Kind of Blue | Miles Davis’s Modal Jazz Masterpiece

Ask any jazz fan in the world what they have in their record collection and chances are Kind of Blue by trumpeter Miles Davis is part of it.

Recorded in 1959, the album has sold well over 4 million copies and features, alongside the main man himself, a host of jazz legends: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly.

In this article we’ll take a look at the story behind a truly classic jazz album which is a constant fixture in pretty much every list of the best recordings in history.

Miles Davis had a prolific career, starting in the mid-1940s bebop era and stretching through to the early 90s.

Along the way, he was an innovator in pretty much every twist and turn of the genre: Cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, fusion…

So why does a single record made in 1959 – part of such a prolific discography which also includes Birth of The Cool, Bitches Brew, Walkin’ and Sketches of Spain – stand out as the greatest jazz album of all time?

Perhaps it’s timing: many musicians and listeners were getting bored with the hard bop that had dominated the decade up until that point and were ready for something new.

Perhaps it’s the nature of modal music itself: open, tuneful and – on the surface – simple to understand.

Or perhaps it’s a magical combination of those 6 musicians and the inspiration they brought out in each other.

In any case, it appealed to most: for a jazz musician, it’s a perfect study in the art of space and melody. For the listener, it’s both relaxing and exciting at the same time.

Regardless, perhaps its biggest legacy is its role as a gateways for millions of music fans taking a first foray into jazz, who, without this classic album, would not otherwise give the genre a chance. 

The Kind of Blue Band

It’s hard to ignore the fact that “Kind Of Blue”’s band was studded with brilliant players.

Whilst they joined with Miles at various points in the years prior, this exact line-up was in place by 1958 and can be heard on the Hard Bop record Milestones recorded that year.

Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and alto player Julian “Cannonball” Adderley lead the way with their alternating styles of intense flurries and joyful abandon.

Pianist Bill Evans, a late-comer to the Miles Davis set up, played a Central role in this modal exploration. He introduced the trumpeter to classical composers such as BĂ©la BartĂłk and Maurice Ravel and contributed one of the songs himself.

Bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb had been longstanding colleagues of Davis in the rhythm section, as had pianist Wynton Kelly who fills in on “Freddie Freeloader” in place of Evans.

Unfortunately, the “Kind Of Blue” band did not have much life after the recording session. The group soon split up and followed their own careers shortly after recording the album

But perhaps there is a silver lining to be had: that the near perfect, one-off nature of their modal jazz collaboration together adds to the timelessness of the studio album

Saxophonist Bob Belden explained that although the music rarely made it out on tour, “when it did, the emotional element of the music that was the underscoring of the studio session did not exist in a live format.”

Kind of Budget

It might seem shocking in hindsight, but these world-class jazz musicians, who would go on to pave their own careers, were given union-scale pay for the session. 

In fact, the entire record, despite its ground-breaking success, was made on the cheap.

Davis was paid just a few thousand dollars in advance, and the group only spent an astonishing nine hours in the studio, using up four reels of tape.

The only other cost on the day was a piano tuner’s fee. 

Of course, it’s impossible to predict such global success, but the sums of money this went on to earn for the record label and Miles Davis’s estate are eye-watering!

Change Is In The Air

1959 itself saw Buddy Holly’s death, disposable teen-pop in the charts (“Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” anyone?!) and the release of several of the most famous albums in jazz.

In order to understand what gave Kind of Blue its initial success, it’s important to look at it first in the shoes of a jazz fan during the late 50s.

Jazz was, to some extent, beginning to repeat itself. 

Alongside that, the rise of R&B and rock-and-roll at the time made younger white audiences more receptive to the blues and, in turn, Davis’ refreshing contemporary take on it.

From this point of view, it’s easy to see how “Kind Of Blue” breathed fresh air into the genre, popularising the new approach to improvisation which which we now call modal jazz.

Kind Of Blue – Track Listing

Kind of Blue is an early example of a new, modal approach to jazz.

Whilst it’s beginnings in jazz can be traced back further to George Russell’s 1953 book “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization“, this was the moment it really arrived.

Complex and fast-moving changes are replaced by fewer chords which the band hover around for longer periods of time.

The conventional rigid chord changes were replaced by a set of scales and modes for the musicians to improvise with.

On top of that, the melodies are simple, reflective, yet highly melodic.

From an academic point of view, the 5 tracks can be seen almost as exercises, as Miles Davis (and Bill Evans) build their vision of this new genre.

So What

The album opens with “So What”, a 32 bar song of pure modal simplicity and a study for playing with the dorian (minor) scale.

Put simply, the whole song consists of two chords which, as a vehicle for improvisation, gives an enormous amount of freedom to the improvisator.

John Coltrane would in fact go on to use this same form on his composition “Impressions”. 

The subtle, stripped back introduction features Bill Evans and Paul Chambers, and is soon followed by that famous bass riff with the band responding in unison.

The most notable feature in this piece is Davis’ solo, a staple transcription for budding jazz musicians, and a trumpet section orchestration on George Russell’s 1986 album “So What (Blue Note).”

Freddie Freeloader

On the heels of “So What” comes “Freddie Freeloader”, a 12-bar blues featuring Wynton Kelly in Evans’ place. 

A false start of this song can be heard on some versions of the album, during which Davis stops the recording with a sharp whistle and notes to pianist Wynton Kelly, “Hey look, Wynton, you don’t play no chord going into A-flat”. 

This demonstrates that despite the highly improvisational methods of the recording, Davis’ modal jazz rules were strict. 

It is this attention to detail that likely contributed up to result in such a remarkable album

Blue In Green

“Blue in Green” comes next, a 10-bar theme which contrasts the typical 4-bar groupings (such as a 12-bar made up of three groupings).

The band attempted the piece four times before landing on a take they were happy with. 

All Blues

All Blues is a minor key 12-bar blues in 6/8. 

The quirkiest part of this song is the fact that it has no discernible ending, instead choosing to fade towards the end. 

“So What” also adopts this, but these are the only two songs to do so on the album

This decision may be commonplace now, but was very rare in 1959. 

Flamenco Sketches

“Flamenco Sketches” is a slow 4/4 with the introduction played just as Evans’ own “Peace Piece” (with with Paul Chambers playing the low notes where Evans’ left hand would be).

It features 5 scales of an unspecified length, taking in the Ionian (major), Phrygian & Aeolian modes.

Kind of Blue Variations

As with many legendary albums from this era, there are various edits and versions of the ‘product’ out there – with many becoming collectors items.

Evans, who played a part in arranging the pieces, has been known to have written liner notes on the album outlining the specifications of “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”. 

So it is worth noting that depending on the version of the album you own, these liner notes may or may not have been doctored. 

Davis notably had the song titles “Flamenco Sketches” and “All Blues” switched after the first vinyl pressing. 

Of course, it could be assumed that the tracks simply had not been named yet, or there was a genuine mistake in the printing, requiring the names to be swapped. 

This wouldn’t be surprising, considering Adderley’s nickname “Cannonball” is misspelt “Canonball” on some presses. 

An immediate hit

“Kind Of Blue” was released to immediate international acclaim.

Following a raving review from America’s Downbeat Magaine (five-out-of-five stars) on the 1st of October 1959, it’s UK release saw this exclamation from Jazz Journal magazine’s Kennedy Brown:

“My advice is to rush out and buy this disc immediately…this disc confirms the stature of Davis as the greatest soloist since Louis Armstrong.”

Miles Davis Post-Kind Of Blue

Miles Davis suffered a ferocious and unprecedented beating from two NYPD officers in August of 1959, not long after the Kind of Blue recording session.

It was, reportedly, for escorting a white woman to a taxi and Downbeat Magazine stated that “almost all witnesses, including alto saxophonist Julian Adderley, made accusations of police brutality, saying that the beating was excessive and unnecessary.” 

Jack Chambers, a biographer, suggested that the profound and traumatic effect the beating had on Miles may have resulted in his music plateauing, a period of distress he did not seem to surface from until 1964.

Whilst he went on to rescale similarly dizzying heights on record in the years that followed Kind of Blue will, to many listeners, mark the height of Miles Davis’ contribution to the jazz world.

Wherever you’d rank this on your list of the best records, and whether you’re a fan of swing, modern jazz or anything in between, we hope you’ll agree that it deserves its place in every jazz collection.

Looking for more classic jazz albums?

Check out our round up of the best of Cool Jazz, Hard Bop and Swing Music via our jazz music homepage

2 thoughts on “Kind of Blue | Miles Davis’s Modal Jazz Masterpiece”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Have had this album in vinyl, CD (various reissues), and on Apple Music. Have listened to it for at least 30 years and have never grown tired of it. For those with a good stereo set up the best versions of the album have an almost spooky “being there” feeling to them. I consider the music spiritual (but not in the religious sense). Just music you can get lost in and marvel on our good luck to be able to hear an absolutely brilliant recording as many times as we’d like. Thanks for the background. While I knew something about it, never new that the rest of the historic bandmates were only paid scale wages.


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