Posted on May 01 2020
When he described the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Bill Evans did not mention melodies, chords, or rhythms. He instead compared Davis’s music to visual art. “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous,” Evans wrote. “He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible.”
These words are appropriate for Miles Davis. In fact, they appear in the liner notes for his 1959 album Kind of Blue. The music Davis brought to the studio on March 2 and April 22, 1959, when the album was recorded, was simple musical sketches. This simplicity was intentional. Like the Japanese artist Evans described, Davis used simple sketches to encourage his musicians to be “spontaneous.”
In 2018, music fans still embrace this record. While Davis released many recordings from the 1940s until his death in 1991, many consider Kind of Blue to be his best. Unlike many jazz records, it is even popular with listeners who are not fans of jazz. As the BBC reported in 2016, “Long held as the jazz album that even non-jazz fans will own, Kind of Blue not only changed the way people regarded Miles, it changed the very face of music itself.” To understand how and why this influential jazz record was created, it is important to learn about the life of its creator.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in 1926. He grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. Davis came from a well-to-do African American family. Davis’s grandfather, Miles Dewey Davis I, had been a bookkeeper and landowner in Arkansas. Davis’s father Miles Dewey Davis Jr. was a successful dental surgeon. Because of the family’s success, Davis and his two younger siblings could afford to spend vacations at their father’s 200-acre farm near Millstadt, Illinois, where they learned to ride horses.
Davis started studying trumpet at age 13. Soon, he was good enough to play with local jazz bands. He became so accomplished on trumpet that in 1944 he was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The famed music school focused on classical styles.
Once in New York, Davis was more interested in the music being played in that city’s jazz clubs than at Julliard. He found that some of the Juilliard teachers looked down upon African American music. When an instructor told one class that African Americans played the blues because they were poor, Davis responded by saying, ''I'm from East St. Louis and my father is rich . . . and I play the blues.''
New York was the home of a new African American jazz style called bebop. Unlike earlier jazz styles, bebop was meant more for listening than dancing. Bebop was often fast and melodically complicated. Playing it demanded hours of focused practice and study. Davis studied classical music by day at Julliard but spent his evenings jamming with bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Davis left Julliard after three semesters, to focus on jazz. Like his grandfather and father, Davis had a drive to be successful. His expectations for himself were high. ''I had in my head that if I didn't make it as a musician by the time I was twenty-four, I was going to do something else—medicine,'' Davis later said.
From 1945 to 1948, Miles Davis performed and recorded with saxophonist Charlie Parker. Davis began perfecting the style of playing for which he would become famous. While many jazz trumpeters were loud and played many notes in their solos, Davis approached his instrument more like a singer would. He preferred to play in the instrument’s mellow middle register. Rather than playing fast, he experimented with harmony and rhythm.
Davis started playing a new style of jazz called cool jazz in 1948 . While it featured traditional jazz instruments like trumpets and saxophones, cool jazz also included instruments not common to jazz like French horn and tuba. Cool jazz helped put Davis on the musical map. By the time Davis was 24, in 1950, he felt no need to switch to medicine.
However, despite early successes, Davis’s luck seemed to change. In the early 1950s, he had difficulty getting music jobs. Soon the once successful young musician struggled to make ends meet. Depressed and frustrated, Davis turned to drugs.
Eventually, his drug use started to affect his trumpet playing. Davis knew he had to make a change. He returned to his family’s farm hoping to quit drugs for good. On the farm, Davis began the difficult process of quitting his addiction. “I got to feeling bad all over, all stiff in my neck and legs and every joint in my body,” Davis later wrote about this period. “It was a feeling like arthritis, or a real bad case of the flu, only worse. The feeling is indescribable.” With his family’s help, however, Davis was able to overcome addiction and return to music. He was once again able to find work. The music he would continue to make over the next two decades would have an enormous impact on the history of jazz.
In the mid-1950s, Davis’s groups featured the best jazz musicians of the day. These groups pioneered a new style of jazz called hard bop. As its name suggests, hard bop had roots in bebop. However, unlike bebop, hard bop was less complicated sounding and was played at slower tempos. While cool jazz borrowed from European classical music, hard bop had more in common with African American blues. Within the groups Davis formed, he would continue to perfect his unique voice on the trumpet. He began using a device called a Harmon mute. When placed into the bell of his trumpet, the mute gave his sound an especially raspy and vocal sound.
When Kind of Blue was recorded in 1959, the 32-year-old Davis was already an internationally-known jazz star. While younger musicians looked up to Davis as role model, Davis himself often turned to young musicians for fresh new ideas. On Kind of Blue, Davis was influenced by a 25-year-old jazz pianist named Bill Evans. Although Evans was already an accomplished jazz musician, he was also interested in contemporary classical music.
With Evans’s inspiration, Davis moved even further away from bebop’s complexity. This new style of jazz was based mostly on collections of notes called scales or modes. While bebop required musicians to improvise melodies over a series of quickly changing chords, modal jazz relied only on one or two scales. Without harmonic complexity, the soloists had more room to invent new melodies. “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 variation,” Davis said in a 1958 interview. “There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."
When recording Kind of Blue, the musicians involved had never rehearsed the new compositions before entering the recording studio. Davis wanted to capture the sound of musicians discovering new music for the first time.
The album opens with a composition called So What. Unusual for jazz, the song starts with bassist Paul Chambers stating the opening melody in the lower register. Pianist Bill Evans plays modern classical-style harmonies underneath. When the band comes in, Davis, along with saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, respond to the bass melody. The bass’s phrases are answered by simple two-beat melodies that sound like the words so what. So What remains a popular song in the jazz repertoire today.
Kind of Blue also reveals Davis’s ability to develop new ideas by making small yet unexpected adjustments to existing ones. For example, the track All Blues is based on a traditional blues form. However, instead of playing it in a standard 4/4 time, the group plays it in a waltz-like three-beat feel. However, even if the music was innovative, Kind of Blue maintained a relaxed and mellow feel, marked by tuneful melodies. Jazz writer Don Heckman said the album’s lack of complexity appealed to a wide range of audiences. “It made (and makes) for easy listening, especially for casual or inexperienced jazz audiences,” he explained.
This balance of innovation and accessibility makes the album popular to this day. In 2016, it was the 10th biggest-selling vinyl album, selling a total of 26,000 copies. Since it was re-released as a vinyl LP in 2010, it has sold a total of 143,000 copies. Although accurate sales figures have not been kept throughout the album’s history, most estimates say that the album has sold a total of 4 million copies, including all formats. Davis would go on to make several more important contributions to jazz after Kind of Blue.
Today, Miles Davis is considered one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz.