The Enduring Legacy Of 'Kind Of Blue' There's a good chance that if you own just one jazz record, it's Miles Davis' modal masterpiece. Richard Williams thinks there's something to that: He's written The Blue Moment, a new book on the legacy of the 1959 album.
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The Enduring Legacy Of 'Kind Of Blue'

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The Enduring Legacy Of 'Kind Of Blue'

The Enduring Legacy Of 'Kind Of Blue'

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(Soundbite of song, "Kind of Blue")

GUY RAZ, host:

Even if you're not a huge jazz fan, there's a good chance that if you own just one jazz record, it is Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," released in 1959.

Mr. RICHARD WILLIAMS (Author, "The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music"): They may have bought it after hearing it in a friend's house or in a record shop or in the background at a restaurant. Something that imprinted itself during a casual encounter, the most exquisitely refined of ambient music.

(Soundbite of song, "Kind of Blue")

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yet there are lifelong students of jazz with vast collections covering the entire history of the idiom, who would unhesitatingly nominate it as the item which, if they had to choose just one, they would save from a burning house.

RAZ: That's music writer Richard Williams. His new book is a kind of love letter to a record that changed the way he thinks about music. It's called "The Blue Moment." And Richard Williams is in our London studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: I think all of my interviews from now on should open with "Kind of Blue." I think we're going to do that from now on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: But really, there is a kind of an unmistakable sound. I was talking to my wife on the phone yesterday, and she could hear it coming through my computer speaker just for a second or so. And she said, oh, "Kind of Blue" is playing.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. That's the extraordinary thing about it. Everybody knows it, even people who know virtually nothing about jazz. They - somehow, they recognize "Kind of Blue" the minute they hear it.

RAZ: Now, this track that we're hearing, it opens the record, and Miles Davis's solo comes in about a minute and a half into the piece. We hear drummer James Cobb crash the cymbal and then...

(Soundbite of song, "Kind of Blue.")

RAZ: This track starts out quietly. You have the piano and then the bass. Why do you think Davis started the record out this way?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think he did it that way to give you a kind of taste of what was coming, that this wasn't going to be your standard jazz album that, you know, began with a fanfare and continued at 100 miles an hour and, you know, blew your socks off.

RAZ: And the really amazing thing about "Kind of Blue," I guess, and what you point out in the book, is that Miles Davis, in a pretty short period of time, went from playing conventional bop, something that sort of sounded like this:

(Soundbite of song, "Move")

RAZ: And this track is "Move," off "Birth of the Cool," which was actually recorded in 1949 and released in the late '50s. But he went from that to the more modal-based sound on "Kind of Blue." How did that happen in a relatively short period of time?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, what you just heard - the music by the Birth of the Cool Band was a sort of halfway house, in a way. It was when he began to work with a group of other young musicians of similar instincts - people like Gil Evans, the arranger, John Lewis, the piano player - guys who weren't happy with bebop, who didn't think music should just be about athleticism and muscularity, you know, who wanted to take it somewhere else.

And in the 10 years between the Birth of the Cool Band and "Kind of Blue," that's when Davis gradually found his way from one stepping stone to another, towards a different kind of music.

(Soundbite of song, "Kind of Blue")

Mr. WILLIAMS: Some of the musicians had been with Miles for several years: Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers first joined him in 1955. So they'd been playing together for a while. So, you know, they knew each other very well. Bill Evans had joined in 1958; Cannonball Adderley also, the alto saxophone player. And by early 1959, when "Kind of Blue" was made, they were very comfortable with each other, and they were ready collectively, they were ready for this moment.

RAZ: Richard Williams, last year I interviewed Van Morrison to talk to him about his seminal record, "Astral Weeks." And I asked him about the recording process, and it seems very clear that it was very methodical and deliberate. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he felt as if he was making something that was going to be extraordinary.

We often think of this record, "Kind of Blue," as, you know, sort of one of the great examples of spontaneity on a jazz album. And yet so much of it, as you say, was thought through, right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. And I think it's an example of a very carefully prepared kind of spontaneity. Bill Evans, the pianist, wrote a very interesting sleeve note for the original issue of this album, on which he described the method of working as being akin to that of Japanese calligraphers who spend the whole day preparing their brushes, sharpening their inks, and then do their work in just a series of very quick strokes.

And I think "Kind of Blue" is like that. You know, it will astonish people nowadays to know that these five, longish tracks were recorded in over two days, in a total of nine hours. You know...

RAZ: It's crazy, yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It is. But these men knew what they were doing and particularly, Miles knew what he was doing. He knew the feeling he wanted.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: So many books have been written about this record, and you acknowledge that in your book - notably, a book by Ashley Kahn.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Excellent book.

RAZ: What did you want to say about "Kind of Blue" that you felt needed to be said, that hadn't been said by other writers?

Mr. WILLIAMS: What I wanted to do was look at what I conceived to be the effect of "Kind of Blue" on the world - not just on jazz, either, because I do think of "Kind of Blue" as a kind of lens that focused a set of feelings that were around in the late 1950s and really, then, disseminated them to the world of music as a whole.

So, it affected all sorts of other musicians. And in particular, I think of the California minimalists of the 1960s - Lamont Young, Terry Riley, Steve Wright, John Adams - who in their turn, went on to influence a number of interesting musicians who have nothing to do with jazz at all.

RAZ: I was also interested in the influences on Miles Davis in making this record. And you talk about his relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.


RAZ: He met him in Paris in 1949. You sort of suggest that that relationship can be heard on this record, on "Kind of Blue." What do you mean?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think that trip to Paris in 1949, when he was still a very, very young man, was profoundly influential on Davis's view of the world and hence, affected his musical direction, too. He spent a lot of time on the Left Bank with, you know, the bohemians of the time, the existentialists, meeting all those people.

In New York or in America, he was confined to the world of jazz. You know, he was thought of as a black man, you know, and there were places where he couldn't go physically and intellectually. But in Paris, everything seemed freer. He was able to absorb all these influences that he found very interesting. And I think also while he was there, he tuned in to that sort of European sensibility of the post-war years, which was strongly, you know, a sort of, there was a sense of alienation about - there's a sense of, you know, what is the world all about, actually, you know, that comes through in the novels of Albert Camus or Alberto Moravia.

And Miles's playing always, you know, even right at the beginning, had a sense of that. You know, you always felt, with Miles, that he was just holding himself back a little, that he was reserving something of his emotions while he played.

RAZ: Richard Williams, the last track on "Kind of Blue," of course, is "Flamenco Sketches."

(Soundbite of song, "Flamenco Sketches")

RAZ: There's an amazing moment that you write about in this track, that handoff. Miles Davis's solo ends, there's about eight or nine seconds, and then John Coltrane comes in.

(Soundbite of song, "Flamenco Sketches")

Mr. WILLIAMS: When you don't know what's coming, it's absolutely electrifying. And when you do know, when you've heard it before and you listen to it again and you know what's about to happen, it's sort of even more electrifying, in a way, every time you hear it.

RAZ: If you were to take this record and place it into the context of jazz history, how would you assess its importance? I mean, is there everything that came before "Kind of Blue," and everything that came after it? I mean, is it that profound?

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's not as simple as that, of course, because jazz is and has always been many things. But I do believe that if we think about Louis Armstrong's early recordings, like the things he made with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven as setting the agenda for the whole of jazz that was to come, then in a way, "Kind of Blue" refocused jazz and set the world off on a slightly different path and, I think, offered a new set of colors to the music.

RAZ: That's Richard Williams. He is a writer for The Guardian in London. His new book is called "The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music." Richard Williams, thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's my pleasure. Thank you, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening, and have a great night.

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