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How Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' Changed Jazz

Miles Davis photographed with John Coltrane, Jullian "Cannonball" Adderley, and Bill Evans during the recording sessions for 'Kind of Blue' at Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York in March 1959. © Don Hunstein

As jazz albums go, Miles DavisKind of Blue is a milestone. Loved by connoisseurs and passing fans alike, it’s often cited as one of the best-selling jazz records in the genre’s history, and one of its very best too. Certainly Davis’ masterpiece. As such a notable work, it’s more than deserving of a deep dive into what makes it so great, which is what YouTube music video essay channel Polyphonic, run by editor and journalist Noah Lefevre, does.

In his video, titled Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz, Lefevre explores how in just five songs, which begins with the classic “So What” and ends with “Flamenco Sketches” Davis and his band—a sextet which included saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans, and drummer Jimmy Cobb—they “helped blow the jazz genre wide open.”

Miles Davis during the recording sessions for 'Kind of Blue' at Columbia's 30th Street Studio. © Don Hunstein

In the 45 minute album Davis drew on the idea of “modal” jazz. Which meant keeping the song’s background simple, while soloists played a melody over two scales (or modes). It was different to the usual jazz underpinning, with its use of lively chord changes. Davis had been introduced to “modal” classical composers like Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel by pianist Evans too.

Between Evans and Davis they sketched some basic compositions based on this modal jazz model, and on the day of the recording of Kind of Blue, 2 March 1959, the musicians were given these in the studios as outlines. It meant they had a framework, but were free to be spontaneous without being constricted by the repeatable chord changes that were the usual jazz foundation. The whole album was being recorded for release on the very first take too.

A few years after Miles Davis recorded 'Kind of Blue', Miles Davis performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1966. © Francine Winham

In the video Lefevre takes a close look at Davis’ innovative use of modal jazz, which he says “laid the groundwork for the next several decades to come.” He notes how Davis had come from the fast-paced Bebop style of jazz, which used improv atop fast, repeated, chord changes. But by the late 1950s Davis had grown tired of this style, thinking that the search for ever more complex chord progressions was stifling creativity.

It was with the help of a friend that Davis found the inspiration for Kind of Blue. His friend was music theorist, composer, and pianist George Russell, whose jazz theory book The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, proposed the idea of improvising around modes instead of chords. Lefevre defines modes as “A set of different scales defined by the intervals between the notes within them.”

Many years later, a few years after releasing another jazz classic, 'Bitches Brew', Miles Davis performs onstage at the Rainbow Theatre, London in July 1973. © Jill Furmanovsky

The long and short of it is, it inspired Davis to created a style that allowed for more freeform expression. In his autobiography Davis said this about modal jazz, “The challenge here, when you work in the modal way, is to see how inventive you can become melodically. It’s not like when you base stuff on chords, and you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve done with the variations.”

Kind of Blue was Davis’ musical embodiment of this and, as Lefevre explains, in making it Davis created a landmark album in the process. “[But] more than just an album,” notes Lefevre. “Kind of Blue was a statement. It was Miles Davis showing the jazz scene what was possible when you started to think of the genre in new ways. And it wasn’t just jazz that was impacted by the modal shift. This would go on to influence all kinds of music from funk and soul, to R&B and rock in the coming decades. And so, with the help of some of the greatest musicians ever to play, Miles Davis successfully reinvented jazz.”

Check out the Noah Lefevre’s Miles Davis Kind of Blue video below. Check out more from Polyphonic here.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer these iconic Miles Davis images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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