No amount of continuous repeats in coffeeshops around the world can dull the crystalline brilliance of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue one bit. The album turned 60 three days ago, and it still stands as one of the most influential albums, jazz or otherwise, of all time… indeed, as “one of the single greatest achievements in American music.”
So says one of several critics praising the album in the introduction to an interview with Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Kind of Blue is a “cornerstone record, not only for jazz. It's a cornerstone record for music,” says another critic. It “captures the essence of jazz.” It’s “sort of like the Bible, in a way. You know, you just have one in your house.”
This would make Davis not only the composer of a new jazz Bible, but also a Bible salesman. He had no doubt his product would sell. “Davis was a canny money man and promoter of his own image,” wrote David Yearsley on the album’s anniversary. One 1960 record company memo stated he “’was primarily concerned with the amount of jazz now on jukeboxes in many areas of the country while he is not represented.’”
Columbia responded, and as a result, many people around the U.S. “first heard this music in diners and bars over the jukebox.” The creative tensions in the Birth of the Cool recordings, made ten years earlier, announced a new kind of jazz with their full release in 1957. The cool had matured in Kind of Blue’s fully modal turn. “Its icy hauteur sets the standard for art that draws you in by pretending it doesn’t need anyone or anything but itself.” It’s quite an appeal.
Sales are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a classic album, but in the case of Kind of Blue, all of the stars aligned: critics universally praise it, musicians universally love it, and record buyers universally buy it. “The thing about this album,” says Kahn, “that’s different from what happened with some other well-celebrated albums... is that it became an iconic album not when it came out but long after because people kept buying it. People would not let it go out of print.”
Davis knew how to get his work before the public, but he also knew it deserved to be heard by millions both inside and outside jazz. Beloved in the jazz world right away, it was the “vox populi” that spread the album’s fame everywhere else. Drummer Jimmy Cobb talks in the clip above about how Davis “fell a little bit into [the] concept” of Bill Evans, the pianist who played a significant role in the music’s construction. “To me,” says Cobb, the gig was “just another Miles Davis session,” with an Evans twist.
None of the musicians in the sextet had any idea the record would get as big as it did. Yet as Davis himself said, in a classic line from an earlier recording session, “I’m gonna play it first, and tell you what it is later.” We look back on 1959 as a watershed year in jazz, thanks in large part to the impact of Kind of Blue. Maybe we still haven't figured out, 60 years later, what it is. Learn more about the critical, musical, and commercial importance of Kind of Blue in the Polyphonic video explainer above, “How Miles Davis Changed Jazz.”