Between my freshman and sophomore years at college, I expanded my interests in music. A little pocket change from a summer job helped the
effort. I bought many records. On one foray into New York City, I came home with the usual fistful of essential Rock albums, as well as Deutsche Grammophon recordings of
Beethoven’s 7th symphony, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” But the “new” music that
interested me most was Jazz. And the summer job paid for a few concert tickets, including a performance by a legend.
I first heard Miles Davis when I saw him play at Avery Fisher Hall on a June night in 1986. I know: I’m spoiled. But that’s how
new I was to the genre. Sure, I recognized some of the most notable names–Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman–but Jazz was wide-open to me.
The journey of a thousand listenings begins with a single play.
Davis sauntered onto stage in a neon green suit brandishing a fire engine red trumpet. And for the first three songs, he played with his
back to the crowd. Since I hardly knew anything about the man and his music, I had to formulate my own meaning for such unusual stage manners. I remembered my father telling me
that when he attended Mass as a kid, the priest conducted the whole thing facing the altar. So I thought: “Ah, I get it, Miles is the high priest of Jazz.”
I didn’t really get it, but that was my take.
If I had been familiar with even a few of the many great songs of Miles Davis I wouldn’t have heard any. Unbeknownst to me at the
time, Davis had long refused to play any of his old stuff. Still, in a nine-song set, I recognized two numbers: “Human Nature” from Michael Jackson’s
magnificent album Thriller (only four years old at that point) and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
Davis relaxedly strolled around the stage, a comportment in keeping with the easy, almost languid elegance of his trumpet style. At one
point he actually disappeared behind a stack of amplifiers, all the while playing those muted notes on his crimson horn.
While the image of Davis in his visible-from-space-green suit has proven indelible, musically the concert acted only as a seed for future
explorations. Four years later, I bought my first Miles Davis record, an original, sealed copy of Walkin’ on the Prestige Records label.
Once again, I got lucky.
Walkin’ was released in June 1957, but the sessions were recorded in 1954. From the moment I first slipped the pristine vinyl from its sleeve and queued it up on the turntable, I was hooked. The infectious title track is finger-snappin’ cool with a beat perfectly timed to its proposed swagger. It remains one of my favorite Jazz numbers by Davis or anyone else.
Years later, I acquired John Coltrane’s Blue Train album and immediately noticed the similarities in melody, as well as the identical recording ambience–that big concert hall airiness–between its title track and the title track of Walkin’.
Coltrane recorded Blue Train, his second solo album, for Blue Note Records in mid-September 1957, just a few months after Walkin’ had hit the streets. Undoubtedly, Davis influenced Coltrane, but both albums serve as paragons of the Hard Bop style.
* * * * *
One of my soundtracks of winter is Kind of Blue, the album generally regarded as the masterpiece of Miles Davis if not the greatest Jazz album ever. I can listen to that record all year round (and do), but, with the exception of “Freddie Freeloader,” I find four of its five songs best suited to the sensibilities and sensations of winter.
As I look out my kitchen window on a bright, cold day, “All Blues” seems to counsel supreme patience–the slow drip of an
icicle melting, the bare trees biding their time, a squirrel hunkered down against the wind. “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches” make me appreciate
the coziness of home, warmth, good food, a steaming mug of cocoa or a glass of equally warming red wine. “So What” breaks me out of my light-deprived January funk
and tells me: “Get going, my man, continue to push.”
Released on August 17, 1959 on Columbia Records, Kind of Blue certainly sits at the top of the stack in terms of sales and influence.
The critic Robert Palmer begins his liner notes for the 1997 CD issue of Kind of Blue by relating a story about Duane Allman, the legendary guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band. Talking backstage with Allman at the Fillmore East one night in 1969, Palmer asked him how he had learned to generate his mesmerizing guitar solos, often based around a single chord. Allman responded:
“You know,” he told me one night after soaring for hours on lyrical song, “that kind of playing comes from Miles and
Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything
To hear an uncanny proof of the influence of Kind of Blue on Duane Allman, listen to the 1971 performance of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” on At Fillmore East,
one of the very best live albums by any Rock band. Aside from being an instrumental, the song begins with and maintains the same sine curve theme as Davis’ “All
Blues”; the Allmans use Hammond organ, Davis deploys alto and tenor sax, then switches to piano. Over hypnotically captivating tick-tocks, the soloists in both
songs–guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the former, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley in the latter–float, fly, and
“soar,” as Palmer rightly put it.
Like Duane Allman, I’ve obsessively listened to Kind of Blue and Walkin’ because that’s just what those albums make you do. For me, the journey of a thousand listenings began with a single, lucky concert. I couldn’t have known at the time that the man with the red trumpet somewhere behind the amps would provide essential songs of the rest of my life.