Content Warning: This article contains language that may be triggering or traumatizing to some readers. CW: MENTIONS OF POLICE BRUTALITY
Look, I know the word “jazz” can be a turn-off. It is played in the most dull situations – when you’re in the elevator, on hold with an agent or, worst of all, in the waiting room at the dentist.
This behavior has criminalized jazz. We have reduced it to boring background music, a snooze-fest.
Wake up! I’ve got something exciting you need to hear.
That would be none other than Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” Released in 1959, it is the best-selling jazz album of all time, and for good reason.
This album hooks you with the first song “So What,” which goes a little like this…
There is quiet, a blanket of silence.
Gently, it is pulled back by Bill Evans’ slow, gloomy piano notes. Paul Chambers nudges the door open with his bass. Oh, and there’s nothing catchier than his bass line: “Buhboo-ba-ba-bo-buhbum.”
“Diiii-duu,” Miles Davis answers with a high-pitched blow of his horn. James Cobb lets a cymbal crash, which echoes, echoes – and you get it now: that was the starting gun and we’re off to the races.
Davis on trumpet and John Coltrane on sax – the turtle and the hare respectively – trade places, one overtaking the other through a gripping marathon.
This is a landmark album for two major reasons.
For one, “Kind of Blue” streamlined a new jazz form, “modal jazz,” which focused on modes instead of chord changes. Essentially, this gave musicians more freedom with their instruments compared to other post-war jazz forms and resulted in the music sounding more even-toned, contemplative, cool.
Second – and to me the much cooler thing – it pulled off an improvisational feat never seen before.
Davis stepped into the studio with a handful of “sketches” – rough ideas for songs – shared them with the other musicians and walked out nine hours later with a masterpiece, according to Jazzwise.
What other artist do you know that made an album – a hit that changed the musical landscape – in nine hours?
But it’s not surprising after you hear stories about Davis.
As a kid in East St. Louis, he brought his trumpet to the woods and played along to the sounds of nature, according to another resident, Reginald Petty, in the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
In 1957, two years before “Kind of Blue,” he improvised the soundtrack of the French film noir “Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).”
In real-time, he played his trumpet to a screening of the movie. Davis is bilingual, translating the visuals into music.
All that’s to say, Davis was meant to create “Kind of Blue.”
Just like I was meant to love the third track, “Blue in Green.”
It begins with a dreamy piano that takes me back to watching Charlie Brown movies with my mom every Christmas. That is, until Davis’ trumpet pierces through, somber and drawn-out. I am transported to a rainy day under the awnings of a Paris cafe.
Très romantique. That’s French for “very romantic.” I shamefully admit I had to look that up.
The following song “All Blues” does just the opposite. The piano keys roll in like storm clouds. The wind instruments summon a low thunder. I am filled with dread.
Thankfully, the storm is banished by comforting tones in the rest of the song. It's my dad gently patting my back and squeezing my shoulder after a bad soccer game.
I listened to “Kind of Blue” for the first time a week ago, which is surprising given my history with it.
My middle school music teacher, Mr. de Chalus, kept a poster taped to his wall of Davis from the “Kind of Blue” recording sessions. When I would zone out – and I am notorious for spacing out – my eyes would regularly fall on Davis. He sat on a stool, clutching a trumpet to his chest.
His big, glassy eyes were like moons about to roll out of their sockets, pain weighing on them. I remember thinking “Wow, somebody really broke his heart.”
I would come to find that it was not a “who,” but a “what.”
Davis grew up in Jim Crow-era America, where racial prejudice was rampant. Even at the height of his fame, Davis was not immune, as detailed in Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. Following the release of “Kind of Blue,” he was brutally beaten by a New York City cop outside of a jazz club.
Undoubtedly, this mistreatment comes through in “Kind of Blue.”
“He’s spilling his guts to you,” said critic Greg Tate.
The incredible thing is that, in this era of extreme racism, the album elevated Davis into a hero for the Black community. He was successful and had the air of someone who didn’t take flack from anyone.
He was a symbol of Black empowerment.
On top of that, “Kind of Blue” transcended racial boundaries in music, according to Popular Music, a Cambridge University journal.
While recording the album, Davis, a Black man, and Bill Evans, a white man, were the key collaborators. The music itself combined classical, predominately white music, and the blues, a largely Black American genre.
“Kind of Blue” continues to catch on with all kinds of listeners.
For one, it has a modern sound. If you listen to other songs that shared the top charts with “Kind of Blue” in 1959, you’ll notice a stark difference.
Jazz may be on life support, but this album is well and truly alive.
Columbia Records reissued “Kind of Blue” in 1997. But that wasn’t enough, so they reissued it again in 2008.
Did I mention it went platinum five times?
If you listen to this album you probably won’t hear the turtle and hare race, picture a lonely Paris cafe or be reminded of Charlie Brown movies with your mom.
What I can say is that if you give “Kind of Blue” the proper breathing room it will take on something new, an experience that is yours and yours alone – and that is a beautiful thing.
Influence: 10/10 gold doubloons.
“Kind of Blue” is a quintessential jazz album. It established modal jazz and proved the genius of the on-the-fly method, challenging musicians to go beyond their capabilities. Most importantly, it empowered the Black community facing racism from white America.
Longevity: 3/5 spotlights.
This album is regularly cited as the kickoff point for many jazz converts and musicians. Copies of the record fly off the shelves and most have heard the name “Miles Davis.”
Eli Voorhies (he/him) is the opinions editor this quarter. Previously, he was a city life reporter and editor. In his free time, he climbs, photographs and spends more time messing around than working at Legendary Vinyl Records. You can reach him at email@example.com.