Kind of Blue at Fifty: Stalked by Bill Evans’ Ghost
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was released 50 years ago this coming Monday—August 17, 1959. That was ten years after, and ten degrees cooler, than the little big band of Miles’ Birth of the Cool. With Kind of Blue the baby had grown up: sleeker, more earnest, now distrustful of irony, and also cagier, suspicious without wanting to show anything that might suggest defensiveness. Its icy hauteur sets the standard for art that draws you in by pretending it doesn’t need anyone or anything but itself.
Kind of Blue sold like cool-cakes. Its popularity has only increased over the years. Often said to be the best-selling jazz record in history, it attained quadruple platinum status by 2008; some four million copies have been sold in the US.
The recording took place on two days, six weeks apart, in 1959. First came the two three-hour sessions from 2:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon and 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening on March 2, 1959 in the converted church on 30th Street in Manhattan that was the Columbia studio. Union rate was then pegged at $48.50 per session, and since there were two services Davis’ sidemen were entitled to double scale. Davis argued for a bonus of $100 for the first days work for his stalwarts, bassist Paul Chambers and saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
As Ashley Kahn notes in his excellent Kind of Blue: the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (Da Capo, 2000), the initial producer of the session, the producer Irving Townsend, whose voice can be heard on the studio sequences offered on this year’s anniversary re-issues, wrote in an internal Columbia Records memo that Davis would “accept an advance of $10,000 with only a mild oath” after the success of Birth of the Cool and the subsequent Sketches of Spain. Miles had asked for $15,000. It’s hard to know how much Miles made off the record in total, but it’s a lot.
The newcomer drummer Jimmy Cobb and the pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans had to make do with their union wages. For the April 22 afternoon session that concluded the recording, Davis’s sidemen got $64.67, since the proceedings went overtime by half-an-hour. Miles got double that. An invoice reprinted in Kahn’s book shows that union rules also dictated that Wynton Kelly got paid the same amount for the April 22 date even though he had only played on the first session back in March. By 1959 Kelly was the Davis group’s official pianist, and was surprised on hurrying to the studio by cab for the March date that Miles’ former piano player, Bill Evans, was already sitting at the Steinway. Kelly had been brought in for the only “real” blues number on the recording, “Freddie the Freeloader,” which was done in that first session. Kelly doubtless didn’t stick around for the evening session, but cashed the checks for his non-work on the April date, too.
As his later television commercial appearances for mopeds and the like make clear, Davis was a canny money man and promoter of his own image, one he always sailed close to the cool winds of fashion and favor. Another Townsend memo from April of 1960 relates that “Miles Davis is primarily concerned with the amount of jazz now on jukeboxes in many areas of the country while he is not represented.” Columbia promptly turned out promotional 45s with a tune from Davis’ Porgy & Bess paired with one from Kind of Blue on the flip side. Many are the found memories of those who heard this music in diners and bars over the jukebox.
The first pressing of Kind of Blue, released into sweltering August, numbered 50,000 with the titles of the A and B sides, “So What” and “All Blues,”mistakenly switched, an error due to the fact that Townsend had handed the project off to Teo Macero, who was ultimately credited as producer.
This anniversary year and the run up to it have brought various commemorations. There’s been a Kind of Blue tour by the So What Band of Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the sextet that met in the Columbia studio. The Kind of Blue anniversary set collector’s edition appeared late in 2008 from Sony BMG with foldout poster, a blue LP that repeats the arrangement of the original. It’s probably something to frame and hang on the wall. Its color is illustrative of the literal age in which we live, when a blue LP is thought cooler than a black one. I doubt Miles would have approved, though these sales, at one hundred bucks a pop, would doubtless have eased his distemper. The Legacy Edition has been a bestseller. It the two CDs of the Anniversary and, at a modest fifteen dollars, is a steal at any price.
Much is now made of the spontaneity of the recording, how all was done in the studio without rehearsal or reflection, how the tunes were new to all and that the entire effort is akin, as Bill Evans put it in his liner notes, to the “Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous, [and] must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water pan in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment.” In fact, things were not quite as spur-of-the-moment as all that. “All Blues” had evolved over a six-month period prior to the recording session for Kind of Blue. Cobb has since divulged that the band played “So What” on a couple of gigs.
If one listens carefully to the legacy edition the studio chatter is quite illuminating, though its purpose here seems intended mostly to conjure’ Miles presence by summoning his distinctive voice with its gravelly drawl, that same voice, rutted by all countless intervening cigarettes, that later sold those mopeds and uttered second-rate dialogue on an episode of the television series, Miami Vice, and on other Hollywood forays towards further fame and fortune.
The halting introductions, the searingly efficient swing, the brooding and slightly defiant interiority of Kind of Blue, seem so poised that one hardly thinks it the product of real musicians—its cool seems almost inhuman. Even the tumultuous and exuberant solos of Coltrane and Adderley strike me as otherworldly. To be confronted with the voices of the creators, especially that of Davis, at work is at first almost shocking. True, his voice had been heard on earlier recordings, as when one of his classic lines “I’m gonna play it first, and tell you what it is later,” introduces “If I Were a Bell,” the opening track of the 1956 Prestige record Relaxin’. On that the words and the sense of musicians being eavesdropped upon goes along with an unbuttoned feel reflected in the very title.
But such is the perfect hipness of Kind of Blue that Miles’ voice here has a completely different effect, not least because we are so used to hearing the succession of tunes without the presence of the performers as real people reinserted. This humanizing of the sacred text almost seems sacrilege—an iconoclastic breaking of the image.
Still there are interesting things to be heard in these odd inclusions. Over the years, the twelve-bar blues, “Freddie the Freeloader” is the track that I’ve listened to ten times for ever one of “So What.” The ratio in the blues favor increases for the other tunes. in “Studio Sequence 1” of the legacy edition, Townsend introduces the take as “no title.” The name would be added later in honor of the Miles groupie Freddie Tolbert—a bartender and street character who moved from Philadelphia to New York to be able to hear all his gigs. Miles operating procedure was clearly: “I’m going to play it first, and tell myself what it is later.”
Before the band starts playing a voice asks about whether “to play a B-flat on the end.” This is probably Wynton Kelly inquiring of the bandleader what to do with the final chord of the form, since this blues doesn’t return to its home key as expected for the final two bars. Miles cancels the second and longest false start also included on the Legacy set because Kelly inflects this final A-flat harmony, adding more rather than keeping to the obsession with less that characterizes Kind of Blue.
Instead, the last chord sidesteps the home key of B-flat and holds out a tone lower, before finally being pulled up to its proper harmony when the twelve bars start anew. With this single, minimal touch, Davis (if it was indeed his idea) embodies the essence of his cool through harmonic means: not only can he lag behind the beat with graceful reluctance, but hold the posture of resistance across the larger expanses of elapsing time. Those final two measures of apparent disinterest stretch to an eternity before these blues slide back grudgingly upward to their proper position. Kelly’s opening solo snaps things back on course.
Just before starting the tune, Davis has an idea: “Say Wynton, after Cannonball, you play again and then we’ll come in and end it.” In the final take, Kelly does come back in after all the horns have soloed, but he supplies only accompanimental chords so that Paul Chambers’ bass strides to the foreground: here the harmonic and, indeed rhythmic, foundation for the preceding eight minutes of the track emerge in all its easy grandeur. An unmatched improviser of jaunty lines, Kelly also ranks among the greatest blues accompanist, and it seems to have been his intuition to lay back for these final choruses. Chambers was also a great soloist, but he keeps to the business of walking his bass line. Kelly plays just as Davis had directed him, but perhaps not as Davis had expected. Kelly loved most to accompany—to comp—and here grants himself the full pleasure. With the ornament stripped away, the foundation presents itself for admiration and cool contemplation, as if to say make it still clearer that this is what horn and piano improvisations drew their power from.
Davis’ hiring of Kelly for this blues instead of Evans was a brilliant decision; but equally as vital was the way Davis used his pianist. The sparse horn chords that constitute the “tune” of “Freddie the Freeloader” allow, indeed demand, jaunty intervening commentary. Kelly’s pianistic optimism brightens the somber mood: he light in the shade here. Given the chic that glints in the shadows of this music, it is hard to believe it was recorded in the middle of the afternoon—proof that the studio and church (in this case one and the same) keep to their own hours.
Davis also gives Kelly the first solo as if to acknowledge that his warmth is crucial to the maintenance of the Davis cool. With an apparent nonchalance that belies the emphatic nature of the gesture, Davis then begins his subsequent solo by taking two quarter notes from Kelly’s last chorus in what amounts to a casual but unmistakable reassertion of his authority.
Another small but striking difference heard on this the first false start is that the blues is introduced by an upbeat comment from Jimmy Cobb’s snare drum that anticipates the rest of the band—both the pulsing progress of the other members of the rhythm section and the monastic solemnity of the horns. Had this version found its way onto the record, instead of the synchronized beginning of the final version, there would have been a tiny, but telling, chink in the hermetic hipness that insulates “Freddie” from the outside world.
Miles calls off the first take of “Freddie” for being too fast. Then Irving Townsend cautions the trumpeter to stay close to the microphone. Davis asks if he can move it. Townsend replies that “It’s against policy to move a microphone”—a joke about the regulations governing a union facility with retrospective resonance given the earnings disparity between Miles and his sidemen.
After two more miscues the fourth take rolls—the only complete one of this tune on this session—into jazz history without edit. Kelly could now go home, and the other pianist, Bill Evans, could get to work.
Given how much money the record made, this seems especially unjust in the case of Evans, whose harmonic sense and aesthetic vision were so crucial to the shape of the album, even though all compositions are credited to Davis, who was never shy or in the least apologetic about appropriating the work of others. How much his creation of the ostinato to the final track on the album, “Flamenco Sketches” is worth is hard to say, as are the tentative musing of Evans and Chambers that serpentine into the arid landscapes of “So What.” I will admit that I’ve never found these melancholy ruminations—Zen by way of Iberia—as appealing as “Freddie the Freeloader”—the coolest thing about this album. Evans’s thing was never my kind of blue, but that unmistakable, searching sound so imbues the overall sense and effect of the album that the disparity between the earnings of Davis and Evans is far bigger even than the numbers of zeroes suggests. The blues have their price, too. The ghost in Evans’ melancholy chords will haunt Davis’s masterpiece recording in eternity.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org