Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue

In advance of our show with the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer this Thursday, we dug through our old Connection archives and found this wonderful conversation about Miles Davis from 2000.

In the Church of Jazz, Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” is a holy icon. From a humble birth in 1959 as forty-five minutes of improvised music recorded in two sessions, “Kind Of Blue” has become the best-selling classical jazz record of all-time. Rock stars cite it as a clear influence. Aspiring musicians say it got them hooked on jazz. Aficionados insist it explains jazz. In 1959, Miles Davis was already the innovator who introduced Hard Bop and Cool to jazz.

He wanted his sextet for “Kind of Blue” to be a laboratory for a new experimental style he called “modal jazz” which would free the soloist forever from the old rules and structures of music. Add to that a Dream Team of talent separated by two degrees from every great jazz record ever and “Kind of Blue” became an album that almost transcended music.

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  • Ben Bochner

    How can you talk about Kind of Blue without talking about the chord changes? It’s like talking about basketball and not talking about jump shots. I already know how great the album is; I already know how great the players are; I know how much money the album made. But what makes the music what it is are the changes. Does it go from a Major 7 to a Diminished 3rd? At least when I listen to Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neill talk about a basketball game, it’s people who played the game. If Mr. Kahn is going to go to the trouble of laying out the anatomy of Kind of Blue, why not call out the changes, so we can follow along at home? Man, it’s so frustrating!

    • joeonlyone

      Hi, Ben. There are no changes to speak of, not in the way that we would talk about chord changes in another jazz piece. They are playing in a mode (‘scale,’ say D dorian) for, say, 32 bars. This gives you a tonal root (D) and a chord to explore (D minor 7 (plus natural tensions)). When you hear the tonal center shift, you can view that as the next “chord change,” and they’ve at that point shifted modes (to say Eb mixolydian/ Eb7). So there may be two chords in the tune, each held for an extended period of time. The ‘changes’ we hear are the players’ explorations of that mode/ scale, rather than more discreet chord changes provided by Miles that defined the piece of music. It makes it difficult to follow along at home from an analytical perspective, as it’s very different from normal jazz. To continue your very apt analogy, you can’t talk about basketball without talking about the jump shot, but what happens when you take gravity out of the equation? The conversation can’t be conducted in the same way, because the old rules and constraints no longer apply, at least not in the same way they had. I’ve read the interviewee’s book, and it does go deeper into this very topic of modality. It’s a great read cover to cover, and I had just pulled it out for a re-read when I spotted this interview. There are other books that provide transcriptions of what was played, and I’ve seen a very cool piano book called Cool Jazz Piano that has good arrangements of a couple of tunes from Kinda Blue. Putting those together with Mr Kahn’s book just might lead you toward the understanding of the music that you’re looking for. Hope this helps, and all the best to you, Ben.

  • Potter

    Wow again (from the first time). The quality of these interviews was always there. This is an education in jazz in itself. It set me going to looking up wiki definitions of music terms. I was so young with my first piano lessons, I hardly understood the science ( so to speak) and the aesthetic of music. But I felt it.

    But such devotion to the topic of Miles Davis by Ashley Kahn is phenomenal. And too there were only the questions that could be asked by a lover of music, jazz. I went back to the reference of listening to “Kind of Blue” again and again now and I have changed my listening since and lately. Beautiful music first- what more can be said? Music is a feeling thing first.. at least for me. Then the questions and picking apart… which leads to more and better listening.

    Thank you! And thanks for sharing the 2000 show!