Interview by Gavin J. Grant
Since Miles Davis' album KIND OF BLUE came out, more than forty years ago, it has found an eclectic and appreciative audience. From Japanese funk bands (Super Butter Dog) to modern jazz critics and musicians (Ben Sidran, Herbie Hancock) KIND OF BLUE appeals to one and all.
Freelance music journalist and producer Ashley Kahn wanted to know more. He investigated everything about the album, tracked down the one surviving member of the 1959 recording sessions, and put it all into Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.
BookSense.com: KIND OF BLUE is a seminal album in jazz and pop history. Have there been many books written about it?
Ashley Kahn: No -- this is the first. There have been many Miles Davis biographies that touch upon the album -- perhaps Jack Chambers' and Ian Carr's approach it in the most informed way. Bill Cole is strangely dismissive. Miles himself in his autobiography grants proper credit to Bill Evans' input then describes the album as a "failed" experiment. But my book -- which shares the title of KIND OF BLUE -- is the first full-fledged attempt to explain the magic and mystery of this enduring recording. In fact, it's the only book I know of that attempts to focus on any jazz album.
When you were researching Kind of Blue what were you listening to (besides KIND OF BLUE)?
Obviously other Miles recordings: his incomparable Prestige albums with his first great Quintet (Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Jones); his Gil Evans collaborations (Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain); plus albums by the KIND OF BLUE sidemen (Evans, Coltrane and Adderley especially).
At other times, when writing freely, I'd simply load the CD changer -- say two jazz albums, one blues, one reggae and one rock -- and hit the random button.
Did writing this book change the way you listen to KIND OF BLUE?
Well, I certainly had to focus and pay attention like never before . . . at times I listened to certain passages or solos over and over again. In doing so, I found that the most subtle, minimalist music on the album came forward and eventually won me over. As such, I've come to appreciate "Blue in Green" and of course "Flamenco Sketches" so much more than before.
Did the freeform manner in which KIND OF BLUE was played influence the way you wrote?
Hmmmm. I'm no Jack Kerouac, who found his muse and typing accompaniment in furious bebop runs! I regret to say that I continue to rely on punctuation and paragraphs for my writing structure. But I did approach the book in a number of ways and actually began writing it from the inside out. That is, I began with the take-by-take description of the sessions themselves, then decided what should come before and after, finally arriving at a sort of hourglass shape the book now has. Was my writing "influenced" in any way by say, the modal jazz solos on KIND OF BLUE? Not really, but it was certainly inspired by Miles and his music!
What was the best thing that happened to you while researching and writing this book?
I'd say the best thing, or things, were those "eureka" moments when I discovered something I knew had never before been heard or seen.
One would have to be finding Bill Evans's original handwritten liner notes for the album, which turn out to be reproduced almost word for word on KIND OF BLUE.
Another was finding a never-before-published photo taken by the session engineer Fred Plaut. It's the five-scale structure of "Flamenco Sketches" written by Bill Evans for the alto sax player Cannonball Adderley. On it, Evans wrote "play in the sound of the scales" -- underlying the word "sound," emphasizing that Cannonball did not have to stay strictly within the notes of the scales -- which is an accurate description of this new "modal jazz" style they were exploring at that point.
But easily my favorite moment was when I was granted access to the master session tapes, and watched the reddish-brown tape as it tracked across the playback heads and I heard EXACTLY what had occurred in that studio back in 1959. The chatter, false starts and final takes revealed: Miles' cool and confident good nature (yes, he was very relaxed and light during the recording process,) Coltrane's silence (he never said a word, only played,) Cannonball's ebullience and jokes (adding a pun that breaks the somber spell of the music) and even Evans taking charge (such as when "Blue in Green" was pulled together).
Did you ever meet Miles Davis?
Once for approximately 21 or 23 seconds, in the late '80s, in a dimly lit, backstage kind of moment, I rapidly expressed to a passing Miles how much his music had meant to me and reached to shake his hand. He looked at me, took my hand and shook it. Then he moved on.
What was it like to talk to Jimmy Cobb about the KIND OF BLUE sessions?
Great -- we've spoken now over a dozen times, sometimes for hours -- with the tape recorder running and sometimes NOT running. Other times, we've talked just for a minute so I could confirm this fact or that. He's an incredibly modest and unassuming man, who feels that he participated in a good session -- and was extremely lucky to be part of Miles' group -- but had no idea or self-awareness that he was involved in making timeless music those two days in '59. To him, it was just another day in the office.
But as the sole surviving member of that sextet, he understands its popularity and influence, and graciously accepts his role as KIND OF BLUE spokesman. A true gentleman.
What has the reaction to the book been? It has been getting great reviews in the mainstream, how about in the jazz, music history, and black communities?
The reaction -- I am happy and proud to say -- has been universally positive. What I am most inspired to read reviews that say I've managed to make my text accessible to both jazz enthusiasts and the general public alike (explaining modal jazz can be a bitch!) and that my own passion for the album and Miles comes through. I've been doing a fair number of radio interviews with jazz and African American stations alike, and all seem very interested in speaking of every aspect of the research and history, the man and the music. It's all very encouraging.
When it comes to listeners KIND OF BLUE seems to cross all the lines. What is it about this album that appeals to everyone?
There is just something about the melancholy atmosphere, the bluesy feel and almost classical pensiveness on KIND OF BLUE that defies categories. Punk rockers and classical buffs embrace it. Hip-hoppers and club kids swear by it. KIND OF BLUE keeps adding to its fan base and mystique, through a word-of-mouth, grass-roots manner.
Why so enduring, why so universally popular? There's the question -- and the real motivation for my writing the book. After the many reasons put forward to explain the enduring appeal and singular qualities of KIND OF BLUE -- the incredible talent assembled in Miles' sextet-plus-one; the freshness and delight in their new modal jazz approach; the classical and folk music referenced by Davis and Evans in the compositions; the nature of the wooden interior of the high-ceilinged studio -- do any or all of these explanations really answer the "why" of KIND OF BLUE? I must admit that even after all the discoveries and research -- and I truly believe that information can help add to the enjoyment of music -- there is something about Kind of Blue that defies explanation. A large part of the album's magic and mystery will forever be approachable only through listening and feeling.
Kind of Blue was a BookSense 76 pick* in September/October 2000, a list made up of nominations from over a thousand independent book shops across the country. Have you noticed any effect from this?
Selling books -- as I'm sure you know -- seems like slow motion next to the weekly music pop charts, or which film is number one at the box office. Book sales figures come in semi-annually at best. So I can only speak from my own experience: St. Marks Bookstore here in Manhattan has almost sold out of its original 12 copies, and presented it in their window display the day it came out. Viva Les Independents!
You mention in the book finding the record in your father's record collection. Was your family musical? Were all kinds of music available to you?
I come from a family of music appreciators more than anything else. Other than KIND OF BLUE, I recall a number of "modern" jazz collections -- bebop and hardbop -- in my father's LP rack, along with South African music like Miriam Makeba (my father's from there,) and a classical disc or two. My own musical education though was pretty much self-propelled. Once I discovered a used record store called Mole's in the university section of Cincinnati (the local head shop was next door,) I hit vinyl nirvana: I remember one Saturday's haul included the Stones' HOT ROCKS best-of collection, a live Marvin Gaye album, Hound Dog Taylor's first LP and Coltrane's A LOVE SUPREME.
How different from your life as a writer for magazines was working on this book?
Only extremely. A freelance writer sits and pitches stories and sits and hustles interviews and follows up on the pitches and sits and pitches reviews and sits and . . . you get the idea. Working on a magazine staff, as I also have done, you're still hustling and pitching, but the phone won't stop ringing (damn freelancers!).
To be able to focus solely on one project, and research it at length and interview a number of individuals on one subject? And the subject
is Miles Davis's KIND OF BLUE? That was a relative and refreshing joy.
Are you a musician? And to what level?
I'm one of those stay-at-home guitarists playing to an audience of one, fingerpicking and working out chords while listening to my heroes. Can't read music but give me an uncomplicated melody line or set of chords -- particularly the blues -- and I'll follow.
Do you have another book planned?
Yes. One's a jazz biography (or autobio) but I can't say more . . . and the other will hopefully be the entire history of a record company. Sorry to be cryptic -- just want my agent to seal the deal first!
What other books do you recommend for jazz or music fans?
Here were my faves from this particular project: Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: The Man and his Music, Nat Hentoff's The Jazz Life, Martin Williams's The Jazz Tradition, Howard Mandel's Future Jazz, Peter Pettinger's bio on Bill Evans, How My Heart Sings, The collection of essays and reviews called The Miles Davis Companion. And of course, Miles' autobiography, Miles . . . a classic.
Ashley Kahn has been Music Editor at VH1 and was the primary editor of Rolling Stone: The Seventies. He has contributed to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Mojo, and lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
*A September/October 2000 BookSense 76 pick
"There's plenty of detail here to please any jazz purist yet it is accessible and entertaining for the average fan. Peppered with quotes from those involved and other musical luminaries, Kahn takes us through every step of Kind of Blue's recording and its impact on the jazz world. Utilizing unedited transcriptions of the master-session tapes and many unpublished photographs, Kahn lets us witness the genius of creation. With album sales still going strong, we all know someone who deserves this book."
-Ken Pawlina, Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY
Author image based on an original photograph by Jack Vartoogian.