Jazz is not the most popular of art forms, and it is difficult to distinguish between good and bad jazz, and least hard enough to justify a book on the topic. What is not as difficult to determine is the best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue (KoB) by Miles Davis. It was recorded in 1959, at a time when the popularity of the faster and more flamboyant bebop jazz was waning, but before the British invasion and rock and roll had captured the American imagination. Miles’ innovation behind cool jazz was a more spare presentation, the genius to represent 3, 4, or 5 notes in a single note. Cool jazz is also modal jazz, in which the complex chord changes of bebop are replaced with a reduced number of chords over which the musicians solo. When it is done well, the effect is impactful and moving, and on KoB it’s done well.
Of comparable importance is the development of high-fidelity recording equipment that is ubiquitous now but wasn’t so then. The long play (LP) albums that where new in 1959 allowed for a more extended and intimate experience, which is the essence of KoB. At the core of KoB’s genius are the intense relationship and collaborations among Davis’s band. It long ago passed into lore that each of the tracks was a first take at Columbia’s 30th Street studio in Manhattan, which in today’s music environment is unheard of. At one point the studio engineer noted that they were picking up snare noises generated by the other instruments. Miles said, “That’s part of it.” He knew what he was doing. Jazz isn’t about perfection, it’s about capturing the mood, the interaction, and hopefully genius among the musicians, and there was plenty there in that session, or “sesh” as the musicians would say. There was no intention or indication of genius that day though. It was just another jazz recording made by musicians who worked regularly, but history and album sales would judge their work remarkable.
The other musicians in Davis’s band were each became legends by themselves. Saxophonist John Coltrane played on KoB along with Cannonball Adderly, with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme being second most important jazz albums “that shook the world” according to Jazz Wise Magazine (KoB was number one). Pianist Bill Evans was joined by Wynton Kelly, who played only on “Freddy the Freeloader”—Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard was the fourth most important album. What was most crucial to the making of KoB however was the musical sensitivity and interplay between Evans and Davis. Jazz fans love telling stories about their musicians, and one of the stories was that Miles would call Bill just to hear him play over the phone because he loved to hear him play that much. KoB begins with inchoate chords from Evans’ piano, which sets the tone before the other musicians join in, on the most successful jazz album in history.