Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

Why is it, as Bri­an Gilmore writes at Jaz­zTimes, that “even peo­ple who hard­ly lis­ten to jazz adore this album”? Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue hard­ly needs an intro­duc­tion. Many thou­sands of words have been writ­ten about its leg­endary com­po­si­tion and record­ing, about the extra­or­di­nary ensem­ble respon­si­ble for its existence—Davis, John Coltrane, “Can­non­ball” Adder­ley, Paul Cham­bers, Jim­my Cobb, and a young Bill Evans—and about the year of its release, 1959, a water­shed moment in the his­to­ry of jazz, and of near­ly all mod­ern music.

“It’s no longer nec­es­sary to remind music lovers that Kind of Blue is essen­tial lis­ten­ing,” argues The Guardian’s John Ford­ham, “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.” Should your edu­ca­tion in Kind of Blue be lack­ing, you can get caught up on the basics in the Poly­phon­ic video just above, which quick­ly gets to the heart of Davis’ musi­cal inno­va­tion: mak­ing the defin­i­tive break with bebop and set­ting the stan­dard for modal jazz, and thus the explo­sion of free jazz inno­va­tions to come.

Where most forms of jazz had built increas­ing­ly com­plex chord changes over which soloists impro­vised, Davis shift­ed to using modes (the sev­en modes of mod­ern music) as the basis for song struc­ture. With­out need­ing to get over­ly tech­ni­cal with music the­o­ry, you can under­stand imme­di­ate­ly upon lis­ten­ing to the album that modal com­po­si­tion allowed Davis and his band to slow down, sim­pli­fy, and cre­ate sub­tle, com­plex shifts in mood that can be at once lilt­ing, cool, and kind of… blue. Davis had exper­i­ment­ed with blues-based modal forms before. Here, he inte­grates that knowl­edge with clas­si­cal ideas and impro­visato­ry bril­liance.

“As is now part of jazz folk­lore,” notes Ford­ham, “the New York ses­sions that pro­duced this remark­able album were com­plet­ed in a hand­ful of takes over just a few hours, with a min­i­mum of com­po­si­tion­al mate­ri­als.” From there, a rev­o­lu­tion. It is “The most exquis­ite­ly refined of ambi­ent music,” writes Richard Williams in his defin­i­tive mono­graph The Blue Moment, and the one record many music fans would res­cue “from a burn­ing house.” It may be the best-sell­ing jazz album of all time. Steely Dan’s Don­ald Fagen called it “the Bible.” Quin­cy Jones called his “orange juice,” because he lis­tens to it every day

“No one could dis­agree with Williams when he con­nects this with the devel­op­ments of John Coltrane,” writes Sholto Byrnes, from his “shock­ing demo­li­tion of the dain­ty brick­work of Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s ‘My Favorite Things,’ ” to his mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme. Its influ­ence, accord­ing to Williams, runs through the work of Ornette Cole­man Steve Reich, John Cale, the Vel­vet Under­ground, James Brown, Sly Stone, Soft Machine, Bri­an Eno, Moby, and so on and so on. If you’ve nev­er quite under­stood what makes Kind of Blue so great, get a crash course in the video explain­er above. Then sit down and lis­ten to it a few hun­dred times.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 65-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Miles Davis’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jazz Albums

Miles Davis Dish­es Dirt on His Fel­low Jazz Musi­cians: “The Trom­bone Play­er Should be Shot”; That Ornette is “F‑ing Up the Trum­pet”

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme (1964)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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