Stanley Nelson’s ‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ soars
By Jim Bloch
Lauded as the greatest and best selling jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ turns 60 years young this year.
Miles was famous for his great small bands and the sextet behind ‘Blue’ was arguably his best, featuring Miles on trumpet, sax men John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Detroiter and bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Bill Evans.
The album contains five songs: “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader” and “Blue in Green” on Side One and “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” on Side Two.
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The band’s new piano player, Wynton Kelly, played on “Freddie the Freeloader.”
A great album is an audio body slam. It stuns you upon first hearing and you can’t help wondering: Why didn’t anybody tell me about this record?
“Kind of Blue” was not like that for me. I didn’t get the difference between the modal jazz of the album and the chord-based music of hard bop; it didn’t resonate with me. And five ballads in a row were five too many. Perhaps my affinity for funk or punk predisposed me to the weird time signatures on Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” or Thelonius Monk’s stabbing, clustered chords and dizzying spaces on “Thelonius Monk Orchestra at Town Hall,” both from 1959.
But the album burrowed its way into my soul. Miles uses his trumpet like a thick brush wielded by post expressionist painter Franz Kline to weave the five songs into a laid-back sonic whole.
“He disarms you,” says Carlos Santana in director Stanley Nelson’s sparkling new documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
The movie offers a roller-coasting tour through Davis’s long, innovative career. In the process, it grapples not only with Miles’s genius, but his abuse of the women closest to him and his battles with alcohol and heroin; in fact, Miles moved to Detroit for six months in 1953-54 for as a way to get clean, playing regularly at the Blue Bird Inn at 5021 Tireman.
“My mom and dad were jazz fans,” said Nelson, discussing the movie at the Detroit Film Theatre on Oct. 18. “‘Kind of Blue’ led me into jazz.”
At the time of this writing, the movie is showing at Cinema Detroit in Detroit. It is scheduled to air on American Masters on PBS in February.
“People who don’t even like jazz like that record,” says drummer Cobb in the film.
“It just is,” adds saxophone player Joshua Redman. “It changed the sound of jazz.”
The improvisational work of the band members on the record is unparalleled.
“Miles came in with little notes,” says Cobb.
“I didn’t write out the music for ‘Kind of Blue,’ but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity…” explains Miles, his words taken directly from his 1989 autobiography and spoken in the trumpeter’s signature raspiness in the documentary by actor Carl Lumley.
“Coltrane needed that approach to become himself,” Redman said.
The album was the fifth by Davis for Columbia Records, by far the dominant jazz label in the country. With Columbia’s promotional weight behind it, the album was the booster rocket that launched Davis into the stratosphere.
In his sunglasses, sleek suits and unsmiling exterior, Davis set the standard for hyper hipness, the new black superman.
Just after the release of “Kind of Blue,” a white New York City cop beat up Davis and arrested him in front of the legendary jazz club Birdland, with the name of the trumpeter emblazoned on the marquee overhead.
“That incident changed me forever,” Miles says in the movie.
One of the strengths of Nelson’s movie is its exploration of the great paradoxes that shaped Davis’s life and career.
Racism, for example, reinforces Davis’s chilly exterior.
“I was cold to everyone,” he says. “That’s how I protected myself.”
But his music gave him the ability and the outlet to express himself emotionally, perhaps never more melodically than on “Kind of Blue.”
Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.