Ashley Kahn: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece

Lazaro Vega By

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One of my favorite images in the book is that close up of Bill Evans's note to Cannonball Adderley on 'Flamenco Sketches' where he doesn't write 'play the scales, play the notes in the scale' he says, 'Play in the sound of the scale.'
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in November 2000 and is part of our ongoing effort to archive pre-database material.

Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece 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 and Milestones 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 do—and 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 recorded—was 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.

AAJ: It does. There are many sides to it. And that moment you talked about on "So What" when Jimmy Cobb hits that cymbal... I always thought that was a sizzle cymbal he hit, the cymbal with the rivets in it so when it's struck it has that long beautiful delayed fade-out as the band comes in underneath.

That is one of the most dramatic moments on the record, but it is so subtle.

AK: I would venture to say it's one of the most dramatic moments in jazz, period. On "So What," just as Miles starts his solo. It's the equivalent of Steve McQueen in "Bullet" clicking his safety belt, his seat belt, and you know this incredible chase scene is just about to start. Or in a movie theater when the lights go out. That magic moment is worth the whole price of admission, just there. Just for that.

Thankfully Jimmy Cobb is around to speak about that. And of course he is so incredibly humble about it. He said, "Well, we just made a nice jazz record." It's like Herbie Hancock says in the book, it really makes the whole album when that cymbal shot happens.

AAJ: Jimmy Cobb hooked up with the Yamaha Corporation of America, Band and Orchestral Division, here in Grand Rapids when he came through in the 1990's with the Nat Adderley band.

AK: Any type of support, corporate or otherwise, for these musicians who are out there still doing it (is good). Jimmy Cobb, of course, is part of this landmark masterpiece, but he still has to go out there and gig to put food on the table. So that's great to hear Yamaha sees the value in putting their name behind Jimmy.

AAJ: The other thing I wanted to let you know about was that when this Columbia box set came out with the complete Miles Davis and John Coltrane, including Kind of Blue, the Wallace Roney band was in Grand Rapids for a public concert and a private party the next night at a person's house.

Before the party they were relaxing in the basement listening to music on the stereo. Lenny White, Geri Allen, Charles Fambrough, Wallace Roney and a tenor player named Steve Hall. Those folks are in this basement library listening to "So What" and Lennie White is sitting on the arm of a stuffed leather chair acting like he's holding a tenor saxophone up to play, singing John Coltrane's solo. Everybody is giving skin and high fives after certain phrases. They were having a blast.

AK: Well, I'm telling you. The way that people quote Bible verse for verse, it's no kidding that for jazz musicians Kind of Blue is the Bible. And they can sing every solo. That is the primer for every jazz musician, and still is 41 years later. I challenge anyone to find another album that has that effect 41 years later.

AAJ: One of the things I really enjoyed in your book was the George Russell

thread. George Russell is recognized as a theorist and an intriguing recording artist who was there with Dizzy on Cubano Be Cubano Bop, dealing with Lydian concepts and the formal aspect of modality, theorizing on that and putting it down on paper. He is very influential and maybe not a lot of people realize that.

AK: He was also the lynchpin between Bill Evans and Miles Davis. Kind of Blue really is, also, the Valentine that came out of the very short period, only eight months, when Bill Evans and Miles Davis were working together.
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