“It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did.” -Chick Corea
“Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent.” –Miles Davis
You know those lists of 101 books that everybody should read before they die? Well I’m no expert on music, and I’ve certainly not listened to every album ever, but if it were up to me to make a list of 101 albums that everybody should listen to before they die, Kind of Blue would be a shoe in, without question. Is it an album that everybody will love to listen to? No probably not. Is it an album that will change your life and make you hear music in a new way? Again, not likely. Is it a masterfully executed and extremely important piece of music which changed jazz forever and is the most frequently cited case of “this album is why I started listening to jazz”? You betcha.
On Kind of Blue, Miles Davis and his small band (arguably the greatest jazz group ever assembled) did not just play music, they made music, and they made it like nobody had ever made it before. Miles not only made jazz cool, Miles became the walking embodiment of cool, hell, Miles Davis INVENTED cool. More than just a piece of music and the artist responsible for it, Miles Davis and his greatest work, Kind of Blue, are iconographic pieces of culture interwoven into the fabric of the American story. So let’s talk about it.
By the late 50’s, Miles Davis had started to grow weary of the most popular form of jazz, bebop. Obviously, all jazz uses plenty of improvisation, but bebop and other forms of jazz were built around keys and chords. George Russell, a jazz pianist and composer, had formed a theory of what would later be known as “modal jazz”, and of course, Russell and Davis would find each other and get to work. I’m not confident enough in my technical musical knowledge to go in depth about modal improvisation, and I’m sure nobody reading is especially interested, but it allowed for more freedom in the song-making progress. Combine that with Miles Davis’ band consisting of some of the best jazz musicians ever recorded, and the result was a collection of music which is fresh, smooth, original, and feels more like a living, breathing piece of art than a written and planned piece of music. Davis’ and Russell’s work with modal improvisation would change jazz forever and even go as far as to influence future compositions of soul, funk, rock, and other genres into the 60’s and 70’s.
Miles not only had incredible foresight with revolutionary ideas with the music itself, but he heard something in his fellow musicians. While it would have been easy to let Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers do their thing at the time, Miles was dealing with a young, unaccomplished John Coltrane, now a legend of jazz. He gave Coltrane, and all of his band mates, the space to be themselves and grow in the music. There wasn’t ever much actually on the page, it was more about exploring the musical moment and taking the music where it felt right, and under the direction of Miles, I would say it worked out. Part of the power of Kind of Blue is that Miles was able to crack open his cool effortless exterior and allow himself to be emotional and sincere in the music in a way that he never would otherwise. Without words or set plans, Miles and his band communicated ideas and feelings much better than almost any other group could in music, and I’ll stand by that.
Kind of Blue was more than just important and original, in fact, it was a hit. Some claim that it is the highest selling jazz record ever released, a certified quintuple platinum album. Everybody who knows jazz knows Kind of Blue. I’d wager that a lot of people who know nothing at all about jazz know Kind of Blue. Some say that Kind of Blue is the greatest jazz record of all time, some say it is one of the greatest albums of all time regardless of genre, but any way you cut it, Kind of Blue is an album from a genre that is certainly a touch out of the norm, but despite that, was supremely influential on almost everything that followed, shaping the musical landscape of the last half of the 20th century. I’m not telling you that you have to love this record, I’m just sharing it today and asking that you understand its importance and give it some respect. And who knows, maybe it’ll open your eyes and ears to jazz music. I know it sure did for me.
If you don’t like jazz, that’s fine. If you think that jazz is bad, you’re wrong. Thanks for reading.
Don’t worry, the other 6 albums have words.
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