Read It! Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn

Book-KOB-01-web“It was the last time Miles Davis and Bill Evans would ever record together.”

There are hundreds of pivotal moments in the history of music. But that line, written by author Ashley Kahn on page 145 of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (2000) is the one line in the book that shocked me. I just didn’t know, didn’t realize the significance of it until Kahn’s words appeared before me…that Davis and Evans never recorded together again, after the making of Kind of Blue.

A damned shame, that. Why? Because the two musical giants had just created what is on the short list of greatest jazz LPs ever and they would never record together again. Yes, the band includes John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and there’s no denying their impact on the music. You can’t discount drummer Jimmy Cobb, or bassist Paul Chambers, either. But for me, it’s the combination of Evan’s and Davis on the making of some of the tunes that ushers in modal jazz…and just as quickly and quietly, lets it out the back door.Blue-07

It’s a testament to the entire band that Kind of Blue cannot bore you. Even though modal jazz made it somewhat easier for the soloists. You might think that a more complex structure might stand the test of time better. But that was Charlie Parker’s Bebop, and while Parker’s influence is still with us rather heavily, Bebop itself didn’t resonate with the general public back then. It’s Davis/Evan’s easier, flowing modes that allowed Coltrane & Adderley, Cobb & Chambers to achieve the ultimate LP.

Kahn was given the once in a lifetime opportunity to audition the original master tapes at Sony Music Studios in New York for his book research. Are you kidding me? Christ, what an experience that must have been! So when Kahn writes, he does from the viewpoint that only a handful of people ever have. He was privy to the chatter and the mood of the day, not just the songs.

Blue-08The author clears the air on the notion that each of  the five songs were all done on the first take. There were multiple, but incomplete takes of each song. The finished songs on the LP are the only complete takes of each song, with the exception of Flamenco Sketches, which had two complete takes. Take one would end up being the alternate available decades later on CD.

“The first complete performance of each thing is what you’re hearing…there are no complete outtakes,” Bill Evans is quoted as saying.

The book shines in unusual ways. Kahn writes of the lack of photography during the first recording session in April 1959 and that recording engineer Fred Plaut knew enough to bring his camera for the second session in May. Kahn gives a lot of weight to Evan’s influence on the songs themselves, even if the songs are credited to Davis. There’s talk about how the recording engineers did their best to replicate the mic placements from session one to session two. Some of the chatter in between songs makes the author’s points more clear.Blue-04

I appreciated that Kahn often explains things that a musician might understand, but the average music lover might not. There’s a chapter on how the LP was marketed, which might sound like a dull subject, but it explains some of the internal politics of marketing jazz and how important critics could be, even if Davis didn’t care for most of them. A couple of those reviews are quoted.

“What is remarkable is that the men have done so much with the stark, skeletal material,” said an unknown reviewer in Downbeat magazine.

San Francisco Examiner critic C.H. Garrigues wrote “Buy it and play it, quietly, round about midnight. You will agree that this is jazz which, in all likelihood will never be duplicated.”

I even found the index at the end of the book to be of interest. There are little notes, explaining things that Kahn didn’t feel were needed in the main body text, but are cool nonetheless. His list of LPs to listen to is worthy, too.

Blue-02These details flesh out what could be an inch by inch bore fest of the events. Instead, Kahn illuminates the importance of the many tiny details that ended up becoming the best selling jazz record ever. He does so without over-praising the record, believe it or not.

The book has a number of rarely seen photos. The reproduction quality isn’t so great. The paper within this hardback book doesn’t seem to lend itself to great repro and some of the photos are too small. A shame. Love to see this book printed much larger with an emphasis on the photo quality.

Critic Fred Kaplan, writing for Slate Magazine in 2009, perhaps said it best when described the record. “Kind of Blue is a one-shot deal, so dreamily perfect you can hardly believe someone created it,” Kaplan wrote. “Which is why it remains so deeply satisfying, on whatever level you experience it, as moody background music or as the center of your existence. Listen to it 100 times or so, and you still marvel at its spontaneous inventions; now and then, you’ll even hear something new.”

The 7×9″ book clocks in at a mere 220+ pages and reads fast.

Blue-01Not unexpectedly, no one in the band thought the recording was going to be that special. That’s the beauty of great art, isn’t it? It’s often the confluence of practice, skill, timing and talent, coming together in one shining, all too brief moment. The achievement of a lifetime that any of us would give an arm to be a part of. And usually, one doesn’t know it until much later, if ever. Maybe after you’re dead, as is every member of the band except drummer Cobb, who wrote an honest forward for the book.

I love Kind of Blue and really enjoyed Kahn’s book. It’s a great way to gain a greater understanding of the LP and the men who created it. Kahn has a certain feeling for the music and writing about it.

“It was the last time Miles Davis and Bill Evans would ever record together.” Sounds like great art to me.

You may be aware that I like shooting video of live music. Check out my vids by trumpeter John Worley, replicating the Kind of Blue LP at the Pagoda Lounge in 2013!

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