Kind of Blue’s quiet mystery

  • Themes: Culture, Jazz

James Kaplan's new study of jazz is a tribute to serendipity; that the right people find each other at the right time and create something too special for words.

Shot from the recording sessions for the album Kind of Blue.
Shot from the recording sessions for the album Kind of Blue. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

3 Shades of Blue, James Kaplan, Canongate Books, £25

James Kaplan has achieved something truly special that will be as valuable for the jazz novice, as it will be for a Discog-scanning, toe-tapping hep-cat who’s just spent another small fortune on a rare Blue Note record. An experienced New York journalist, whose work includes the definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, Kaplan’s subject is Miles Davis’ 1959 opus Kind of Blue and its genesis: ‘The three geniuses at this book’s heart were born when jazz was already thirty or forty years old; they rose up at the end of World War II, when the big bands of the twenties and thirties and forties were starting to die out, when the idea of jazz as dance music was starting to fade, and something else, jazz as art music, as listening music, was starting to take hold.’

From this Everest, the view is staggering: a valley of big band, blues, bebop and hard bop behind; further promontories of free jazz, soul, funk, fusion and hip hop ahead. When engrossed in Kaplan’s pulsating, flowing narrative it’s hard not to agree that modern music orbits this dark sun of an album.

Readers may be forgiven for thinking this another Miles Davis biography merely framed by the wider jazz scene. For the first 100 pages, there is only a peppering of details on saxophonist John Coltrane and there is nothing substantial about pianist Bill Evans – equally billed in the title of the book – until page 169.

The initial focus on Miles feels natural, however; the book’s structure is informed by history. Coltrane and Evans, like Miles, changed the way every person after them played their instruments. But they weren’t in the subterranean cauldrons of bebop with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. They didn’t pioneer the transition to cool jazz with the Birth of the Cool sessions and they didn’t play an integral role in hard bop. These idioms would have existed without Coltrane and Evans, and maybe without Miles – but they would have sounded completely different.

It may seem strange to the reader that Kaplan spends most of his time on the most documented musician of the three, but he does shed new light on this precocious son of a dentist. By chance, in the summer of 1944 at the age of 18, he sat in with his heroes Dizzy Gillespie and Bird in Billy Eckstine’s band in his native St Louis: ‘A man came running up to him and asked him if he was a trumpet player. He was. Did he have a union card? He did. “So the guy said, ‘Come on, we need a trumpet player. Our trumpet got sick.’” The guy turned out to be Dizzy Gillespie.’

When Dizzy asks, you say yes. The sheer profusion of musical talent in and around seedy jazz clubs from the 1940s through the 1960s stops you in your tracks. Miles played with a local big band in St Louis called the Blue Devils. A selection of those who came to listen included Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro and Sonny Stitt. And those are the few Kaplan cares to mention.

Once Miles left his father’s 300-acre farm in St Louis where ‘the main house was a twelve-room colonial with a white columned porch in front’ and he rode horses, he chased bebop, Bird and Diz to Manhattan, enrolling at the Juilliard music school to appease his father.

On the search for Bird, Hawkins, a true pioneer of jazz tenor saxophone warned: ‘My best advice to you is just finish your studies at Juilliard and forget Bird.’ But Davis was musically omnivorous. He said he could learn more from a single jam with Thelonious Monk in a 52nd Street club than at Juilliard, but he was obsessed with Stravinsky, Berg and Prokofiev. He fought against a ‘ghetto mentality’, where black musicians thought European (white) classical music wasn’t worth learning from.

This is what all three stars (Davis, Coltrane, Evans) share: an omnivorous musical nature, where all sound deserves attention. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, an 18-year-old John Coltrane (four months younger than Miles) and a 16-year-old Benny Golson see a Dizzy Gillespie gig and, like Miles, life is changed forever. Kaplan adeptly weaves both of their stories, showing their timidity, melancholy, insecurity and debilitating heroin addictions. Miles becomes a young star and staple of Charlie Parker’s band, while Coltrane gets the sack from Johnny Hodges’ band and his talent lies dormant.

Then along came Bill. As white as white could be, playing distinctively black music, Evans was a young man from Plainview, New Jersey, who was as influenced by Darius Milhaud as by Tommy Dorsey. Kaplan lets Golson, Coltrane’s gig buddy, introduce Evans: ‘I met an unknown piano player who looked and played like a country hick. He bore no resemblance to any talented piano player I had ever known. He looked like a college student majoring, perhaps, in archaeology or advanced botany… he was a classic nerd.’

Four years later: ‘Unbelievably, the Bill Evans I had briefly encountered years earlier had disappeared. Someone with the same name took his place, an utterly different Bill Evans. [His playing] left me breathless. This former “cornball” played some of the most beautiful chords and voicings I had ever heard… amazing tonal complexity, unearthly lyric beauty.’

Like Coltrane, Evans practised constantly – so much so that he locked himself away for a year to find his musical voice before giving himself five years to make it in jazz.

The making of Kind of Blue is an intense will-they-won’t-they. Having kicked heroin and made a comeback at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Davis was playing in a quintet with Red Garland, Phillie Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and rotating sax players, often Sonny Rollins. Cannonball Adderley had played with them and Davis loved his bluesy tone.  Philly Joe suggested Coltrane and, even though he bristled under Miles’ tough love, he eventually stuck with it. Philly Joe, Davis’ favourite drummer, was sacked for his heroin habit. Then Art Taylor was on drums before being replaced by Jimmy Cobb. Garland left and was replaced by Evans. Under these personnel changes, which were so regular due to drug habits and personality clashes, it’s easy to understand why Kind of Blue might never have happened.

It was hard work playing in a Miles Davis band: ‘I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music.’ The ever-insecure Coltrane said of his hiring, ‘Why he picked me, I don’t know.’

Miles sacked Coltrane for his heroin habit. Trane kicked it and did a legendary stint with Monk at the Five Spot in the Bowery. Monk was 39 years old and performing for the first time in 10 years after getting his cabaret card back. Trane later said of his time at the Five Spot: ‘From time to time, Monk went off to have a drink and left us alone, Wilbur Ware, Shadow Wilson and me… And we improvised without any constraints for fifteen or twenty minutes, exploring our different instruments like mad men.’ He came back to Miles’s band a new musician and a new man.

After constant touring, the stage is set for the book and jazz’s climax. Over two recording dates in early 1959 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, an old church with incredible acoustics, history was made. Pianist Wynton Kelly was surprised to see Bill Evans – Miles wanted both of them on the album. Kaplan is eager to explain why Kind of Blue is musically different from what came before. Miles had been moving towards modal music rather than chordal music; away from the Great American Songbook’s ii–V–I progressions towards a distillation of musical ideas. It was possible to play for 13 minutes over G-minor and A-augmented with the right soloists, as heard on ‘Blue in Green’. Everything from the National Dance Company of Guinea’s irregular time signatures to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G can be heard on this album. Extensive use of fourths, neither major nor minor, gives the album a questioning, nebulous romance.

Kaplan writes: ‘Kind of Blue marked a kind of fermata in the onrushing torrent of jazz. It was an island of quiet mystery in a world growing faster and louder by the day. It was Miles, Coltrane and Evans leaving the blues behind and heading for parts unknown. It was the last time this sextet would play together.’

Just like good jazz, many elements come together successfully to make this book work. Great photographs are dotted throughout and enrich the narrative. Kaplan’s sources are revealing; it’s a joy to hear what great musicians thought of each other, personally and professionally. The forensic clarity on the hazy timeline grounds our understanding of the musical development. As with all of jazz music, there is an enormous elephant in the small room: heroin. Evans’ girlfriend Peri Cousins called it ‘the bane of our existence’ and in the chapter called ‘Junkie Time’, the narrative is ominously split by lists of greats that died of heroin use. Many subscribed to the Bird Fallacy – that taking heroin could make you play better, as appeared to happen to Charlie Parker. Parker died at the age of 34, the autopsy guessed he was 55.

3 Shades of Blue is a tribute to serendipity; that the right people find each other at the right time and create something too special for words. It’s also an ode to persistence and maturity. Kind of Blue was Miles’s 28th album and, at 33 years old, he had had his trumpet in his mouth almost constantly for two decades. One of the three epigraphs is a quote from Davis: ‘Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.’ Bill Evans once said: ‘You have to spend a lot of years at the keyboard before what’s inside can get through your hands into the piano.’ Kind of Blue is a quintessentially New York album. It couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It is part of the Hudson River School of sublimity with vast, romantic awe-inspiring landscapes of sound. Sixty-five years and five million copies later, listeners are still transfixed by this island of quiet mystery.


Max Mitchell