On Aug. 17, 1949 celebrated jazz trumpeter and band leader, Miles Davis (1926-1991), released his studio album Kind of Blue on Columbia Records. A compilation of recording sessions that took place at Columbia’s Thirtieth Street Studio in New York City earlier that year, the masterful musical collection went on to become Davis’ best-selling album. Certified quadruple platinum in sales in 2008, Kind of Blue is considered by many critics to be the best selling jazz recording of all time.
Featured artists in Davis's illustrious sextet included pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and "Cannonball" Adderley. Evans commented in the original liner notes for the album that the ensemble did not play through any of these pieces prior to recording. Davis simply laid out the themes before the tape rolled, and then the band improvised, which is one of the distinctive features of jazz.
In his review of Kind of Blue, Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes that the recording is “generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. . . . It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz—tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality.” Erlewine concludes his review by stating, “It may be a stretch to say that if you don’t like Kind of Blue, you don’t like jazz—but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.”
Fred Kaplan, author of 1959: The Year that Changed Everything, explains why the best-selling jazz album of all time is so great and shares how its particular form of jazz came about. He points out that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, “Bird” and “Diz,” as they were affectionately called, helped launch the jazz revolution of the 1940s called Bebop. With the death of Bird, the jazz world was looking for a replacement and a means of going beyond the limitation of bebop.
In the 1950s George Russell, composer and scholar, devised a new theory of jazz improvisation, based not on chord changes but on scales or "modes." Russell explained the theory to Davis, showing how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited possibilities. Kaplan describes Davis’s encounter with Russell’s theory: “Miles realized it was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac.” The resultant music was called "modal" jazz, brilliantly displayed in Kind of Blue.
The influence of Davis’s music can be noted in jazz, rock, and classical music, leading critics to acknowledge it as one of the most influential albums ever made. In 2002, the Library of Congress listed the album as one of fifty recordings added to the National Recording Registry. It was ranked number 12 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003. Fifty-five years after its release, Kind of Blue, is still being widely played around the world, described by Kaplan as “. . . a nearly unique thing in music or any other creative realm: a huge hit—the best-selling jazz album of all time— and the spearhead of an artistic revolution.”
Take a look at the accompanying slide show of some of the highlights from the life of the legendary trumpeter and band leader.