for my results were the order of the day(s). Against this backdrop and a half-empty campus, two of the greatest albums of all time entered my life to thrilling effect.
One was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) and the other was my virginal step into the world of jazz. To this day (and likely beyond), I play these albums on the first warm day of the spring or summer; that day when the sun hits your skin and the warmth seeps through to the marrow, banishing all thoughts of the barren, sun-less winter that preceded it. What Kind of Blue did was open my eyes to a world that I knew existed but thought was unsuitable to me and my cosseted ears.
Initially I thought jazz was a dead genre that only my dad loved. He had, and still has, a love for traditional swing jazz that seemed ancient and antiquated to me in the throes of my discovery of hip hop music. Kind of Blue blew those cobwebs from the genre. Gone were the familiar structures of three to four minute songs and lyrics that told their story for you. In their place were freedom, imagination and the space to imprint your own tales and ideas on the piece.
At its best, music can be transformative and transportative, and Kind of Blue did both of those things instantaneously that summer’s day. Over time though, the ways in which it transports and transforms me have changed. Initially the hackneyed, clichéd smoky 1950s New York jazz club was the place it transported me to, but now it takes me to a new place each and every time, depending on my frame of mind and whatever my consciousness allows or needs.
Though the most obvious transformation is to be becalmed on a sea of musical brilliance, it can do other things too. To hear the precise jostling of horns trading blows while the rhythm section stays anchored can invigorate and embolden me. Kind of Blue has the ability to shape-shift and wrap its warm, velvet fingers around my psyche in a million different ways.
This is the point in my piece where I am supposed to describe the individual tracks to communicate to you the qualities they possess, using suitably eloquent phrasing and adjectives of enormous power. But (for once) I am bereft of the right words to communicate with you. Instead of regurgitating the differences in character of “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue In Green,” “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” with sub-standard, ham-fisted vocabulary I can only tell a tale of where the album took me. Words cannot do it justice.
As well as changing the way I listen to and interact with music, it also sent me down a confusing wormhole of musical exploration. Having finished university, I eventually ended up where I am right now—in a north London suburb. Having grown up in a place where the level of musical excitement was either a trip to the library to rent one of 50 albums covering every genre known to man or a trip to Woolworths to see the top 40, the thought of visiting a record shop in London was mind-boggling.
My prime destination was the huge HMV between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road. Now sadly defunct, it was a music shop on a scale I’d never even dreamt of. The whole ground floor revealed a cornucopia of delights of soul music and rap that had become a favorite, if deadly for my bank balance, haunt. But downstairs was something different altogether. Downstairs they had jazz. Nestled behind glass walls that seemed somehow to keep all noise at bay, was a zen-like room filled with jazz and blues of every description.
Having heard Kind of Blue and been entranced by the thought of more Miles Davis music, I entered the room and began to search the alphabetically organized racks. Walking along the aisles, the sheer volume of music blew my mind. Covers revealed more characters than the Bible and titles that intrigued and bewitched me. Dragging myself away from further enchantment, I stopped, wordless, as I reached ‘D’ for Davis. There before my bewildered eyes, stood an entire shelving unit filled with Miles Davis CDs. My mind was blown.
I should say that at this point, what I don’t want to do is to sound like an old grumpy bastard—but it is practically impossible. Without the benefit of today’s widespread internet access and the ability to stream music so cheaply, how could I decide which album to purchase? (You young ‘uns never had it hard like I did.) And it’s not like it was cheap—we were talking £10.99 per album. At least. How could I approach this seemingly impenetrable task? Besides taking a long shot, I found albums that were packaged the same as my copy of Kind of Blue and into my life came Miles Ahead (1957), Sketches Of Spain (1960) and Porgy And Bess (1959), and I was further smitten. Smitten beyond all recognition.
My most recent experience of Kind of Blue added a new dimension to my love for it when recently visiting good friends for the first time in a long while. My bag has never been vinyl (for many boring logistical reasons), but my friend is an audiophile of some strength. Walking into his front room and seeing the array of expensively assembled equipment impressed even a vinyl dunderhead such as myself. When he reached for a pristine copy of Kind of Blue and placed it on his turntable, my heart skipped a beat and when the sound of “So What” began to filter through his enormous speakers, I was speechless.
The beauty I thought I had always known was somehow elevated to new, dizzying heights—I was almost delirious as Davis’ trumpet rang out. It felt like I had been listening to it in 2-D and here it was, resplendent in 3-D. Depth and timbre revealed to me as never before, as I stood there dumbfounded by truth.
Truth is the best word I’ve got to describe Kind of Blue. It was Davis’ (and his sextet’s) truth at the time, and its honesty and integrity make it a universal truth for those who listen to it—like the word of your god, it is the way, the truth and the light.