To understand ‘Kind of Blue’s significance in the history of Jazz requires some understanding of music theory. To understand the album’s significance in the history of popular music is fairly simple: just listen to it.
Recorded over two sessions in March and April of 1959, what's believed to be the biggest selling Jazz album of all time was recorded by Miles Davis and a sextet of musicians. Davis was already a star of the genre while his band was comprised of accomplished players who would each become stars, and even legends in their own right.
On drums was Jimmy Cobb; Paul Chambers played bass; Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans player piano, while Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane were on saxophone. Davis, as writer, bandleader and lead trumpet, assembled the group to create something distinct from the Hard Bop tradition of Jazz so prevalent at the time. This is where the music theory comes in...
The sound of Hard Bop Jazz is based on dense chords and difficult progressions. For the casual listener, it’s clear the musicians are working hard. Davis, ever the iconoclast, was driven towards something new he had been experimenting with in portions of his recent albums ‘Milestones’ and ‘Porgy & Bess’; what he considered “a return to melody”. To achieve this, Davis directed his musicians to improvise based on scales he provided rather than on the more traditional chord progressions. For the casual listener the difference is clear. Davis and his sextet had crafted complex music that wasn’t challenging to listen to.
Chambers’ opening double bass riff on opening track ‘So What’, ‘Kind of Blue’ is scattered with passages and phrases that are familiar (even if not instantly recognisable) to music fans of every stripe. Following Davis’ loose direction, each player was afforded space and time thanks to the loosening of the constraints of the chord based Hard Bop, and is ultimately able to show himself to be a master of brevity. The result is music that is detailed, adventurous, and hummable.
What could have been remembered as a technical innovation instead has become one of the most familiar, memorable and enjoyed Jazz albums of all time. Several of the tracks are now Jazz standards, all have been covered and adapted countless times, while passages have been sampled and quoted in Hip Hop, Rock, movies and adverts. Perhaps most impressively of all is that this is an album that’s actually kind of blue. Retaining a weary sadness, it’s an album that carries the essence of the Blues but, thanks to the brevity of its players and lightness of melody, manages to be a relaxed and intimate affair.
If you haven’t spent time with one of the finest records of all time recently then, in honour of its 60th year, we encourage you to give it a spin.