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Excerpt: 'Kind of Blue'
By Ashley Kahn
In the spring of 1959, seven musicians got together in a converted church on 30th Street in Manhattan and made jazz history. Over forty years have passed since Miles Davis assembled his famed sextet to record Kind of Blue, and in that time the album has risen to the level of masterpiece.
Still selling over 5,000 copies a week, it is considered the bible by many jazz musicians and revered as one of the most important albums of the century. How did an effort that all its participants dismiss as just another day at the studio become a musical and cultural landmark?
In "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," Ashley Kahn gives readers the unprecedented opportunity to enter the 30th Street Studio and witness the creation of this remarkable album. Drawn from countless interviews, meticulous research and rare access to the master tapes, Kind of Blue is the most complete look at the album to date, describing the now-famous sessions, the trajectory of Davis's career leading up to the recording, and the impact of the album, then and now, on listeners and musicians.
Introduction: The Persistence of Blue
On a December morning in 1999, snowflakes swirled around me as I entered a squat, near windowless building on Tenth Avenue. The awning outside read "Sony Music Studios." Inside, down a dimly lit corridor lines with posters of rock and rap artists, thick doors with porthole windows led into fully furnished studios, where large consoles with matrices of red and white lights stood next to racks full of the latest sound equipment. People lost in concentration scurried past me.
The few times I had visited the place before, I had felt the same way: This hi-tech beehive, a monument to Sony's global technological superiority, seemed somehow transitory. I felt that a careless flip of a switch could plunge the entire place into darkness. Maybe it was the signs of constant renovations - plastic sheeting covering doorways-that created the feeling of impermanence, or perhaps it was the rotation of posters from one visit to the next. It didn't surprise me to learn that Sony Music had built their recording center in the remains of the old Twentieth Century-Fox Movietone repository. Where dusty film canisters had once stored a week-by-week chronicle of the world's troubles and triumphs, four stories of state-of-the art studios now operated: new technology rising phoenix-like from the vestiges of old.
Four months earlier, for The New York Times, I had written an appreciation of Miles Davis's melancholy masterpiece "Kind of Blue" on the fortieth anniversary of its release. Now I had been granted a rare opportunity to hear the complete master tapes of the two sessions that produced the album. Sony Music-the parent company of Columbia Records, which released "Kind of Blue" and remained Miles's record label for the majority of his career-did not often send to their subterranean archives in upstate New York and allow the reel-to-reel tapes to be auditioned. When dealing with priceless and irreplaceable forty-year old recordings, even the wear on the tape is a consideration. For a jazz fan like myself, the occasion had the rarified, historic air of, say, the unearthing of an Egyptian tomb.
The receptionist directed me to room 305. Equipment dedicated to sound reproduction, including a turntable in a stone base with a speed lever reading "78 rpm," filled the room. Sitting amid the machines, scattered tape reels, vinyl records of varying formats, and general clutter was an engineer trained in audio formats new, old and ancient. In this room, I was convinced, whatever means of capturing audio information have ever existed-wax cylinders to the latest computer-driven, digital discs-all came back to life.
Delicately, the engineer placed a reel of reddish-brown, half-inch ribbon onto a tape machine, manufactured expressly to play back archival three-track tapes. He paused, asked if I was ready. (Ready? I had been giddy with anticipation for weeks.) He hit the "play" button.
The tape threaded its way across the playback heads and I heard the voices of Miles Davis and his producer, Irving Townsend, the instantly recognizable sound of Miles's trumpet, John Coltrane's tenor, Cannonball Adderley's alto and the other musicians. I listened to their harmonized riffs start and stop and grew acclimated to the rhythm of the recording process. A few engineers who had heard that the masters were being played that day dropped by and quietly pulled up chairs or stood in the corner to listen.
What could I hear or intuit that would reveal the secret of that spring day when Davis assembled his famed sextet (Coltrane, Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb with pianist Wynton Kelly taking over from Evans on one number) in a converted church in downtown Manhattan? I was flooded with questions, hungry for details. How did this band talk while creating music for the ages? Was that Coltrane's voice or Adderley's? How-if at all-did they prepare? What was Miles like in the studio? Why did that take end? I had learned that the three master reels, the few rolls of black-and-white film, and the less-than-distinct memories of the drummer, a photographer, and a tape operator who were in the East Thirtieth Street studio back in 1959 were about all the evidence there was of the making of the album. The dearth of related material only heightened the album's mystique and intensified my desire to uncover anything that might throw light on what seemed such a shadowy, skeletal moment.
As the first full take of "Freddie Freeloader" began playing, I put down my pen and focused on the music. By the time Coltrane began soloing, I was transported to an austere twilight world that requested silence and contemplation. I was familiar with the album from years of dedicated listening but the music's seductive spell had not lessened -- it still held the power to quiet all around it.
Still acknowledged as the height of hip four decades after it was recorded, "Kind of Blue" is the premier album of its era, jazz or otherwise. Its vapory piano-and-bass-phrased introduction is universally recognized. Classical buffs and rage rockers alike praise its subtlety, simplicity and emotional depth. Copies of the album are passed to friends and given to lovers. The album has sold millions of copies around the world, making it the best-selling recording in Miles Davis's catalog and the best-selling classic jazz album ever. Significantly, a large number of those copies were purchased in the past five years, and undoubtedly not just by old-timers replacing worn vinyl: "Kind of Blue" is even casting its spell on a younger audience more accustomed to the loud-and-fast esthetic of rock and rap.
The album's appeal was certainly enhanced by Miles's personal mystique. Cool, well-dressed, endlessly inspired, and uncompromising in art and life, Miles Davis was and still is a hero to jazz fans, African Americans and an international musical community. "Miles Davis is my definition of cool," Bob Dylan has said. "I loved to see him in the small clubs playing his solo, turn his back on the crowd, put down his horn and walk off the stage, let the band keep playing, and then come back and play a few notes at the end."
Since his death in 1991, Davis's legend has only grown larger. But even before his passing, "Kind of Blue" was the recording that all agreed was his defining masterwork. If someone has only one Miles album -- or even only one jazz recording -- more often than not, "Kind of Blue" is it. Even twenty-five years ago, as jazz guitarist John Scofield relates, the album had already become as common as a cup of sugar:
I remember at Berklee School [of Music in Boston] in the early seventies, hanging out at this bass player's apartment and they didn't have "Kind of Blue." So at two in the morning he said he'd just go knock on the neighbor's door and ask for their copy, not knowing the people, just assuming that they'd have it! And they did. It was like "Sergeant Pepper."
In the church of jazz, "Kind of Blue" is one of the holy relics. Critics revere it as a stylistic milestone, one of a very few in the long tradition of jazz performance, on equal footing with seminal recordings by Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Charlie Parker's bebop quintets. Musicians acknowledge its influence and have recorded hundreds of versions of the music on the album. Record producer, composer, and Davis confidant Quincy Jones hails it as the one album (if that were the limit) that would explain jazz.
Yet, "Kind of Blue" lives and prospers outside the confines of the jazz community. No longer the exclusive possession of a musical subculture, the album is simply great music, one of a very, very few musical recordings our culture allows into the category marked "masterpiece." Many of its admirers are forced to reach back before the modern era to find its measure. Drummer Elvin Jones hears the same timeless sublimity and depth of feeling "in some of the movements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or when I hear Pablo Casals play unaccompanied cello." "It's like listening to 'Tosca,' " says pianist/singer Shirley Horn. "You know, you always cry, or at least I do."
In the fin-de-siecle frenzy, "Kind of Blue" proved its evergreen appeal, becoming a fixture in the first tier of countless "Best of the Century" surveys and "Top 100" polls. Hollywood film in the nineties employed the album as an instant signifier of hip. "In the Line of Fire" shows secret serviceman Clint Eastwood, the cool loner at home, listening to "All Blues." In "Pleasantville," the manager of a fifties diner finds his creative inner-self to the tune of "So What." In Runaway Bride, Julia Roberts' character bestows an original vinyl copy of "Kind of Blue" on Richard Gere.
As I began the research for this book, Sony Music was in the midst of producing high-quality repackagings of Miles's recordings and of jazz in general, a fortunate change from the offhand reissue strategy of previous decades. They graciously provided me complete access to all information, photographs and recordings in their archives, and facilitated contact with former employees. I located session and tape logs that disclosed the identity of the recording staff who worked on "Kind of Blue," most of whom, -- like the members of the sextet save for drummer Jimmy Cobb -- are no longer with us. My conversations with Columbia engineers of that era painted a picture of what it was like to work in the 30th Street Studio, the former church where the album was born. Sifting through company files, I glimpsed the inner workings of the marketing and promotion departments which first brought "Kind of Blue" to market.
To bring the reader as near as possible to the actual creation of the album, I have placed the transcription and discussion of the record sessions at the heart of the book. The unedited studio dialogue, false starts and breakdowns -- herein reproduced for the first time -- offer a rare glimpse of the inner workings of those two days in the studio. The transcribed chatter alone, revealing Cannonball Adderly's irrepressible sense of humor and Miles's constant ribbing of his producer, will delight those who love the music that occasioned it.
I stumbled on a number of surprises in my research. There were Bill Evans's original liner notes, neatly handwritten and hardly edited at all. Engineer Fred Plaut's photographs, never published before now, showing the sheet music for the album's modal infrastructure. Proof that the famously dark and intense cover shot of Miles was taken during a live performance at the Apollo Theater. Never-before-published radio conversations with Adderley and Evans in which they spoke of Miles and the album in detail, conveying a personal dimension that published interviews never could.
Beyond the new information my research yielded about "Kind of Blue," I was equally drawn by the more mystical aspects of the album. The legend of its pure, one-take creation. The alchemic blending of classical and folk music influences. The interplay of Miles's less-is-more philosophy with the styles of the equally spare Bill Evans and his other, more voluble sidemen. The drama of Davis's own presence, the artist driven by an endless search for new styles who created a masterwork, then left it behind for his next endeavor. I was challenged to examine what is true in the mythology of the recording. Was the album really impromptu and unplanned? Did Miles really compose all the music? Did it change the jazz terrain forever, and if so, how?
To do the album justice, I needed to transport myself back to the place and time that brought it forth. I spoke with as many musicians, producers, and critics as possible -- those who were involved in making the album, were influenced by the music, or who analyzed its effects. Eventually I conducted more than fifty interviews for this book, including talks with veteran jazzmen who knew or worked with Miles, newer arrivals who grew up with his music, producers, music industry executives, deejays, writers, and witnesses of the jazz scene of the 1950s. Priority was given to the people still alive who were present at the two "Kind of Blue" recording sessions: drummer Jimmy Cobb, photographer Don Hunstein, and tape operator Bob Waller.
I found that though a few musicians and producers were reluctant to speak, burned out on the subject of Miles or simply burned by the trumpeter in uncomplimentary portrayals in interviews or in his autobiography, many were eager to share their memories and insights. I gave special attention to those who worked with Miles in and around 1959, or soon after: Jimmy Heath, Dave Brubeck, George Russell, John Lewis, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock; producers George Avakian and Teo Macero; and engineer Frank Laico.
Some saw "Kind of Blue" as the sound of 1950s New York; some as a high point in Miles's career trajectory; others as one more successful product of a record label at the height of its dominance. As the anecdotes coalesced, the structure for the book that suggested itself was a reverse telescopic path -- beginning with Miles's arrival in New York, then following his career course before closing in take-by-take on the album's two recording sessions. From there, the book moves outward again to trace the album's influence. Sidebars add further context: Columbia Records' rise to prominence and its role in the success of "Kind of Blue"; the unique acoustical properties that made music recorded at the 30th Street Studio distinctive; the eponymous Freddie Freeloader.
When I spoke of writing this celebration of "Kind of Blue," whether to music professionals or to fans, reaction was uniformly positive: "You know, that's a good idea"; "Let's hear more about that album"; "It's about time." Then after a pause, with little or no solicitation, a testimonial would follow.
Quincy Jones: "That will always be my music, man. I play 'Kind of Blue' every day -- it's my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday."
Chick Corea: "It's one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it's another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what 'Kind of Blue' did."
George Russell: " 'Kind of Blue' is just one of those amazing albums that emerged from that period of time. Miles's solo on 'So What' is one of the most beautiful solos ever."
With the clarity of memory usually reserved for national disasters, personal traumas, or first romantic encounters, many I interviewed recalled their first hearing of "Kind of Blue." Some encountered the music when it first appeared in 1959: on a late-night radio station in Cleveland; in a Wisconsin furniture store selling records; live in a New York nightclub or at an outdoor festival in Toronto; on a jukebox in a Harlem watering hole. Others came across it in the sixties: the mono LPs a friendly sales clerk with a flowered tie was selling off at a dollar a disc; playing at a late-night party down in Greenwich Village. One acquaintance admitted hearing "Kind of Blue" in a college class on Zen.
"Kind of Blue"'s aphrodisiac properties were mentioned frequently in reminiscences of listeners male and female, young and not-so-young. Jazz veteran Ben Sidran recalls that "clearly it was just a great seduction record. I can close my eyes and remember situations with long forgotten girls." Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when asked for his favorite make-out music, answered "For slow action, I put on 'Kind of Blue.' " Because of "the trance-like atmosphere that it created, it's like sexual wallpaper. It was sort of the Barry White of its time," remembers Steely Dan's Donald Fagen. Essayist/playwright Pearl Cleage was turned on to the album in the late seventies: "I will confess that I spent many memorable evenings sending messages of great personal passion through the intricate improvisations of 'Kind of Blue' when blue was the furthest thing from my mind..."
My own discovery of the music came in the mid-seventies, when a high-school buddy yanked a dogeared album out of my father's record collection and explained: "This is a classic." Between the scratches and pops (Dad must play this one a lot, I recall thinking) a stark, moody world unveiled itself. Though the sound was far simpler and sadder than any of the peppy, big band music I then thought of as jazz, it was somehow immediately familiar.
If you are already a fan of the album, perhaps a "first time" story of your own comes to mind. Or ask the friend who turned you onto "Kind of Blue." Bring that memory with you to the world we're about to enter. Use this book as a primer, a listening guide, a way to understand that there is even more to these forty minutes of great jazz performance than meets the ear. Allow this book to show you that occasionally that which is the least outspoken has the most to say.
Miles Davis: Official Site
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