Show Hide image

The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music

Is there any need for extension to the voluminous Miles Davis bibliography? My shelves already hold eight books about the trumpeter who once declared he had changed the course of music five or six times, including Miles's own hilariously expletive-ridden autobiography. The answer, however, surely is yes. That self-assessment of his career, delivered to a female guest who had annoyed him at a White House dinner in 1987 (and to whom he then addressed the pug­nacious rider, "Now tell me what you have done of any importance other than be white, and that ain't important to me"), was typically immodest - but no less true for that. Davis was arguably the greatest figure in jazz, and embodied the questing nature that gives substance to its claim to be one of the great 20th-century art forms like no other. I could add many more tomes on Davisology to my bookcase before it groans "enough".

More pertinently, however, is there much more to say about Kind of Blue? The 1959 release may be the best-selling jazz album ever, referred to as"the Bible" by Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and as his "orange juice" by Quincy Jones (because he listens to it every day), but some may worry that Ashley Kahn's thorough study of its making, published in 2001, left little ground to cover. Not to worry. Richard Williams acknowledges Kahn's "exemplary" work early on; this author has other intentions.

He begins by sketching how Kind of Blue fitted in with broader cultural phenomena, linking Davis's pared-down aesthetic with that of other modernists (such as the architect Mies van der Rohe - Miles, he writes, "was becoming [music's] Mies"), and musing on what the colour blue meant to artists such as Picasso and Yves Klein. Later he explores the Beat Generation's identification with the sense of The Outsider in jazz, quoting Jack Kerouac and noting the significance of the friendship Davis formed with Jean-Paul Sartre when he visited France in 1949. His more substantial aim, however, is to make plain just what a departure this spellbinding, mystical masterpiece was, and to make far-reaching claims about its influence.

There had been innovations in the preceding 15 years: the helter-skelter postwar bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had torn up the rules of 1920s hot jazz and 1930s swing, followed shortly by the thrusting urgency of Art Blakey-style hard bop. But jazz was still almost entirely confined to the chord structures of the popular songs it used as its springing point. This may not seem obvious. Parker's "Ornithology", say, may have sounded little like "How High the Moon", whose harmonic underpinnings Parker had borrowed, especially when that Broadway show number was performed with the polite orchestration theatre audiences expected. But anyone who played it was restricted to the same 32-bar form, and a horn player's solo would consist of so many "choruses" of those 32 bars. While that was quite sufficient for many illustrious figures, from Oscar Peterson to Sonny Rollins, it did place limits on expression and, crucially, on improvisation in particular.

Influenced by his friendship with the orchestrator Gil Evans, who had a passion for the impressionist composers Fauré, Ravel and de Falla, and who had helped to create a "sound [that] hung like a cloud" for the 1940s bandleader Claude Thornhill, Davis was ready for something different. Together, he and Evans began to work on a totally new concept. In their 1958 reworking of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, writes Williams, there was often "virtually no forward momentum" and Davis played "a role almost analogous to that of a cantor or a muezzin, intoning sacred texts to an enraptured multitude". The idea taking shape was of keeping chordal movement to the minimum, and allowing the music to billow and stretch much more freely, using modal harmonies known to the world for centuries - from Indian ragas to Gregorian plainsong - but whose latitudes and spaces had been shut out by the rigid hierarchies of western classical composition. These had informed popular music, and hence jazz, too.

Beginnings, endings, the received notions of theme, variation, development and recapitulation (again, close in spirit at least to classical sonata form) - all these were recast, if not discarded entirely. Davis, writes Williams, introduced "open-ended structures to replace the tyranny of chorus-repetition". And, to a great degree, it was this move that has led to Kind of Blue becoming, as the author says, "the only jazz album" many people own. The open-ended structure allowed it to gain popular appeal as "the most exquisitely refined of ambient music". At the same time it is, as he puts it, the one recording many jazz fanatics would risk saving "from a burning house".

No one could disagree with Williams when he connects this with the developments of John Coltrane, who played on Kind of Blue. Trane's shocking demolition of the dainty brickwork of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things", which he stripped back to a brutal but dazzling modal exploration in E minor and E major, owes an obvious debt, as does his own masterpiece A Love Supreme. And he quotes the composer Terry Riley at length to make his case that the minimalist movement was highly influenced by what Davis was doing. But here his argument begins to lose a little of its strength.

Steve Reich, for instance, has repeatedly stressed the importance of his hearing the drummer Kenny Clarke as a teenager in New York for his later work in what he likes to call "pulse" - rather than "minimalist" - music. Progressions in jazz were clearly key, but to imply that it was all down to Kind of Blue is making too big a claim. Williams may be on the mark in noting the album's sympathy with the harmonic stasis of funk, and perhaps he is right, too, when he writes "no doubt [John] Adams's love of Kind of Blue propelled him towards the modal investigations of Phrygian Gates (1977)". But when he extends the web to Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground and the 12-inch disco mix, one can't help but feel that Davis was just one of many fathers to these successes.

This is only a quibble, however. Williams makes an elegant and expansive argument for an album that I, for one, could not bear to be parted from and have returned to frequently in the 20 or so years since I first heard it. Make way on the shelf; this latest book on jazz's great "Prince of Darkness" has earned its place.

The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music
Richard Williams
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?