This interview was first published at All About Jazz in November 2000 and is part of our ongoing effort to archive pre-database material.
Ashley Kahn, the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
(Da Capo Press, 224 pgs.), is Music Editor at VH1, and was the primary editor of Rolling Stone: The Seventies
as well as the primary contributor to Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide
. He has contributed articles to The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Mojo, and lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The forward to Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
is by Jimmy Cobb
. Kahn spoke from his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Portions of this interview were broadcast along with music from Miles Davis's recordings Kind of Blue
over Blue Lake Public Radio's "Jazz a la Carte" with Lazaro Vega on October 28, 2000. All About Jazz
: After reading Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
one of the things I came away with was that this is a great compendium of information gleaned from Jack Chamber's books, Milestones 1 & 2,
Ian Carr's biography and Miles's autobiography with Quincy Troupe. What you've done is telescoped much of the information from those sources into 180 pages plus footnotes and index. For people who haven't gone to the lengths of research on Miles as you have, obviously, and others have as well, you've provided a primer on his career that maybe they wouldn't have had so easily before. Ashley Kahn:
If I might comment on that, I agree with that to a certain degree. However, there's a lot of primary source material in my book, too. I not only wanted to rely on the excellent job, of course, that Jack Chambers, Ian Carr, etc., have done in the past, but also to try and do something that I think biographies, when they give you this deluge of information, sometimes miss. And that's a flavor and the personality of not just the person but of the time. So what I attempted to doand in the end spoke with about 50 different people, musicians, producers, and witnesses of that time in the late fifties when Kind of Blue
was recordedwas to try and use Kind of Blue
as a window back on to 1959. What was happening with jazz? What was happening to music in general? Where was Miles? Where was his head? Where was his reputation at that time? To try and basically give you the zeitgeist of what 1959 was like. AAJ:
Yes. I didn't get a chance to add that the original interviews you did are fantastic. I really enjoyed reading Jimmy Cobb's comments, and the statements of the engineers you were able to dig up, and also the Pop musicians, Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, and jazz musician Warren Bernhardt
from Chicago. AK:
Yes! Well, Kind of Blue
is one of those rare jazz albums that totally defy its category. It says, 'No, I'm not just a jazz album; I'm a music album.' And it shows both in the musicians and the music makers who have totally embraced this album and allowed it to influence their own sound, and also the music buying public out there. You do not have to be a jazz fan; you do not have to be a knowledgeable jazz expert to enter into this world that Kind of Blue
presents. That's one of the whole reasons for doing the book. AAJ:
The book will appeal as well to a wide variety of readers because of that, and because you did dip into the popular music world, the world of studio technology, the world of record-label politics. There are many different strains going on. AK:
In a lot of jazz books, unfortunately, you either get a really dry academic tone, or you get the usual hit after hit sort of approach to the biography time-line. So you don't get a feel for whether he's going up hill here, is he at the top of the hill? Or is this just another moment in his career?
What I really wanted to do was get a feel for the fact that Kind of Blue
is a real pinnacle, an incredible creative statement, and a risk-taking by Miles. (It's) A turning the corner where by 1959 he was a very established artist, he could have just rested on his laurels as many jazz artists whose music I know and love very much have done in the past, and have total respect of their peers and of the jazz world in general. Miles defied that.
Miles wanted to attempt something new. And the first time he really did that, and went into the studio and said, 'No, I'm not going to do something like I've done before, I'm going to try a new style of music, I'm going to create and compose it as much in the studio as I have done beforehand, and take that chance' that is Kind of Blue
and that's what Kind of Blue
was. It set the pattern for the way he would approach music making, especially in the studio, for the rest of his career. AAJ:
Herbie Hancock makes that clear in the interview segments that you used, and I think anyone who's followed his discography would see that change as well, that it was a defining moment for him. As it was a defining moment in music as you talked about how different artists in jazz were restless with the recurring cycle of chords and wanted to break out of the pop song structure. AK:
Exactly. How many times can you do Cole Porter or Gershwin numbers, which are fantastic numbers to do anyway? But there is a point where jazz musicians wanted to break out and do their own music. I should add, however, that we're talking about Kind of Blue
as a career watershed: in addition it's an unbelievable musical statement. Again, you do not have to have jazz knowledge. You don't even have to know any of the jazz lore or the history of Miles Davis's career to totally embrace and totally dive-in to the music itself. AAJ:
It's very accessible because of its mood. I remember a couple of stories. At the opening of the book you were saying everybody has story about Kind of Blue. AK:
(Laughing). It's unbelievable. Everybody really does. AAJ:
Years ago I laid a copy of this on a woman who was living in a small town here in Michigan that I really liked. She was an earth-mother type, a graduate of Michigan State's horticulture program who had her own garden service. She was a striking Swedish woman. She knew I was on the radio doing jazz, so I thought I'd give her an LP copy of Kind of Blue
to impress her. She responded, "This is bachelor-pad music." That was her summation of the whole record. I couldn't get past it. AK:
(Laughing). That's so funny. One of my favorite quotes in the book, and there are so many to choose from and there is only so much room in a book to put them in, but is from a very established jazz critic whose approach was always dry and academic but who always hit the mark. I really love his writing. But it defines a certain style. You really do have to be part of the jazz cognoscenti, or at least have one foot moving in that direction to appreciate his writing. He says exactly that. He says the trick to Kind of Blue
and Miles at that period, in the late fifties and the music he was making, is that at low volume it's unbelievable audio wall paper. It's so sophisticated it's perfect party music, or bachelor-pad music as your friend said. But turn it up and you get great art. For those who are willing to do focused listening on the album, it serves both purposes.