Kind of Blue
Why the best-selling jazz album of all time is so great.
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Miles Davis'Kind of Blue, which was released 50 years ago today, is a nearly unique thing in music or any other creative realm: a huge hit—the best-selling jazz album of all time— and the spearhead of an artistic revolution. Everyone, even people who say they don't like jazz, likes Kind of Blue. It's cool, romantic, melancholic, and gorgeously melodic. But why do critics regard it as one of the best jazz albums ever made? What is it about Kind of Blue that makes it not just pleasant but important? On March 2, 1959, when its first tracks were laid down at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio (the album would be released on Aug. 17), Charlie Parker, the exemplar of modern jazz, the greatest alto saxophonist ever, had been dead for four years, almost to the day. The jazz world was still waiting, longing, for "the next Charlie Parker" and wondering where he'd take the music. Parker and his trumpeter sidekick, Dizzy Gillespie—Bird and Diz, as they were called—had launched the jazz revolution of the 1940s, known as bebop. Their concept was to take a standard blues or ballad and to improvise a whole new melody built on its chord changes. This in itself was nothing new. But they took it to a new level, extending the chords to more intricate patterns, playing them in darting, syncopated phrases, usually at breakneck tempos. The problem was, Parker not only invented bebop, he perfected it. There were only so many chords you could lay down in a 12-bar blues or a 32-bar song, only so many variations you could play on those chords. By the time he died, even Parker was running out of steam.
When Miles Davis came to New York in 1945, at the age of 19, he replaced Gillespie as Parker's trumpeter for a few years and played very much in their style. A decade later, he, too, was wondering what to do next.
The answer came from a friend of his named George Russell (who died just last month at the age of 86). A brilliant composer and scholar in his own right, Russell spent the better part of the '50s devising a new theory of jazz improvisation based not on chord changes but on scales or "modes." The kind of music that resulted was often called "modal" jazz. (A scale consists of the eight notes from one octave to the next. * A chord consists of three or four specific notes in that scale, played together or in sequence: For instance, a C chord is C-E-G.)
This distinction may seem slight, but its implications were enormous. In a bebop improvisation, the chord changes (which occur when, usually, the pianist changes the harmony from one chord to another) serve as a compass; they point the direction to the next bar or the next phrase. Chords follow a particular pattern (that's why it's easy to hum along with most blues and ballads); you know what the next chord will be; you know that the notes you play will consist of the notes that comprise that chord or some variation on them. Playing blues, you know that the sequence of chord changes will be finished in 12 bars (or, if it's a song, 32 bars), and then you'll either end your solo or start the sequence again.
Russell threw the compass out the window. You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes. "It is for the musician to sing his own song really," Russell wrote, "without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord." In other words, he continued, "you are free to do anything" (the italics were his), "as long as you know where home is"—as long as you know where you're going to wind up.
One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory's possibilities—how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations. Miles realized this was a way out of bebop's cul-de-sac. "Man," he told Russell, "if Bird was alive, this would kill him."
In an interview that year with critic Nat Hentoff, Miles explained the new approach. "When you go this way," he said, "you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. … I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."
Davis needed one more thing before he could go this route: a pianist who knew how to accompany without playing chords. This was a radical notion. Laying down the chords—supplying the frontline horn players with the compass that kept their improvisations on the right path—was what modern jazz pianists did. Russell recommended someone he'd hired for a few of his own sessions, an intense young white man named Bill Evans.
Evans was conservatory-trained with a penchant for the French Impressionist composers, like Ravel and Debussy, whose harmonies floated airily above the melody line. When Evans started playing jazz, he tended not to play the root of a chord; for instance, when playing a C chord, he'd avoid playing a C note. Instead, he'd play some other note in, or hovering around, the chord, suggesting the chord without locking himself into its restraints.
Davis hired Evans for his next recording date, the session that became Kind of Blue, which would be the perfect expression of this new approach to playing.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Miles Davis by Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos.