Beyond "Kind of Blue"

By Michael J. AgovinoApril 1, 2016

Beyond "Kind of Blue"

IN THE EARLY 1970s, Miles Davis asked Keith Jarrett backstage after a concert, “Do you know why I don’t play ballads anymore?” “No,” Jarrett replied, “why?” “Because I love ballads so much.” I don’t play Kind of Blue anymore, because I love Kind of Blue so much. If Miles Davis has been the entry point into jazz for so many (the 101, if you will), Kind of Blue, his opus, is the first line of the syllabus. It’s also, as Miles might’ve said, a cliché. And Miles abhorred clichés. Yes, it’s Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, On The Road. It’s so exceptional, it’s unexceptional.

Kind of Blue is sublime — from the inchoate prologue, a dialogue, sotto voce, between piano and bass, Bill Evans and Paul Chambers; to Evans’s elegant exeunt on “Blue In Green,” which years later he insisted he co-wrote and was never given credit for; to Miles’s pristine solo on “So What”; to Coltrane’s on “Flamenco Sketches”; to the modal architecture; to the 30th Street Studio, a converted Armenian church with ethereal sound; to the close-up cover photo of Miles taken at the Apollo Theater — yet it’s the most monotonous bit of Miles-ology to pour over, especially after it was so finely detailed by Ashley Khan in his 2000 Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. (Jimmy Cobb, the drummer, told Khan that he remembered the session as just another recording date.).

It’s been a curse, this blessing known as Kind of Blue. It’s the one Miles Davis recording, or jazz recording, many are familiar with. It would be like reading only Goodbye Columbus, seeing only La Dolce Vita, knowing only the Numbers in Color, listening to only The Shape of Jazz to Come or Ah Um. There’s so much more to Miles — as important as Roth, Fellini, Jasper Johns, or Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, his competitors and sometimes adversaries — that’s just as extraordinary, just as vital as Kind of Blue.

Miles always worried about people stealing from him, his ideas, his sound, his money — and with good reason, as they often did. If Bill Evans did co-write “Blue in Green,” as he insisted (and I believe him), listen to his version on Portrait In Jazz, and then listen to the version on Kind of Blue (if, unlike me, you’re still willing to listen to it). The version with Evans’s trio is good, very good; the version on Kind of Blue is for the ages. Miles, as ever, raised the level of aspiration. What of the rest?

I came to Miles Davis backward, starting in the 1980s. I saw him live at the Kool Jazz Festival in 1985, June 21, Avery Fisher Hall, third tier, door 30, box 10, seat 2 as my ticket stub — an abrupt "PARTIAL VIEW" stamped in red ink across it — reminds me now. My friend Jeff and I inhaled every second of it, even if Miles sometimes disappeared on the far side of the stage, out of our sightline, and didn’t rasp a word to the audience. We saw him again the next year, at the Miller Time Concerts on the Pier series on the far West Side.

He had just left Columbia Records, his label since the mid-1950s, and was about to round yet another bend in the road (and he loved sports cars). The prominence of Tutu, his debut with Warner Bros., starts with the cover. The camera always adored Miles, as did great photographers like James Van Der Zee, Lee Friedlander, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarava. But light and lens usually fix upon, and favor, youth. Irving Penn, the fashion photographer, shot Miles, 61 by now, in a riveting black-and-white designed by Eiko Ishioka, a noted Japanese art director, who worked on Bram Stoker’s Dracula a few years later. Miles still had this kind of appeal.

Penn frames the musician’s face tightly, the gaze boiling, the eyes perceptive, so close it feels like an intrusion, an invasion of his privacy, or ours. It’s a celebration of his blackness, of his age, of a man who’s lived a life, mostly triumphant, sometimes hard. It leaps off the cover, this image, almost as if in bas relief (and makes sense that another photo from that shoot is currently on exhibition at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, outside of Zurich, Switzerland, one of the best photography institutions in Europe.).

His music from this time can be disorienting. The esteemed critic Robert Christgau gave Tutu a B-plus, but called it “minor”; said it was his “best in a decade,” but referred to it as “schlock.” The version of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” is thin — I blame the soulless source material — but the rest of the outing, named after Desmond Tutu, with a song “Full Nelson,” for Nelson Mandela, has a feel, a sound. There’s a sly dip into a reggae with “Don’t Lose Your Mind”; producer Marcus Miller’s control-room mastery of drum machines, synthesizers, and overdubs; and its very provenance, recorded in the famous Capitol Studio in Hollywood (and Miles, like the prizefighters he so admired, rose to the big venues, 30th Street, Carnegie Hall, Philharmonic Hall, the Plaza Hotel, Fillmores East and West.).

Miles’s tone, attenuated on this outing, but still Miles, waiting for the right moment, waiting, waiting still, then a flourish, more often than not on muted horn here, his phrasing impeccable. All this, and the visual bravura.

The DJ spoke of it in a hushed tone, as if it were secret treasure. It was probably the late ‘80s, and Pangaea played at the end of the dial, WKCR in New York, the Columbia University station. It was a Japanese import, he said, not available here, and was a double album, one titled “Zimbabwe” the other “Gondwona.” He rattled off the names of the sidemen — Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, Mtume, Michael Henderson, Al Foster, Sonny Fortune —  most of whom weren’t familiar to me, except Mtume, if that was the same Mtume who did the R&B hit “Juicy Fruit,” a few years earlier. (Could there be another?) There were no songs, per se, Miles still under the influence of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Pangaea was the night concert, the young DJ shared with us, from Osaka’s Festival Hall in 1975. There was a day concert recorded on another double album titled Agharta but, and I remember him saying this, that if you listen closely, Pangaea has the feel of the night concert. The mood was darker. (I liked that.)

The group came back to the US and performed in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall and Central Park, but this was the final recorded piece before Miles walked away from music for five years. It’s almost not surprising: the playing on the album is so ferocious — as it had been for years now — you wonder how much more they would be able to sustain it. It was a force of nature. How this was ever thought of as “selling out” is hard to imagine.

Miles plays trumpet with a distortion pedal. Sonny Fortune, on soprano saxophone is a roiling tempest; on flute he’s transporting. Someone, probably Mtume, Jimmy Heath’s son, is playing what sounds like a kalimba, the African thumb piano. The sustained interplay between the guitarists — Lucas on rhythm, Cosey on lead — is unrelenting. Cosey is the greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of, as good as Hendrix (and if not better than at least funkier, more soulful), who Miles had been so enamored with. Have two guitarists — Lucas and Cosey — ever been in this kind of symbiosis together on a stage?

It’s a live album, but you don’t hear anyone, only a high-pitched human voice, humming at the very end of “Zimbabwe.” (Is it Miles? Is it Mtume? I want to know, but then I don’t.) There are no song breaks, no announcements or chit-chat from Miles — there never was — nor at the beginning, from an MC introducing the band. There are solos — man, are there solos — but not the polite applause that had been de rigueur, and often so nettlesome, at the tiny jazz clubs Miles used to play, only faint cheers at the very end of “Zimbabwe,” disc one, and they sound distant, as if the audience doesn’t quite know how to process what they’ve just seen/heard.

Miles, for seven years, was trying to perfect a black funk sound. He did it on this night (in Japan, ironically), and maybe it’s his greatest performance, his apotheosis. They play, the entire band, with complete abandon, yet with telepathic understanding, as if there were no tomorrow. Miles Davis reached a state of grace. And soon he went silent.

Miles Davis was almost legendary for being mean, and by many accounts (including his own) he often was — and abusive and irresponsible. He was also gentle, kind, and generous.

Michael Cuscuna, before he was in the record business, knew Miles in the early 1970s, just as a neighbor. Cuscuna lived a block away from Miles, who in the nice weather would stand outside his building on West End and 77th (now known as Miles Davis Way) and “shoot the shit.” “He was always very friendly, always with a smile and a hello,” Cuscuna, the founder of Mosaic Records who has produced some of the most superlative Miles Davis box sets over the last 20 years, told me this month. “He was a nice, charming, sweet guy.

Miles, in other words, smiled. Miles Smiles, recorded in 1966, is one of his great achievements. (Cuscuna calls it “a perfect album.”) He was in the midst of a fertile period with “the second great quintet” — Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter — and he was a celebrity by now.

The year before, on the ides of March 1965, Miles Davis was invited, or crashed, the book party for Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream. Mailer, who admired Miles, loosely based a character on him: Shango Martin, a jazz singer, not a trumpeter. Shango is more a rumor, a sexual one, through most of the book, and when he does appear, he’s not only a caricature, but is beaten up and thrown down the stairs by the jealous protagonist. At the book party — at The Village Vanguard, home-field advantage for Miles — the trumpeter supposedly flirted with Mailer’s wife, Beverly Bentley, with whom he had a previous relationship. Things got tense, according to J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer, A Double Life. José Torres, the light heavyweight champion at the time, and friend of Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, and the New York literati, says in the book, “I didn’t want to hit Miles Davis, but I didn’t want him to punch out Norman first. Luckily, Davis just walked away.” That’s one account. (Brian Morton’s biography of Miles says it was Mailer who backed down.) And anyway, Miles was in too perfect a moment in his career to waste time feinting with Mailer. (The incident doesn’t even make it into Miles’s autobiography.)

On Miles Smiles, Ron Carter drives the session forward, no more so than on the Wayne Shorter penned “Footprints.” Shorter is one of the most distinctive, and supreme, jazz composers of the post-war period; “Footprints” is otherworldly. Like Bill Evans’s version of “Blue In Green,” though, it feels more fully-realized here on the Miles Davis release than on Shorter’s album Adam’s Apple. After its dreamy nine minutes are up — that longing melody in your head for good now — you can hear Miles kibitz with producer Teo Macero — ally and adversary — as he does after several of the tracks on this session. “Teo,” he rasps, “you can take any part of that you want.” And they laugh.

Miles Davis loved France. In his book, he wrote of his trip there in 1949, when he was 23. “I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated….I had never felt that way in my life. It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being, like someone important.” He writes of his long affair with the chanson singer Juliette Gréco. He met Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre even asked him, “Why don’t you and Juliette get married?” Years later, Greco introduced Miles to a young director named Louis Malle, who was working on his first film, L’Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows in English), a New Wave noir with Jeanne Moreau. He approached Miles to compose the score.

This was 1957, pre-Sketches of Spain, pre-Kind of Blue. Malle wasn’t even Malle; it was pre-Le Feu Follet, pre-The Lovers (and he used a Brahms score for that; he had a refined ear). It was a pre-The Four Hundred Blows, pre-Jules and Jim, pre-La Notte Moreau —and apparently Miles also had an affair with her, too, though it’s not in his book. (Moreau, by the way, is radiant on the album cover, as his three wives, the dancer Francis Davis, singer Betty Mabry, and actress Cicely Tyson, would be on future covers.)

Miles could do melancholia, that much was known, and he could do noir. He had read the script, inquired still more about the characters, watched scenes, and composed musical sketches. They recorded at night; Jeanne Moreau was at the session. It was done in four hours.

Film critics, like jazz critics, seldom agree (and know all). In 1971, Pauline Kael called L’Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud an “ingenious, slippery thriller, with a Miles Davis score.” She called Malle a “superb director” and writes about his “restless intelligence.” “It must be this very quality that has led Malle to try such different subject and styles…a director who is impatient and dissatisfied.” (She might have been describing Miles Davis.)

David Thomson has written that “Malle seems like a minor figure with pretensions of mastery” and writes that L’Ascenseur is “a good thriller, though without the moral undertones of [Claude] Chabrol’s films, that wore its Miles Davis score rather modishly.”

Kael, and less so Thomson, are, like Miles, worshipped figures, sometimes to a fault. With respect to them both, maybe the egalitarian Time Out Film Guide says it better: L’Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud is “a classy thriller” with an “ingenious plot….but the cement holding the film together is really the splendid jazz score improvised by Miles Davis.” 


His very last recording was just across the border from France, in Montreux, Switzerland, 1991. It was a large ensemble; Quincy conducted. They played the old stuff. People cheered. Miles passed away three months later. How is it? I can’t tell you; I never listened to it and doubt I ever will. I can’t. Sorry. For me, Miles lives.


Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker and The Soccer Diaries.

LARB Contributor

Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City and The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game.


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