Kind of Blue: Miles Davis School of Music

June 5, 2010

It is indeed a rare and intriguing moment when an artist decides he or she is the instrument of history-making. ” In the closing year of the 1950s, such an artist, Miles Davis, conceived of and produce a masterpiece- Kind of Blue. A moment like this happens only occasionally: Martin Luther King, “I Have A Dream Speech”, John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme”, Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”, WEB DuBois, “Souls of Black Folk”, Robert White’s guitar introduction to “My Girl”, James Jamerson’s track on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

Cited as the best-selling jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue had a profound impact on American music and was the most influential, enduring work of its genre. It’s no longer necessary to remind music lovers that Kind of Blue is essential listening, and that everybody who wants to make sense of the music of our time ought to have at least some idea of what’s good about it.

Milestones: Prelude to Kind of Blue

To some, Milestones is the ultimate jazz album. Record in 1959 with some of jazz’s most accomplished musicians-Miles Davis, Julian “Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums)- it was considered the perfect Be-bop recording of all time, with complex textures, dense voicing, elaborate melodic lines, and intricate arrangements with multiple parts, all played at breathtaking tempos.

Rooted firmly in the small group tradition of Be-bop, Milestones contained new elements. Four of the six songs on the album were written with a blues structure. The title track, “Milestones” was a pure modal tune, a sign of things to come

Scales, rather than chords, as a basis for improvisation, is a signature characteristic of Modal Jazz. Modal jazz broke away from the tendency in jazz to move rapidly through a series of cord changes, each of which would be the basis for sol improvisation. There was an abrupt shift away from Be-bops’ rapid chord changing, which went along with its frenetic tempos and technical acrobatics. Davis’s uses of scales, signaling jazz’s new direction which can be heard on the title track, “Milestones”, written with only two chords.

The Making of Kind of Blue

Kind of Blue grew out of the confluence of two African cultural expressions. First was the influence of musical and dance expression of Les Ballets Africans (of Guinea) and the African American faith-based tradition. A performance of the Ballet Africaine from Guinea in 1958 had originally sparked Miles’ interest in modal music. Miles had very big ears and was always listening for new musical currents, both inside himself, from his past, and to new sources fellow musicians brought him. This African music, which featured the finger piano or kalimba, was the kind of music which stayed for long periods of time on a single chord, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance.

Writing in his autobiography Miles notes:  I got into the modal thing by watching a performance by the Ballet Africaine Guinea…when I first heard them play the finger piano that night and sing this song with this their guy dancing man that was some powerful stuff. It was beautiful. And their rhythm, the rhythm of the dancers was something. I was counting off while I was watching them. They wee so acrobatic. They had one drummer watching them dance, doing their flips…in this bad rhythm. He would hit it whey they would fall. And man, he was catching everybody that did anything. The other drummer got them, too. So they would do rhythm like 5/4 and 6/8, and 4/4 and the rhythm would be changing and popping.”

The second factor which influenced the making of Kind of Blue was the African American faith-based community. The songs sung in the black church made and indelible impression on Miles. Again, from his autobiography Miles writes: Kind Of Blue came out of the modal thing I started with Milestones. This time I added some other kind of sound I remembered from being back in Arkansas, when we were walking home from church and playing these bad gospels. So that kind of feeling came back to me and I started remembering what the music sounded like and felt like….. That feeling had got in my creative blood, my imagination, and I had forgotten it was there. I wrote this blues that tried to get back to that feeling………..So I wrote about five bars of that and I recorded it and added a kind of running sound into the mix, because that was the only way I could get the sound of the finger piano.”

Recording Kind of Blue

Miles says, “I didn’t write out the music for Kind Of Blue, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing, just like I thought was in the interplay between those dancers and those drummers and that finger piano player with the Ballet Africaine”.

Session One: March 2, 1959

The first song record was what would be later known as “Freddy Freeloader”, a slightly altered blues tune. Kelly played piano and performed at the level which many consider his best. The band then moved to the second track which would become the main track on the album the best known jazz piece- “So What”. It structure was simple: 16 measures of D minor, eight of E-flat minor, then D minor again for eight bars.

“So What” features perhaps the finest solos in jazz history. Without question Miles solo is the most famous in jazz, memorized by generations of musicians. Davis plays in the middle register and as was his trademark, he moved behind and ahead of the beat, then syncing up with it again. The second player to solo is Coltrane flowed by Adderley. The sax player each take two choruses, after which the horns come in with the “amen” or so what riff. Evans improvises accompaniment against this riff for one chorus and thereafter Paul Chambers comes in on bass and plays the melody again.

The last song of the first session, “Blue in Green” is the shortest song on the album; the song has a subtle elegance and power which comes from its simplicity.

Second Session: April 22, 1959

“Flamenco Sketches” was the first track recorded the second session. This track is the most purely modal piece on the album. Coltrane’s solo on this track is considered one of his very best. Herbie Hancock describes Flamenco Sketches this way: ”It was as though they were walking into unknown territory and being very careful where they stepped. Nobody played much-there was a minimalist approach to the material.”

“All Blues”, the other classic track began with a simple instruction from Miles about now to leverage the repeating pattern of the music into what would seem like an introduction for each solo; simple as it was, this was a brilliant stroke. The song was based on “vamping,” continuous repetition of a two chord pattern, yielding a hypnotic sound effect. Each solo, like those of “So What” beginning with Miles, is a masterpiece, encapsulating the definition of the sound of American music at it best.

Impact of Kind of Blue

Kind of Blue was the ultimate fulfillment of the modal approach, with Miles providing his collaborators little more than outlines for melodies and simple scales for improvisation. By emphasizing the blues and the improvisor’s melodic gifts, Kind of Blue precipitated a major stylistic development–modal jazz. Moreover, Kind of Blue set the scene for a wholesale opening up of what is possible in jazz. In the coming years John Coltrane would take the modal experiment much further (listen for example to his modal deconstruction of “My Favourite Things”) and there were fine modally based compositions from Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, amongst many others. But on its own terms, and simply as an album to listen to for its own sake, Kind of Blue remains a superb experience.

To be sure, Kind of Blue had an influence on musicians outside of jazz. Alfred ‘Pee Wee” Ellis who was James Brown musical director, saxophonist, says: I was very much influenced by Mile Davis. I’d been listening to “So What” six or seven years earlier and that crept into the making of “Cold Sweat”. You could call it subliminal, but the horn line is based on “So What”. Richard Williams, author of The Blue Moment observes, “the structure of ‘So What’, in which the theme, played by the double bass, is answered by ‘amen’ chords from the three horns, is echoed in ‘Cold Sweat’ by the interplay in the opening four bars between Odum’s bass guitar and the peremptory trombone and four saxophones (alto, two tenors and baritone).

Thus, Kind of Blue, transformed the musical landscape, and still today has the same appeal as it did in 1959, that intriguing moment when Miles Davis and Company change the should of music.

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