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The Making of Kind of Blue
Miles Davis and his Masterpiece
By Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Eric Nisenson
All rights reserved.
End of an Era
Since Kind of Blue was not born in a vacuum, we cannot separate it from the time in which it was recorded or the dynamics of the contemporary scene. And since innovation and flux in jazz have always arisen from this community of musical philosophers and explorers, musicians with no direct connection to the album nevertheless influenced its creation — a particularly significant factor because of the album's place in jazz history. In a sense, we can divide jazz history into two segments: before Kind of Blue and after Kind of Blue. But the particular era in which Kind of Blue was born may be an example par excellence of being in the right place at the right time. This album could not have been produced three or four years earlier or later.
Kind of Blue was created, at least to some extent, because the most important jazzmen in the modern scene desperately wanted to change the way they played their music. This need was not purely musical; it had more than a little to do with the changes then going on in American society, especially concerning the lives of African Americans. And that is how our story begins — with a glance back to the jazz scene and social climate at the end of the 1950s.
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The year in which Kind of Blue was recorded, 1959, can rightfully be considered the final year of the bebop era. Bop continued to be played, of course, as it is to this day. But its status as the cutting edge in jazz came to an end as the decade itself ended. By then there was a restlessness among many of the most-forward-looking jazzmen and a widespread feeling that jazz had to change in order to survive.
The world of jazz during its "golden age" — roughly from the early 1920s to the early 1970s — was somewhat isolated, alienated from American society at large. It had its own values, language, mores, traditions, and politics. It was not a geographical place, although its capital in the 1950s was New York City. It was a world whose entrance was jealously guarded, a world that was certainly not open to all. While all races were admitted to the jazz scene, its primary sensibility was derived from the African American experience, and its provenance can be dated back to its African roots and the subsequent experience of black people in America. It should never be forgotten that the depth and beauty of jazz have arisen from centuries of injustice, brutality, fear, and pain, none of which were passively accepted but were met with African Americans' resistance, striving, and hope for a more benevolent future.
As preparation for this project, I read a book titled Invisible Republic, written by the famous rock critic Greil Marcus. I read it because, like this book, its core subject is a specific recording, Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Marcus's contention is that the music of that album evokes a world within a world that is now gone, an "invisible republic" that was once alive in the traditional folk songs of America's past.
This idea of a separate nation without physical borders that is located both within and outside of America is exactly what the jazz scene once was. It was a unique society that had its origins in the years of slavery, when African Americans — coerced into an alien land — forged their own culture and developed a way of communicating with one another that would not be understood by the white slave masters. White folks took the songs and dances of the slaves to be simply mindless entertainment, not understanding that they were a form of conversation and a means of solidifying community. The words of the songs, the freedom of the dances, even the most subtle gestures, had worlds of meaning beyond the comprehension of the whites. The lyrics of the slave songs and spirituals all had at their core the ecstatic belief in the inevitability of freedom. As in Africa, music was essential to life itself, a key to survival, a way of keeping mind, heart, and community together.
There is another significant aspect of jazz originating in the African American experience. Along with the value placed on community is the value placed on individuality, which in the jazz world is of paramount importance. By "individuality" I do not mean merely the possession of an idiosyncratic style, nor do I mean "individualism," whose focus on self-aggrandizement and one's own self-interest is the very antithesis of community. The individuality to which I refer derives from respect for the person and, in jazz, allows each musician to create an entire sound that is unlike anyone else's. In a society in which black people were routinely stereotyped, being true to oneself had an intrinsic value that ran deep to the bone. Jazzmen have often been characterized as "eccentric" or even "crazy." But this is simply an expedient way for others to reject their insistence on individuality in a society in which conformity is the desired norm.
Black musicians continued to use a kind of code in their music and in the jazz lifestyle. One fine example is the long list of blues tunes with salacious lyrics that have been cleverly coded — for example, Ma Rainey's "See See Rider Blues" and Mamie Smith's "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of this Jelly Roll." Heavily codified references to illegal drugs have been used in jazz and blues virtually since the inception of the music, from Louis Armstrong's "Muggles" (marijuana) up through Lee Morgan's "Speedball" (a mixture of cocaine and heroin).
In his fascinating (and often racially repellent) memoir, Really the Blues, the white New Orleans-style clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow provides an example of a lengthy conversation in "jive" lingo. Although it is blatantly about a drug deal, any police officer overhearing the exchange would have no idea of its meaning; the participants might as well be speaking in Hungarian. Mezzrow also recounts the story of a Louis Armstrong broadcast in which, right in the middle of an interview, Armstrong communicated to Mezzrow a request to have the best marijuana ready for him upon his return to Chicago. To anyone other than those "in the know," the musician was speaking gibberish. Needless to say, Mezzrow got the message.
Besides being one of the most important of all jazzmen, Lester Young was particularly imaginative in creating his own personal "jive" lingo. For example, "Bing and Bob" meant the police. "I got eyes" meant he wished to do something. "I feel a draft" meant he felt that somebody present was, in his opinion, a racist.
There was constant mutual influence between prevailing social currents and the lives and work of the musicians. Musical style and aesthetics were of necessity interwoven with the social fabric, a reflection of the honored place that music occupied at the heart of the social structure in African societies; thus, as society changed, so did the music. The romantic notions about art that have become accepted in Western society since the last century were alien to African culture.
John Miller Chernoff writes in African Rhythm and African Sensibility:
The fact that most people in Africa do not conceive of music apart from its community setting and cultural context means that the aesthetics of the music, the way it works to establish a framework for communal integrity, offers a superb approach to understanding Africans' attitudes about what their relationship to each other is and should be. The judgments of competence which people make and the standards of quality of which a musician is aware are elaborations of their own conceptions about the nature of their social life, elaborations which are particularly more evident in musical activity than in many other institutionalized relationships because artistic standards involve explicit judgments on the potential of the communities within which people live.
The jazz world itself was as self-contained as these African communities, and to an extent, music had the same overriding effect on the lives of those who were part of it. The insularity of this world created a kind of musical "greenhouse effect." Wherever musicians gathered and played, whether in nightclubs, on touring buses, or in after-hours joints, they nourished the growth of new ideas, challenged one another, or simply talked music.
Because it is chiefly improvisational, jazz has unique problems, as well as assets, that are not characteristic of composed music. There are still classical music snobs who point out that musical techniques that may be viewed as cutting edge in jazz are old hat in classical music. What these criticisms ignore is the profound differences between the two kinds of music. Techniques that are successful in classical music may not work in jazz, and vice versa. So jazzmen cannot simply steal ideas from other forms of music. They must work out their creative problems for themselves within the special boundaries of their music. Their passionate commitment to the progress of this music springs from the belief that jazz serves a higher purpose, that it provides musicians with far more than a career. As Sonny Rollins told me in a letter, "My whole life has been devoted to the achievement of some important breakthroughs, and I would die disappointed if I couldn't reach them. I want to live up to my promise, not just for me, but for the music."
It has been said that the jazz combo is a perfect microcosm of American democracy (at least in its ideal form): the individual is as important as the society of which he or she is a part. In jazz the individual solo is essential to the work of the group as a whole. This relationship between part and whole is especially crucial for jazz innovation, which arose out of the progress of both individual musicians and the collectivity of the jazz scene. It was an ongoing process born of the musicians' deep belief in their music and its possibilities, and a desire born of curiosity about exploring new planes of freedom. Jazzmen realized that outside of a relatively small circle of fellow believers, musicians, writers, and fans, there was little understanding of, interest in, or respect for this art form in America. And few became involved in the music because they thought they could become rich. There were other reasons to persevere; call it faith.
This closed-off community created a rare intimacy among jazzmen, but not every aspect of the scene was positive. To some extent, the heroin epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s was an offshoot of this tightly knit world. According to Sonny Rollins, using drugs was a kind of protest against the whole money system and a way of renouncing American mores. Ironically, however, even dope acted to bring jazzmen closer together in their shared misery. It was just this intimacy in the musical greenhouse of their world that gave them the ability to connect so closely that they could almost read one another's minds while on the bandstand. The smallest gestures, the subtlest facial expressions, a nod or a glance, had implications lost on most of those in the audience. While playing, jazzmen could hold conversations, admonish one another, or crack jokes, all through their music. Charles Mingus in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, describes a philosophical conversation he had with Eric Dolphy just before they were due to perform. According to Mingus, they continued the same conversation when they were onstage performing, this time using music instead of words.
This intense intimacy also spurred innovation during the "golden era" of jazz. By the end of the 1950s, many jazzmen were beginning to feel that they had reached the limit of improvisation based on the European-derived harmonic system. They were just beginning to look at the music of other cultures, particularly those of Africa and Asia. And they were responding as well to the growing civil rights movement, with its call for "freedom now!"
It is misleading to make too much of a parallel between the changes in society, in particular the lives of African Americans, and the evolution of their music. But it is even more misleading to ignore this connection. For example, the innovations of Louis Armstrong in Chicago during the mid-1920s reflected in many ways the northern exodus of millions of southern black people. The exultant sound of Armstrong's trumpet represented a new kind of freedom that they sought in the North (however illusory that goal proved to be). Armstrong's swinging rhythmic attack seemed to offer the joy of freedom itself.
During the Swing Era, a period when Armstrong's advances were being further expanded by both big bands and certain key players, New York became the center of jazz. Black musicians in the 1930s found themselves becoming somewhat more accepted into the American mainstream. When Benny Goodman fronted a trio, or later a quartet, of racially mixed personnel, it both reflected these changes and helped push them forward. The Swing Era was a period in which jazz (now labeled swing) became massively popular. But many of the most successful bands were white big bands, such as those of Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw. This situation did not go unnoticed by a number of black jazz musicians. In a way, the enormous success of swing, and in particular these white bands, was confirmation of the power of black music. Of course, to some black musicians it appeared that this success was more theft than confirmation or acknowledgment, but the reality is somewhat more complicated, for white musicians had been playing jazz since almost the very earliest days of the music.
Nonetheless, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, there was a restlessness in jazz that would begin gradually and grow to enormous proportions by the time it reached its culmination in the 1950s and 1960s. And with black soldiers fighting a war against racism and fascism in Europe, the idea of returning to a home country in which they were themselves oppressed fanned new winds of change.
The revolution of the early boppers was as much social foment as it was musical. This is not to say that the growing jazz revolt came about solely through racial dynamics, especially black hostility toward whites. The idea that bebop was created to discourage whites from playing jazz — a once-popular theory — is belied by the fact that the first bebop group to play on Fifty-second Street, led by Dizzy Gillespie, included a white pianist, George Wallington. And later Dizzy hired the white drummer Stan Levey for his group.
However, the social ramifications of bebop cannot be avoided. For one thing, the boppers wanted to discard the last remnants of minstrelsy and insisted on being taken seriously as artists. Not that Duke Ellington or Lester Young or Roy Eldridge or Billie Holiday was less than a serious artist. But the boppers made a conscious effort to be treated as artists rather than as performers. Dizzy Gillespie might have clowned around onstage, but his jokes had little connection to minstrelsy. It was humor with a bite that often made his audiences uncomfortable. Most of the other boppers, however, purposely avoided any concession to their audience. If people wanted entertainment beyond brilliant and complex music, they were not going to find it in bebop.
According to the jazz composer-theorist George Russell, there was another sociocultural basis for the harmonic complexities of bop: black musicians needed to make clear the fierce intelligence that was necessary to play this music. The greater society thought of jazz as merely an offshoot of the so-called natural sense of rhythm of African Americans and believed that it lacked the sophistication of classical music. But anyone with ears could hear that bop was as challenging to the mind as any art form could be. Again, this is not to say that earlier jazz did not also require a finely tuned musical mind — of course it did: Armstrong, Ellington, Lester Young, and Art Tatum, to name a few, were inarguably musical geniuses. But bop made much more obvious the importance of the intellect in creating this music (although as we shall see, the ability to turn off the mind ultimately became a skill of equal importance).
Bop had been born in the mid-1940s after years of development by young, forward-looking jazzmen. During its embryonic years (from approximately 1939 to 1944) musicians would experiment at after- hours joints in Harlem such as Minton's or Monroe's. Included among the chief "Young Lions" of this era were trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, and guitarist Charlie Christian (although Christian died in 1942 at the age of twenty-five). At these after-hours clubs the nascent boppers would challenge musicians who dared to sit in with them by playing at very fast tempos and, especially, using tunes with complex chord structures such as "How High the Moon" (once declared the "anthem of bebop"). Harmonic complexity became a hallmark of modern jazz. A musician's ability to run the harmonic gauntlet and still make a coherent musical statement was the great challenge of bop.
Excerpted from The Making of Kind of Blue by Eric Nisenson. Copyright © 2000 Eric Nisenson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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