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Counterbalance No. 39: Miles Davis’ 'Kind of Blue'

The Great List of the most acclaimed albums of all time makes its first foray into jazz, beginning with Miles Davis’ 1959 favorite. With no lyrics to quote, Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn are having difficulty writing this introduction.

Miles Davis

Kind of Blue

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 1959-08-17

Klinger: I have to be honest here, Mendelsohn. We’ve now done dozens of these things, but this is the first one I’m actually nervous about writing. I’ve read my share of jazz criticism, and I’m all but consumed with the fear that I’m no match for the erudite insights and intimate knowledge of musical theory of Leonard Feather or Stanley Crouch. People have written whole books—chapter books!—about Kind of Blue. What can we say about this album?

Mendelsohn: First, I don't know who Feather or Crouch are, thereby relieving me from caring. Second, people have written books about lots of things, like gravity and dinosaurs. It doesn't necessarily make the subjects they were written about important or true and it doesn't mean people will actually read them. Third, I think my copy of Kind of Blue is broken—no matter how loud I play it, this record still makes me want to take a nap. Am I doing something wrong? Should I try turning the volume up even higher?

Klinger: Yes, and also try listening to it without your jam-jams and Mr. Snugglebunny and a mug of hot cocoa.

Actually, I guess your reaction isn’t all that surprising. Jazz in general doesn’t necessarily come easy to people who have cut their teeth on three-minute verse-chorus-verse songs. I’ve often said that I listened to jazz for a long time before I heard it. Your mind can wander—to the point where you can lose track of which song you’re listening to (I used to do that all the time, especially during the days of cassette tapes)—and you can very quickly convince yourself that you’re listening to it all wrong.

Kind of Blue, meanwhile, offers up the double-whammy of being not only a jazz album, with all of the nine-minute songs and lengthy saxophone solos that that entails, but it’s also a profoundly quiet album. The modal chord progressions create a far sparer bed for the melody, creating an almost Zen-like calm for the listener. You can either lean in or lie back; you get rewarded either way.

Mendelsohn: All kidding aside, I understand where you are coming from. Kind of Blue is a profoundly beautiful record. But it’s still jazz, and jazz in general has gotten the short shrift from the public at large and the pop culture criterati.

I have a healthy respect for the genre and the talents required to play it properly. I even spent many nights at the local jazz club and felt genuine sadness (not the fake sadness I have to muster to appear human) when it was sold off and turned into a sports bar. Despite those efforts, and many more hours listening to jazz in general, I've never been able to hear it. I don't dislike it and I don't find it intimidating, but there is still a disconnect in my brain that is unable to push my appreciation for jazz into anything more than just that.

I have the same problem with Kind of Blue, although I have two pretty solid theories as to why it's lodged in the top 50 and will be the only jazz record we'll have to talk about for a long time to come.

Klinger: Well one reason is that our man in Sweden, who so brilliantly compiles the Great List over at the Acclaimed Music website, tends not to incorporate many genre-specific lists. But it is true that Kind of Blue has become The One for pop culture generalists (the next two jazz albums we’ll get two, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Davis’ 1969 Bitches Brew, are both contenders, but they might be too esoteric and freaky-deaky, respectively). As someone who just plain loves this album, though, I’m curious as to what your theories as a relative outsider might be.

Mendelsohn: These two theories go hand-in-hand so there will be a bit of an overlap. First, this album is a genre place holder, a token if you will, to jazz, to everybody who plays jazz and the folks who listen to jazz much the same way that Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation is a placeholder for hip-hop (seriously though, the lack of hip-hop on this list is disappointing at the very least and completely disrespectful at worst). Those two albums allow rock critics to throw a bone to the music they don't necessarily like or respect, that way they don't seem like complete bigot jerks.

Klinger: I think that critics generally do like and respect jazz—maybe in theory more than in practice (the same way that most people do) but still . . . You’re right that jazz has been generally set apart from pop music, and as I said during our discussion of PE, that’s something that I’d love to see reversed by future generations of list-making critics. Even as younger generations continuously create newer and more egregiously hyphenated genres, with their dub-steps and their sad-cores and their mumble-bops, I hope that these delineations will stop meaning so much and people will only think about the music, man.

Just listening again to John Coltrane’s solo on lead track “So What”, for example, and the way he injects these phrases and clauses into the framework of the chords, I was struck by how a different approach can totally change the feel of the song from moment to moment. A dab of Eastern melody here, an unexpected high note there, and the song suddenly has like a completely different sound—a little bit like a mash-up, really. You don’t need an advanced degree in music theory to appreciate that, and we shouldn’t ghettoize this music any more than we should hip-hop or country or pre-rock vocalists. It’s all part of the same chunky stew.

Mendelsohn: Thank you for being the even-tempered one. The second theory is a bit more nuanced, but no less offensive in certain quarters. When Kind of Blue was remastered and re-released it for its 50th anniversary in 2009, a documentary was also included in the box set. In that documentary they talked to a bunch of musicians including rapper Q-Tip, who said Kind of Blue was "like the Bible—you just have one in your house".

I think this is telling. Most people do have a Bible in the house, but when they do get it off the shelf in some sort of well-meaning attempt to better themselves, they are quickly reminded why they don't read it more often—it's boring. I think the same with Kind of Blue. It’s well-respected, immediately identifiable, everyone has a copy, everyone says they love it, but no one ever really listens to it. It's on your shelf to make you look good and because you want to represent yourself as a pious music fan with wide-ranging tastes. On the flip side, there are people who actually do read the Bible and enjoy it, even that horribly boring part in Genesis about who begot who, just like there are people who enjoy listening to jazz.

Where these two theories intersect is the fact that too many pop culture generalists can't name more than one jazz artist, let alone a couple of albums. If you had to include a jazz album on the Great List, it would have to be Kind of Blue, wouldn't it? Miles Davis is the only "old-school" jazz artist with lasting street cred and a little bit of crossover appeal. Thelonious Monk was too out there. Duke Ellington and Count Basie were too big band. Herbie Hancock might as well have been an '80s novelty act. The truth is Davis is the only jazz musician with enough appeal to carry the day and the sad truth is, he's still stigmatized because, at the end of that day, he's still a jazz musician.

Klinger: Remind me to play you some of Herbie Hancock’s Blue Note records, first of all. But even if you’re right that most people are only pretending to like Kind of Blue because it makes them look suave and sophisticated, that still doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this album. That call-and-response at the beginning of “So What” alone still gives me a thrill whenever I hear it. Miles brought together some of the best players in the business, and their styles meshed together perfectly. Pianist Bill Evans’ more impressionistic touch works surprisingly well with Coltrane’s more aggressive approach. And through it all there’s Miles, cool, never flashy, and always pursuing a vision that defies what’s expected of him. Kind of Blue wasn’t the first time Davis changed jazz, and it wasn’t the last, but it provides a perfect entry point into this music. And even if only a percentage of people dig deeper as a result of Kind of Blue, I’m calling that a victory.

And if critics are only tossing Kind of Blue in here as placeholder for jazz, it’s an inspired choice. As Davis shifted away from complicated bop chord progressions and into this modal form, he made what turned out to be an album that might be the most instantly accessible jazz album ever made. Because many of the songs are essentially blues (“Freddie Freeloader”, “All Blues”), casual listeners have heard enough 12-bar tunes to be able to follow the format and hear what different soloists are able to do with all that extra space.

Mendelsohn: You'll hear no argument from me. I can't find fault with this record. It deserves its spot on the list, if for no other reason than because it is a shining example of a genre that is largely ignored by the mainstream.

Klinger: Agreed, and while we may not have measured up to the estimable Leonard Feather, I think that as relative novices, we at least deserve credit for never once lapsing into hepcat jive or scat noises during this discussion. I’m also calling that a victory. Of sorts.

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