Irving Penn, The Hand of Miles Davis, New York, 1986, printed 1992

“The essence of great art is that its power is inexplicable, and in the jazz stratos there’s never been anything like this 1959 session. It reigns to this day as the genre’s greatest hit and the most coherent album length statement in modern jazz history … Modern jazz starts here.”  –  iTunes Reviewer

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue Sessions, 1959. Don Hunstein © Sony BMG Entertainment

March 2, 1959, Miles Davis pushed through the doors on East 30th Street in New York, walked down the hall to the recording studio, and forever changed the sound of jazz. Although he was riding high on his success with such releases as Birth of the Cool, Round About Midnight and Porgy & Bess, he eased his grip on hard bop jazz and sought a fresh perspective. Through his use of modality, Miles Davis thinned out the density inherent in the jazz of the late 1950’s, and he crafted instead a sense of openness, melody and reflection.

Modality greatly expanded the possibilities for improvisation—something critical for a sextet that would enter the studio unrehearsed and without charts. As was his custom, Davis had merely suggested to the musicians, scales on which they might riff. To his benefit, the 32 year old trumpet legend was surrounded by the best and the brightest. Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, provided the rhythm section. In a stroke of brilliance, Davis employed two pianists: Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. Where Kelly brought a strength in blues to the session, Bill Evans set a contemplative tone like no other. Likewise, Davis juxtaposed the funky sax riffs of Cannonball Adderley, with the spiritual musings of John Coltrane, all of which maximized the dimension of the music.

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Bill Evans. Kind of Blue Sessions, 1959.

Columbia’s 30th Street Studios, a converted Armenian Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan, would witness the recording of such landmark albums as Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Glenn Gould’s take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The ceiling, over a hundred feet high, gave the sound a particular ambience and clarity, a quality that producers Teo Macero and Irving Townshend would exploit in shaping the acoustical space of Miles Davis’ magnum opus. Macero, a fellow alum from Julliard, had produced Porgy & Bess and Milestones and would continue to produce Davis into the early ’80s.

Recorded in a mere two days, Kind of Blue would become the best selling—and arguably the most influential—jazz album of all time. On March 2, 1959, So What, Freddie Freeloader, and Blue in Green were laid to tape, comprising Side One. On April 22, Flamenco Sketches and All Blues were tracked, thus completing the album. Flamenco Sketches, the lyrical ballad that began Side Two, appeared on the album as a complete and unaltered first take. During the same month that Miles Davis and his sextet recorded their second session, they opened a two week engagement at Birdland, on 44th Street. Taking a break between sets, Davis was beaten and arrested for loitering in front of the jazz club.

In August of 1959, Kind of Blue was released. In November of the same year, Atlantic Records released Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Coleman’s freshman recording of avant-garde free jazz, hailed from the other side of the universe, with it’s frenetic, collective improvisation and its atonality. It was every bit as revolutionary as the experimentation with modality, and as such, it stole much of the thunder that was due Miles Davis.

This past year, Kind of Blue celebrated its 50th anniversary. It ranks number 12 out of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, has been recognized by Congress as a national treasure, and was inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Registry. Vibraphonist Gary Burton would remark, that unlike many forays into uncharted territory, Kind of Blue was a breakthrough in its entirety. From the first lyrical bass intro on “So What” to the last, lilting chord of Flamenco Sketches, there was absolute dedication. Fluid, weightless, and filled with possibility, Kind of Blue is the documentation of a perfect moment in time.

Leave a Reply