Kind of Blue: The Lasting Impact
Jazz is not for everybody. I understand that. It has been described as ‘elevator music,’ boring, confusing, or senseless noise. But, as with many other genres, jazz is not one dimensional. How many sub-genres are there? A whole lot! There is everything from early jug bands and jazz-blues, to jazz-rock fusion and free form. Whether you listen to jazz for relaxation, enjoyment, or educational purposes, there is something for everyone.
As with many other genres, there are pivotal characters that helped shaped jazz into what it is. One name that will consistently come up is the iconic trumpet master Miles Davis. Miles had his hands in a multitude of musical pots and is a major figure in music in general. We will visit his vital roles in depth later.
Throughout his storied and impactful career, Miles Davis released a lot of albums, many becoming reference points for each subgenre of jazz and style guides for all jazz musicians. Every jazz musician has a favorite Miles album. But, undeniably the most important, and arguably the go-to jazz album is Kind of Blue.
Kind of Blue is what seasoned jazz enthusiasts call straight ahead jazz because of the time period the album was recorded, the musicians, on the album, and the playing style emulated. Specifically, the album is classified as modal jazz which uses an open framework away from chord progressions.
The album was recorded and released in 1959 in Columbia’s recording studio in New York City. At this point, Miles was already an established heaver hitter in the jazz community which encouraged listeners to flock to the music. The album also featured other top-notch players who are now considered icons of their instrument.
Bill Evans, who is one of the most celebrated pianists, was the newest member of Davis’ band and offered his “advanced harmonic sense, and open, floating sound” to the album. Davis said of Evans “he plays the piano the way it should be played and with a quiet fire.” Then you had the hard-bop master alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley. His sound cut right through the mix with focused precision and with expert phrasing. Then there was John Coltrane. There really isn’t much to say about him except that he is the best for a reason.
From the very first track So What, everyone knew this was something different entirely. They didn’t know it yet, but this tune signaled the departure from bebop and opened an unknown world. It consists of only two chords (modal, like we discussed earlier) which made it a fun solo free-for-all that leads to expressive musical interaction between the members. The album even features a blues track Freddie Freeloader featuring piano player Wynton Kelly giving a clinic of a perfect jazz-blues solo. His phrasing and style is a quintessential example of a well-executed solo. A jazz album wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful ballad. Blue In Green is a gorgeous tune that doesn’t sound stale or dragged and features some of the best solo work on the album.
According to the author of the book Kind of Blue Ashley Kahan, the album is “still acknowledge as the height of hip, four decades later.” Before this time, there was a lot of great music out there that pushed the envelope and went beyond the normal classifications of jazz. However, Kind of Blue was revolutionary in its entirety. “It wasn’t just one tune that was a breakthrough, it was the whole record.” – Gary Burton
In the scheme of things, the concepts found on this album were not overly difficult. But they were groundbreaking and set off a whole new movement in jazz music. Miles Davis seemed to have a knack for this sort of thing. From Cool jazz in California to Fusion and Free jazz, Davis was a pioneer that goes beyond just jazz.
Kind of Blue has all of the elements we look for in legendary, iconic albums: top-notch musicians, revolutionary concepts and ideas, expert songwriting, easy listening ability, and others. This is why it is still a cherished gem almost 60 years later. Oh, and it was certified platinum four times, which means it has sold at least four million copies.
Listen to this album!