When Jazz Struck a Chord

REVIEW: '3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and the Lost Empire of Cool' by James Kaplan

April 7, 2024

Miles Davis's 1959 album Kind of Blue is the best-selling instrumental jazz album of all time. As the music-buying public is rightly suspicious of jazz, that makes Kind of Blue the kind of jazz that people who don't like jazz can stand. This was not what Davis had in mind when he convened a six-piece for two sessions at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio in March and April 1959. Jazz was then still young enough to follow Ezra Pound's 1934 advice, "Make it new," but old enough to have the technique and self-consciousness to do it.

James Kaplan's 3 Shades of Blue is a meticulous account of the album's origins and outcomes. There are not enough books about jazz, America's art form. There should be more books like 3 Shades of Blue, which elegantly combines musical history with musings on social history, cleverly interwoven biographies, and a bracing dash of music theory.

Kaplan's three shades, Davis, Coltrane, and Evans, are accompanied by a fourth, the shadow of Charlie Parker, the Banquo of the bandstand who laid out the harmonic feast of Bebop in the 1940s and died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1955. Parker was largely trained in the old school of jamming and woodshedding. So was Coltrane, who spent years playing rhythm and blues. In what was either a stroke of genius or a sleight of hand, the Coltrane of the 1960s transmuted the split-tone howling of bar-walking 1940s honkers like Illinois Jacquet into proofs of spiritual earnestness. But Davis and Evans went to college, and it shows.

Ellington had drawn on Ravel and Debussy. Parker, Kaplan writes, "adored Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy, and modernists such as Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg." Aged 18, Davis moved to New York City to be close to Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and study European art music at Juilliard. When Gillespie tired of Parker's drug-addled "minstrelsy" on the bandstand, Parker brought in Davis. This surprised everyone, Davis included. Gillespie played high and fast. Davis absorbed the Parker idiom so thoroughly that he wrote "Donna Lee," which is usually described as the quintessence of Parker, but Davis's natural register was lower and more lyrical. Parker's instinct was correct. He had spotted "a diamond in the rough," as Davis would when he hired Coltrane in 1955.

The white Canadian arranger Gil Evans (no relation to Bill) had a similar two-track development as avant-garde student and working jazzer. By 1948, Davis was part of a circle that met at Evans's basement apartment on West 55th Street. The other Evans group included the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, the pianist John Lewis (who would found the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952), and George Russell, the mixed-race composer and "brilliant musical theorist" who, Kaplan writes, was "destined to change jazz, yet fated to remain all but unknown," at least to the public. Russell composed with minimal chording. Instead of the soloist tracking the chord changes, which had become tedious and mechanical in Bebop, he assigned a mode, a string of notes. In 1947, Dizzy Gillespie recorded Russell's "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop." In 1950, Artie Shaw recorded his "Similau." But it took nearly a decade for the full implications of the modal revolution to become apparent in Davis's music.

In 1949, Gil Evans and Davis recorded a nine-piece that featured Mulligan and Lewis and mostly played arrangements and compositions influenced by the Gil Evans-George Russell approach. A kind of chamber Bebop, the sessions were issued in 1957 as The Birth of the Cool. In the same year, Davis, having shed a four-year heroin addiction, found a way out of the frantic Bebop chording and worked his way into the West Coast "cool" scene. He then got back to the bluesy basics of Hard Bop with Walkin'.

Sound-wise, Walkin' set the spacious, swinging template for Kind of Blue. When Bill Evans joined Davis's quintet on piano in 1958, he pushed Davis further toward the open feel of modal improvisation on the Milestones album. Just as none of the people who made Casablanca realized they were making a masterpiece, no one realized what was about to happen when Davis's group met at 30th Street Studio on March 2, 1959, for what Columbia Records catalogued as Project B 43097.

Davis and Bill Evans had worked up a few prompts and some modal-friendly variations on the blues. In the studio, Davis ordered the sound baffles to be taken away, so that the group could see each other and their playing would "bleed" into each other's microphones. They caught lightning in a bottle. The album's opener, the two-chord modal vamp "So What," is the first complete take. The second track, "Freddie Freeloader," a reharmonized blues with the deep swinger Wynton Kelly on piano, is also the first complete take. The third track, the mood piece "Blue in Green," was an Evans melody, written to Davis's simple prompt, "the symbols for G-minor and A-augmented." Davis, as the conceptualist and the boss, pinched the copyright.

The band returned on April 22, 1959, and recorded the album's other two tracks. "Flamenco Sketches" is what it sounds like. The only track on the album that required a second full take, it avoids parody by underplaying the Spanish feel. Again, Bill Evans inspired it: Before the first session, Davis went to Evans's apartment and heard him play a tune called "Peace Piece," a "serene and pensive ramble over the haunting two-chord vamp" that begins Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein's tune "Some Other Time," from the musical On the Town.

The leap from show tune to modal moodiness shows how Kind of Blue is both rooted in its sources, while also a long way from them. The same goes for the final track, "All Blues," another single take. It's a blues, but it's a modal blues. Jimmy Heath, the saxophonist who replaced Coltrane in Davis's group in 1959, observed that where a normal blues in G would go to C at the fifth measure, "All Blues" uses "a G minor sound" that's "a little dissonant, and a little more sophisticated." As Kaplan says, "Less chordal, more modal. Kind of blue."

Kind of Blue is high-concept, mass-market modal modernism, decades after the principles of modernism had been established in print and on the canvas. Davis, who was invariably high as a kite, highly conceptual, and highly aware of the market, applied the European conservatory to the American nightclub. An avant-garde, theory-driven reinterpretation of jazz harmony cleared out the chordal clutter to emphasize the popular basics of the form: swing feel and blues phrasing.

Kind of Blue is swinging but spacious, lyrical but understated, intellectual in an unforced way, and emotionally candid. The group strikes a perfect balance. Jimmy Cobb's drums and Paul Chambers's bass move on padded slippers, the Platonic ideal of swing. Bill Evans's piano suggests harmonic profundities, but generally sticks to gently percussive pushes and the kind of smeary chromaticism that Wagner had domesticated nearly a century earlier. The three horns (Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto) steer the rhythm section's gentle vehicle in contrasting directions, letting even neophyte listeners in on the game of improvisation. Davis underplays it, jabbing like a boxer to find the rhythm and feel out the modes. Coltrane runs forward, racing up and down the modal scale with abandon. Adderley walks backward into the future, summoning the ghost of Charlie Parker and chordal structure that no longer exists.

"We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex," Hugh Hefner wrote in Playboy's inaugural editorial in 1953. It's as though Hef is waiting for Kind of Blue, lounging in his short polyester dressing gown as he becomes the first man in history to mix an hors d'oeuvre with one hand while the other thumbs one of Walter Kaufmann's new, America-friendly translations of Nietzsche (which are to Euro Nietzsche as Abstract Expressionism, another triumph of European modernism in America's mid-century market, is to the Surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s).

In 1962, an interview with Miles Davis became Playboy's first long-form article. Kind of Blue never deserved to become elegant background music, which is a fate worse than deaf. And it was not made to be a shagger's soundtrack. Should it be necessary to prove that jazz is an art, and that art can be produced under commercial pressure, Kind of Blue is a prime exhibit. Its blues aren't so much tragic as melancholic; the emotional heat is recollected as a rueful warmth. The players control the impulse to comedy, showboating, and ornament, hence the "cool" feel. The mood and sequencing are coherent across its five tracks in the way of Victorian program music. There is no equivalent of the porter's scene in Macbeth or the early sessions of Charlie Parker, when someone starts playing as if he's wandered into the wrong studio.

The six-piece that recorded Kind of Blue never played together again. Bill Evans recorded astringent piano trios despite a heroin problem that at one point damaged the nerves in his right arm so badly that he became a one-handed pianist. John Coltrane remapped the chordal cycle with Giant Steps in 1960, cycled back into modal exploration, notably with My Favorite Things (1961), then pursued it to the logical brick wall that the European avant-garde had hit after Schoenberg: "a lot of noise," as his collaborators Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner said as they left his group. None of Coltrane's incoherent later music has the impact of "Alabama," a modal blues from 1963 that is a harsh, political echo of Kind of Blue's soft, vague privacy.

Cannonball Adderley stuck with the blues. Hearing Adderley's quintet playing with an electric keyboard, and realizing that he was losing sales to white rockers, Miles Davis went electric in the mid-1960s, assembling the modal jams of Bitches Brew (1969) and In a Silent Way (1970) from tape loops. He then went silent in the mid-1970s while he concentrated on hard drugs, wife-beating, and his fantasy life as a pimp. He returned in red leather trousers in the 1980s, feebly parping out Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."

Bitches Brew, like the Birth of the Cool sessions, fixed a sound as an artifact of its time. Kind of Blue is a sonic artifact for all time, an ideal form of jazz. It is not a concept album, but a conceptualist one. Present at the birth of the Cool, Davis was in at the death. Did he play a part in killing it—and, James Kaplan asks, were the two magical sessions that gave us Kind of Blue kind of the moment when the die was cast and the death foretold?

"Jazz died in 1959," the trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote in the 2011 polemic "On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore." Jazz, Payton argues, "separated itself from American popular music" and "never recovered." The year of Kind of Blue, 1959, was "the coolest year," leaving jazz forever "haunted by its own hungry ghosts." James Kaplan's later chapters are an obituary, ending with Miles Davis's zombie last years. It had to happen, sooner or later, as it happens with all art forms. But Miles Davis did more than anyone else to hasten the death by injecting America's native art form with the conceptual toxins that had made European art music unlistenable. Each man kills the thing he loves.

3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool
by James Kaplan
Penguin Press, 496 pp., $35

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Published under: Book reviews , Music