Miles Davis Iconic 1959 Album Kind of Blue Turns 60: Revisit the Album That Changed American Music

No amount of con­tin­u­ous repeats in cof­feeshops around the world can dull the crys­talline bril­liance of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue one bit. The album turned 60 three days ago, and it still stands as one of the most influ­en­tial albums, jazz or oth­er­wise, of all time… indeed, as “one of the sin­gle great­est achieve­ments in Amer­i­can music.”

So says one of sev­er­al crit­ics prais­ing the album in the intro­duc­tion to an inter­view with Ash­ley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Mak­ing of the Miles Davis Mas­ter­piece. Kind of Blue is a “cor­ner­stone record, not only for jazz. It’s a cor­ner­stone record for music,” anoth­er voice com­ments. It “cap­tures the essence of jazz.” It’s “sort of like the Bible, in a way. You know, you just have one in your house.”

This would make Davis not only the com­pos­er of a new jazz Bible, but also a Bible sales­man. He had no doubt his prod­uct would sell. “Davis was a can­ny mon­ey man and pro­mot­er of his own image,” wrote David Years­ley on the album’s anniver­sary. One 1960 record com­pa­ny memo stat­ed he “’was pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with the amount of jazz now on juke­box­es in many areas of the coun­try while he is not rep­re­sent­ed.’”

Colum­bia respond­ed, and as a result, many peo­ple around the U.S. “first heard this music in din­ers and bars over the juke­box.” The cre­ative ten­sions in the Birth of the Cool record­ings, made ten years ear­li­er, announced a new kind of jazz with their full release in 1957. The cool had matured in Kind of Blue’s ful­ly modal turn. “Its icy hau­teur sets the stan­dard for art that draws you in by pre­tend­ing it doesn’t need any­one or any­thing but itself.” It’s quite a con­fi­dent appeal.

Sales are nei­ther nec­es­sary nor suf­fi­cient to make a clas­sic album, but in the case of Kind of Blue, all of the stars aligned: crit­ics uni­ver­sal­ly praise it, musi­cians uni­ver­sal­ly love it, and record buy­ers uni­ver­sal­ly buy it. “The thing about this album,” says Kahn, “that’s dif­fer­ent from what hap­pened with some oth­er well-cel­e­brat­ed albums… is that it became an icon­ic album not when it came out but long after because peo­ple kept buy­ing it. Peo­ple would not let it go out of print.”

Davis knew how to get his work before the pub­lic, but he also knew it deserved to be heard by mil­lions both inside and out­side jazz. Beloved in the jazz world right away, it was the “vox pop­uli” that spread the album’s fame every­where else. Drum­mer Jim­my Cobb talks in the clip at the top about how Davis “fell a lit­tle bit into [the] con­cept” of Bill Evans, the pianist who played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the music’s con­struc­tion. “To me,” says Cobb, the gig was “just anoth­er Miles Davis ses­sion,” with an Evans twist.

None of the musi­cians in the sex­tet had any idea the record would get as big as it did. Yet as Davis him­self said, in a clas­sic line from an ear­li­er record­ing ses­sion, “I’m gonna play it first, and tell you what it is lat­er.” We look back on 1959 as a water­shed year in jazz, thanks in large part to the impact of Kind of Blue. Maybe we still haven’t fig­ured out, 60 years lat­er, what it is. Learn more about the crit­i­cal, musi­cal, and com­mer­cial impor­tance of Kind of Blue in the Poly­phon­ic video explain­er above, “How Miles Davis Changed Jazz.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz

Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

Her­bie Han­cock Explains the Big Les­son He Learned From Miles Davis: Every Mis­take in Music, as in Life, Is an Oppor­tu­ni­ty

The Influ­ence of Miles Davis Revealed with Data Visu­al­iza­tion: For His 90th Birth­day Today

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

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  • Jimm says:

    As a young­ster in the 50s i cel­e­brat­ed 10years old in 1959. My uncle Bil­ly, an unusu­al war vet­er­an. He was an elec­tri­cal engineer…rare for an African Ameri­cam from Sel­ma, Alaba­ma liv­ing in Cincin­nati, work­ing at West­ing­house. He was mag­net­ic because all of the cool guys who played jazz knew my uncle. They came to our house from Philly, Bal­ti­more, louisville, Cleve­land, Detroit, Pitts­burgh and oth­er places. Turned out my uncle also had con­tacts to guys who sold “reefer”. So, jazz was all over our house at 415 York Street in the West End by the time I was 12 years old and heard Mile’s Fred­die the Free­loader on the juke box at Big Louie’s where my moth­er worked at the cor­ner of Bar and Cut­ter Streets. I told my uncle and he whipped out the Kind of Blue album. I was ne er the same. I learned to play along in my trom­bone, so much that I think it made my uncl jeaslous beecause it seemed Like I had a new idol who replaced my uncle named Miles Dewey Davis. I was nev­er with­out the buzz of Miles mus­dic in my head, not even now at age 70 sit­ting here in my office in Lusas­ka, Zambia…along wzu from home in Cincin­nati.

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