Blue and Blind

There is a certain kind of love that makes the besotted see aspects of the beloved in the face of every subsequent object of affection, even long after the initial affair has ended. Perhaps it is the color of the eyes, the shape of the lips, the sound of the voice, or something hard to place but no less real and important. This mode of loving someone or something exerts a circular, solipsistic power on the lovestruck. Any future fondness for someone or something is measured in relation to the ideal of that first true love, who becomes the rose-colored glasses through which the eye of the beholder sees the beauty of the world.

Perhaps all critics and historians writing about something of interest to them sport tinted eyewear, even if they don’t always admit to wearing these shades with the elegant fervor of Richard Williams in his recently published The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music. Williams is looking at the world through blue-colored glasses.

It’s as a teenager in England in 1963, some four years after Davis had made Kind of Blue, that Williams first hears the sounds that will shade his musical world: Kind of Blue comes over his wireless courtesy of the Voice of America nightly Jazz Hour, “presented” as Williams puts it “by Willis Conover, a man who introduced jazz records in a tone of impeccable sobriety but probably did more for the image of the United States around the world than any president you could mention.” Williams has a penchant for well-meaning overstatement.

Conover appears as the father of the bride, or perhaps of the prom date. The introduction is made and hands shaken as the girl descends the stairs, and the father’s earnest manner is meant to insure that his message gets across: treat my daughter well. In the course of his book Williams will lavish her with more gifts and adulation than she can carry.

It’s unclear if the Voice of America encounter is one of love at first hearing. Instead, it’s a few weeks later at “a teenage party on a Saturday night in the summer holidays of 1963 [England]” that Williams gets a second look. The party-goers seem to be doing the “Twist” — “a non-contact dance” that separates them from the close and constricting choreographies of their parent’s generation. The gathering moves “from the daylight of long summer evening illuminated by candles in Chianti flasks, a gesture of misguided yearning for an older, more sophisticated world. Into this atmosphere, during a moment’s pause in the activity, came the sound of Kind of Blue.”  The impact of this nocturnal appearance falls largely on deaf ears: “After a few minutes of total indifference it was replaced by something more in tune with the prevailing mood of adolescent hedonism. Modern jazz was not really a part of this world.” But it was now part of William’s world forever. He was in love.

Davis steps over the threshold of a teen get-together, and gives the hormonally-charged Philistines the chance to find out what the real deal is, takes a drag on his cigarette then leaves, a haze of blue smoke lingering above the place he had just stood.

Williams’ musical world would be blue from then on. So would the chapters of Williams’ book: Into the Blue, Blue Dawn, Blue Moods;  the color covers the musical world, its Blue Waves, Blue Horizon, until at last after some sixteen blue chapters, a coda shows that William’s love is here to say with “Permanent Blue.”

And why shouldn’t Williams love this music?  Many others were and remain smitten, myself included. But if one hears Kind of Blue everywhere, then its particular beauty, its unique hue, is not only bleached of color and sapped of intensity but begins to became as tiring as the all-blue chapter titles.

After examining the jazz scene in 1950s and the antecedents for Kind of Blue, both within Davis’s own oeuvre and in the work of other musicians, the author looks for its legacy and sees it in every new object of affection, in every distant “ripples,” as Williams often puts in his aqueous metaphor. All music that Williams is interested has at least some Kind of Blue blood in it: from American minimalist Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass to the Japanese master Toru Takemitsu; from the Velvet Underground, to Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and U2. The avowed devotee of Davis’s most famous album, John Adams, composer of the opera Nixon in China, is influenced musically, even if “the impact was tangential.” Williams hears blue echoes even in Red China.

Williams has these  so-called American Minimalists rejecting the fussy details of Modernism. In the few moments that he takes off his blue glasses the glare is intense: “[The Minimalists] had learned all about Schönberg [sic], Webern and Berg, and they could make a tone-row dance on the head of a pin. But what was the point?” This vision hurts his eyes, and the glasses go back on. By rejecting this scholasticism, Terry Riley and others “were repeating the struggle of Miles Davis out of the restrictions of bop. And it was Davis who would help them find a way out of the academic cul-de-sac.” The generosity of Williams’ historical imagination is limited to a glance at the zeitgeist: “All things happen for a purpose, including bebop and the Second Viennese School.” But that apparently doesn’t mean you have to consider the music more carefully than cursory dismissal allows. If I have to choose between listening to the minimal (Williams take note!) op. 19 piano pieces of Schoenberg or Bill Evans on All Blue, I’ll also go with the latter, too, but not by surreptitiously spitting in Schoenberg’s drink before I hand it to him on my way out the door.

The biological marker of the blue aesthetic for Williams seems to be tagged with the cliché “Less is more,” which he tells us is of 19th-century coinage. After that 1963 party it becomes his aesthetic motto. A few chords and a few notes are better than many in creating the real sound of the second half of the 20th century.

Williams is good on the individual musical personalities—Miles himself, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb—who made the whole of Kind of Blue greater than the sum of its parts. Williams is also good on the music, drawing on Eric Nisensons’ The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece for his treatment of harmonic action (or more properly, inaction) and in outlining George Russell’s modal approach that allowed jazz to do less: to have a slower harmonic rhythm that could be elaborated on by improvisers without having to race along with the fast-moving chords characteristic of Davis’s own earlier work with Charlie Parker.  Williams sees the frenzy of bop as constraining, the fast-moving chord changes a “straitjacket.” He knows there is a reserved and melancholy side of things, say for example Parker’s Mood, or even a blues like Barbados  with Miles’ distanced, almost aloof solo, but he pays all this little or no heed.

Not only musical structures and choices are made to carry the zeitgeist woman on their backs; the gear is, too.  Williams has much of intelligence to say on musical and recording technology, but he lets his knowledge cloud his historiographical judgment: Davis’ Harmon mute gives his trumpet “a tight, drizzling sound powerfully evocative of mid-century alienation.”  Soon enough Sartre, Camus and a gaggle of other blue-bereted Existentialists crowd into William’s pages in an attempt to add heft to the claim that the Harmon mute embodies what he claims it does. Williams does have some fine critical turns about the music of Kind of Blue, but the drizzling trumpet is not one of them.

Williams’ latest book on Kind of Blue can be seen as both a focusing and expansion of his concise, critical 1993 biography of Davis, Man in the Green Shirt, which already lavished most of its energy on the work of the “coolest man alive” in 1950s and 60s, in spite of the book’s larger claim that Davis was a shape-shifting pioneer across the four decades of his career.

That The Blue Moment appeared in 2010 means it came out a year after the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Davis’s celebrated recording. 2009 saw various, if not exactly spectacular, commemorations of the album in the form of concerts and collectors’ re-releases. But Williams’ book didn’t just miss this anniversary; it also missed an essential point about the way music changes: one can appreciate something without having it directly influence one’s own artistic creations. Also, the critic can point out all the faint ripples and tangents he likes, but if he persists too long the whole notion of influence loses any meaning. Musical relationships and historical connections become a jumble of observations and inclinations. If everything looks blue, the sight of it begins to seem insipid.

For Williams real (modern) beauty is blue and minimal, and never square and overstuffed.  There’s nothing new or even necessarily wrong with that thesis. A great recording or concert can mold personal taste, and in this sense it is not unreasonable that Williams’ subsequent tastes are colored as they are. But because Williams sees the beloved everywhere in his favorite music which he examines for much of the book, he doesn’t admit to us or to himself that his love is not only blue; it’s also blind.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at