Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue arguably the greatest jazz album of all time. And if your criteria value both artistic merit and audience acceptance — it’s an argument you should win every time. Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time, and that’s because it’s kept selling all the time since its release — no flash in the pan this one. It’s the perfect background and foreground. It’s musical furniture and an art object. No home should be without one. (And the critic Stanley Crouch once said something to the effect that if he makes a house call, he’ll judge you cultured or not depending on whether you’ve got Miles, Trane, Cannonball, P.C., Philly Joe, Wynton and Bill ready to come to life on your sound system.)
We wrote about Kind of Blue here last year on the occasion of the release of a 50th anniversary CD-DVD box-set edition. And that preceded a host of more recent Columbia reissues hailing 1959 as “jazz’s greatest year” as the record company dusted off new editions of Miles’ Sketches of Spain (yes, he scored two classic releases in 1959), Dave Brubeck’s Time Out (the album that brought you “Take Five”) and Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um. And 1959 was also the year of classics on other labels including The Shape of Jazz to Come from Ornette Coleman, Blues and Roots by Mingus (a double year for him), Giant Steps by John Coltrane, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (a double-hit year for Trane and Cannonball if you count their Kind of Blue sideman roles), the Oscar Peterson Songbook series, and Duke Ellington's soundtrack for Anatomy Of A Murder. And as long as you keep your focus on albums, you’re on solid ground making the “1959 was the greatest” argument. (I’d bought it wholeheartedly myself until I happened to pick up the late Alfred Appel Jr.’s Jazz Modernism and stumbled across a head-spinning list of 78 rpm releases arguing for the 1939* as the greatest year ever. Thinking outside the album box has to reopen the debate.)
Fred Kaplan on Slate got me to thinking about Kind of Blue this morning. It’s a good piece that tries to explain Miles’ work of genius with audio clips included. In Kind of Blue, Miles applied the modal theories of the great jazz theoretician George Russell, shifting the emphasis for musicians from figuring what to play over shifting chords to a focus on static scale. (If that seems abstract, Kaplan works through it at a slower pace.) Soloists were freed from “negotiating” a maze of chords — one less distraction when the point is expression.
But it’s always struck me that the recently deceased Russell had been working on this theory since the 1940s, in the process creating beautiful music, including such classics as “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” and “Ezz-Thetic.” While his approach simplified the tasks for musicians, the same can’t be said of the experience of listening to Russell's music, certainly not his music before 1959, at least not for the typical listener. Or to put it another way: Supposedly Russell offered a way for the soloists to stay calm in the midst of outwardly hectic music. The genius of Miles was bringing a hypnotic calm to the surface of the music as well. Make that the genius of Miles is.
*(Appell’s list of 1939 recordings is as follows:
Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul”
Billie Holiday, “Yesterdays”
Sidney Bechet, “Summertime”
Fats Waller, “Squeeze Me”
Duke Ellington, “Braggin’ in Brass”
Count Basie, “Lester Leaps In,” “Dickie’s Dream” and “Taxi War Dance” (all featuring Lester Young)
Benny Goodman, “Rose Room” (featuring Charlie Christian)
Johnny Hodges, “Dream Blues”
Frankie Newton, “The Blues My Baby Gave to Me”
Benny Carter, “More Than You Know”
Rex Stewart, “Finesse” and “Solid Old Man” (featuring Djanjo Reinhart)
Muggsy Spanier, “Big Butter and Egg Man”
Jimmie Lunceford, “Uptown Blues” (featuring Snooky Young)
Bobby Hackett, “Embraceable You”
Lionel Hampton, “Sweethearts on Parade” (featuring Chu Berry) and “I’m On My Way from You” (featuring Henry “Red” Allen)
Erskine Hawkins, “Tuxedo Junction”
Earl Hines, “Rosetta”
Charlie Barnett, “Cherokee”
Artie Shaw, “The Carioca”
Bud Freeman, “The Eel”
Jack Jenny, “Stardust”
Harry James and Peter Johnson, “Boo-Woo.”
I won’t claim familiarity with lots of these, but if the “The Eel” and “Boo-Woo” are near the league of “Body and Soul” and “Lester Leaps In” let the 1939 vs. 1959 fisticuffs commence.
Appell, by the way, sets these pieces in the context of “the arrival of total war in Europe an unprecedented crop, stockpile, and hedge against war doldrums.”)
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