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Miles Davis and Modal Jazz

Miles Davis and Modal Jazz
So before we look at some music, I’d like to say a little about Miles Davis and modal jazz because I think it was such an important era in the development of jazz - modern jazz - as we are interested in.
Miles had been in at the start of be-bop and then had pioneered other movements like Cool Jazz and Hard Bop. At the end of the 1950s he was getting a bit tired of Hard Bop which was getting increasingly more complicated. At the time he had been listening to some Indian music and very much liked the simplicity of the scales - of the modes that the improvisers work on. So he thought of bringing these into the jazz arena. In 1959 the epoch-making album “Kind Of Blue” was recorded.
The personnel for it were Miles, of course on trumpet, Canonball Adderley on alto - Canonball still very much a “bopster” - someone playing in the be-bop style - but it really works wonderfully well on the album. And then, of course, the great John Coltrane with his more kind of, I don’t know, deeper approach - more spiritual approach to playing. Then he had Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. For one track - which I think it was at the beginning of the recording session - I’m not sure about that - he had Wynton Kelly on piano. But for the rest of the album he replaced Wynton Kelly by Bill Evans.
Some of his fellow musicians didn’t understand why they had to use a white pianist. Why couldn’t they have a black pianist like Wynton? But Miles knew what he was doing and musically he wanted someone that would take them into a different territory, as indeed Bill Evans contribution definitely did. It’s very sad that on a sort of other note that Evans in an attempt to be accepted by the rest of the group, most of whom were into drugs at the time, he himself became an addict. Whereas most of them kicked it later in life, he didn’t. He sadly died at quite a young age because of his addiction. I digress.
So Bill Evans played a really crucial role in this album. It was recorded in a disused church which had been converted into a recording studio and had a wonderful sort of sound all of its own. Some people have described it as just wonderful general music - not anything really to do with jazz. Certainly there are lots of people who are not particularly keen on jazz that have and like this album. It starts off with “So What” and we are going to look in detail at that in a minute.
You might be interested to know that when I first heard this album it turned my head - I really hadn’t heard anything like it before and I went to the trouble of transcribing Miles Davis’s solo on “So What” - wonderful solo. That was quite hard because the record player was over the other side of the room from the piano. So I had to play a little bit, then stop the record and then go over to the piano, work it out and write it down. So it was a labour of love. I thought I was quite clever to have done that and then I discovered that plenty of other people had done the same thing.
Indeed, for a while I was a promoter and I put on the George Russell “Living Time Orchestra” and they play “So What”. They play it with a sort of funky beat, but the whole band plays the Miles Davis solo, so I wasn’t the only one with that idea. However, I would like to tell you one story about one of the tunes which I’ve heard recounted by Bill Evans himself. Now this is the greatest selling jazz album of all time. I think it still sells 100 - 150,000 copies a year - so the royalties on it must be absolutely astronomical.
Before the recording session Miles went round to Bill Evans’s place and said to him what could he do with G minor7 and A augmented.
Evans wrote “Blue In Green” … An amazing tune - first of all because it’s 10 bars in length, which was quite revolutionary at the time. So it has a different sort of feel to it - just completely. But this became a bone of contention between Miles and Bill over the years because Miles took the credit for its composition. All compositions were by Miles Davis on the album, but clearly Evans had played a key role in its composition. So if you look at Miles Davis’s output - if he plays it, it’s written by Miles Davis. If Bill Evans plays it, in a trio format for example, you’ll see it’s written by Miles Davis/Bill Evans.
This was a bone of contention between them and it went on for some years until eventually Miles Davis sent Bill Evans a cheque for $100 and in the accompanying letter said “The whole thing is settled now. Here’s a $100. I don’t want to hear anymore about it.” —sort of thing. Now if you think of the amount of sales this album has produced then the royalties must run into millions of dollars - not $100. I must say it was that important to me that in the turn of the century, 2000, I put together a band and we tried to recreate “Kind Of Blue”.
We called it “Blue Of A Kind” and played all the tracks and tried to get as close to the original in the sound as we could - certainly for the tunes. When it came to the solos, of course, we soloed on it and we were ourselves, although we tried to take notice of the original sound. We did a number of gigs. The first one, I think, was in 2001 and it was recorded by the Southampton Jazz Society and I’ll try and make the first track available to you in some way. You will hear there the line-up - the sextet - well the three front line playing Miles Davis’s solo to “So What”, before they embark on their own solos.
I kept the group together for quite a while. It included the wonderful Tony Roberts on tenor saxophone, who had been such a dominant force in British jazz in the 60’s and 70’s, and a young Tony Woods. Tony Woods now an established jazz musician working in London with his own project, and the “Avalon Trio” and his wife Nette Robinson (who, by the way, painted for me that picture in the background of Bill Evans) who is also a singer, and she has a band called “Little Big Band” — various projects that they are involved in.
So although I think there was one group that did mark the anniversary of the making of “Kind Of Blue” in the States, I don’t think there was a group that was put together that performed this. It turned out that we also performed this same sextet with Bill Evans who recorded one more album - or at least it was part of an album. I bought it when it was a 10 inch LP, it was on the back side of the music to (the film) “L’Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud” (Lift To The Scaffold) and it has 4- 3 standards and one original by Miles on it - with some lovely playing. We played that as well as an introduction to “Kind Of Blue”.
This album really has influenced so many people over the years. It’s appeared in all sorts of situations - on programmes on the radio, television series, films. It’s influence is quite important. There have been books written about the album -the recording session itself. I am sure there are things on the internet you can try and look up - do some research on. It’s just a really important album that marked this movement towards Modal Jazz. In some sense a simplifying, and in many ways, a unifying influence on the music. We’re going to have a look at the first track which, in some ways, I guess, was the most important - “So What”.

In this video I present something of the history of the seminal album “Kind of Blue” and its significance in my life, as a prelude to looking at the opening track “So What” in the next Step 3.6.

You can find references to “Kind Of Blue” on the internet, but in the video I display on the white board the lesser-known album which includes the only other tracks recorded by the same personnel.

You can follow up some of the issues discussed in the video by consulting biographies of Miles Davis and Bill Evans and books of the making of “Kind of Blue”. There are a large number available – just type in “Miles Davis Biographies” into Google to see what I mean. I recommend Miles’s autobiography, Ian Carr’s biography of Miles, Peter Pettinger’s biography of Bill Evans and the two books by Ashley Kahn and Eric Nisenson on the making of “Kind of Blue” (see pdf file below).

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