The Joy of Kind of Blue

#4 of The Albums That Are Vital (To Me)

In 1974, I was traveling in Nepal and became sick with what turned out to be a combination of dysentery and hepatitis. I got past the worst of it in a British missionary hospital, a series of quonset huts in the foothills of the Himalayas. Before flying home to get my health fully back, I recuperated a while in a cheap, beautiful little hotel in a forest outside Pokhara. There I met a joyous young guy named Gary Starr, a musician from Toronto. He hung out in my room, helping me recover just by being friendly and, as he got to know me and my interests, by scat singing all the saxophone solos, both Cannonball Adderley’s and John Coltrane’s, from Kind of Blue. There was no doubt he rendered them accurately–and well. I had them pretty much memorized, too.

It is almost mundane to include Kind of Blue on a list of influential records. Released in 1959, it remains the best selling jazz album of all time, has been reverently analyzed by jazz fans and critics much more perceptive than I, and was recently lionized on American Masters from PBS. But the fact that I am not alone in my enthusiasm, that in fact only a jazz apostate could speak ill of Kind of Blue, does not make my passion for it insincere. I loved it the first time I heard it. I love it just as much today. It never gets old.

There is Cannonball, whose alto glides from bluesiness to the sweetly melodic with ease. There is Coltrane, young and not yet the gigantic pioneer he would soon become, but already searching beautifully for the truth in music, and already showing off his heart and technical skill, as when his solo erupts on “Freddie Freeloader.” There are Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, holding down, with perfected subtlety, the pulsing but never thumping beat. And third in that rhythm section is the guru of delicacy and invention, Bill Evans on piano. (Wynton Kelly, the regular pianist in the band at the time, plays only on “Freddie Freeloader.”)

It was also Evans who wrote the album’s beautiful liner notes, in which he compares the group improvisation on the album, in which only a single cut needed a second take, to “a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere…The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.” As that artistic comparison suggests, and as other musicians on the album have said, even they, the players, were somewhat amazed by what they had made–always with a bow to Miles himself.

It was all to the credit of Miles, who had already given birth to the cool and now simply wore it, in his clothes, his shades, his every gesture, and his musical genius. Now, with these six compositions, he was advancing modal jazz and, as he had on albums throughout the mid and late 50s, he was blowing perfectly architectural solos full of tenderness. (Savor the yearning of his solo on “Blue in Green.”) I don’t know how Miles did it. In his autobiography, even he admits that he could be demanding and stern, with musicians, friends, and lovers (whom he often mistreated), but he clearly inspired his bandmates. They played almost beyond themselves while working with him, and they played together with great, listening sensitivity. In addition to his playing and composition, Miles was a stellar bandleader. Having heard this band on this album, I quickly went on to pursue other work from Cannonball, Bill Evans, and especially Coltrane. They are all in my musical pantheon.

I believe Miles sits on the top tier of that pantheon. I believe he is vital in the history of jazz, and I believe that, in the mid ’50s early ’60s (and often in later phases, too), he played with an unmatched gentleness, full of sweetness, longing, and romance.

In my senior year of high school, a young teacher told me that when he was in college (just a year or two earlier), if you approached a friend’s door and heard Kind of Blue playing behind it, you didn’t knock. It was just too likely there was love-making going on in that room. I believe that, too.

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