If you have a Spotify account you can listen to Kind of Blue while you read my review. Visit this link and it will launch Spotify and play the album. If you don’t have Spotify, request a free account here. Having at least the free Spotify account means you can always try a new album when your friends rave about a new album discover. Kind of Blue was first released in 1959. I’ve included YouTube versions of its five songs below.
I am becoming more and more fascinated and entertained by history – but not the history they teach in school, but the everyday history of people, inventions and art. We take every new thing for granted, as if it sprung fully formed new on the scene. Take the hit gadget of the moment, the iPad. It was far from the first tablet computer, and the concept goes back to at least to the Dynabook imagined by Alan Kay in 1968. Nor could the tablet computer exist without the integrated circuit which was patented in 1959 by Jack Kilby, hence the connection to the book I want to talk about, 1959 by Fred Kaplan.
In 1959 Kaplan writes several related essays about how 1959 was a pivotal year for all of us who have been living since. Essentially, you can do this for any year, but Kaplan makes a good case for 1959. Whether it’s birth control, jazz, Fidel Castro, atomic warfare, Beat writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, Motown, integrated circuits, Malcolm X, Vietnam, Grove Press, or any of the other happening events of 1959, they all impact on us today. Everything evolves, and everything trails a history, and the past gives birth to the now.
Never heard of Grove Press? Well, it took on U.S. censorship and since then we’ve had sex and dirty words in books and movies. Now you might not think that’s a good thing, but it is a pivotal change in society. What Kaplan is getting at is you could experience pop culture before 1959 it would be much different from anything you know now. Not unknown, because everything before is still around, but it would be missing a lot of stuff that’s come out since.
This is hard to explain. I lived before cell phones were invented, in any form. People who grew up with cell phones can’t imagine what life was like without them. What Kaplan is trying to explain in a series of essays is what life was like before 1959, and what came out that year that has changed everything since.
One of the essays that really stood out for me was the one on Miles Davis and his sextet recording Kind of Blue. It’s easy to understand the impact of technology. Kaplan writes about the invention of the integrated circuit and we’ve been living with the technology it generated ever since, from computers to high definition TVs. That’s obvious. But can you understand the impact of a kind of “new technology” in music? I struggle for that, but it’s pretty obvious if you spend time listening to Kind of Blue. Most young people today will not understand the roots of their favorite music, but their favorite musicians who create the music will.
I find it tremendous fun to time travel via pop culture. For most of us baby boomers, we were kids in the 1950s, and our memories of the times are fleeting and tainted by TV. It’s easier to remember Leave It To Beaver than the politics of Dwight Eisenhower. I was born in 1951, so I lived through most of the decade, but I have few memories of it. I do remember the 1960s vividly, but putting the puzzle pieces of the 1950s together makes the 1960s make more sense.
Kind of Blue is a transition marker in the art of music. If you like to play the six degrees of separation game, it will link you to many cool people. It’s both a tipping point and a crossroads. You can listen to the music, but it’s also fun to read about its history.
Kind of Blue is considered to be one of the best jazz albums of all time, and the best selling jazz album. A 2001 NPR report claims it sells 5,000 copies every week. There are no words to describe how beautiful this album is, that’s why I provide the link to Spotify above. The album has a fascinating history that you can read at Wikipedia or listen to on this NPR documentary – I won’t try to rephrase that history since these sources do it so well.
As I read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a columnist for Slate magazine and also columnist on jazz at Stereophile magazine, I realized the Kaplan had a gift for music history. I thought the chapter on Kind of Blue in 1959 was full of wonderful historical details and the his descriptions of music are very precise and vivid. It’s very hard to describe music in words. Check out Kaplan’s video introduction to the book in this video clip at Amazon. It opens with music from Kind of Blue, Kaplan will give you a better idea of his enthusiasm for writing about 1959.
I turned eight in 1959, and I was living in New Jersey, out in the country, where I was oblivious to the world at large. I’m not sure we even had a TV set at the time. Kaplan covers a quirky view of 1959, but one I can identify with because all the topics later impacted my life. I didn’t discover Kind of Blue until the late 1980s. I was reading Kerouac and Ginsberg in the late 1960s. Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, and I spent most of my youth growing up in Miami living with the results, so I’m like one degree away from that chapter, plus I spent the 1960s loving hits from Motown which was started in 1959. I never knew I had so many connections to 1959 until I read this book.
Kaplan is right about 1959, people and inventions from 1959 have slowly weaved themselves into the fabric of my life over the last 52 years. I wished I had been given a record player and the LP of Kind of Blue when I was 8, because I grew up with AM rock n roll and that has shaped the musical tastes of my lifetime. I wonder if I was exposed to jazz at 8 if I would have been a different person. For the most part I don’t even like jazz, but I love Kind of Blue, and Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, another masterpiece of jazz from 1959.
I have been able to travel back in time to enjoy the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, and through the swing era of the 1940s. Then came Bebop, which was beginning of modern jazz and although I can admire it intellectually, I don’t feel it. I feel the same way about most classical music. Neither kind moves me emotionally.
Miles Davis worked with Charlie Parker, one of the pioneers of Bebop, and then Davis moved on to Hard Bop, which brought R&B, gospel and blues into jazz. I bought several Art Blakey and John Coltrane CDs in the 1980s trying to get into this era of jazz. Again, I could semi-enjoy this kind of jazz, but something was missing. Why?
Why was Jack Kerouac and his Beat buddies so blown about by jazz of the 1940s and 1950s? It drove them insane with excitement, but it’s all too cool emotionally for me. Then comes 1959 and Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck produce two albums that turn me on, but also turn on a zillion other people to jazz again. When I read Kaplan’s chapter on Miles Davis I wanted to go back and try to get into those jazz years I can’t connect with. My friend Mike who got into jazz about the same time as I did broke the barrier and left me behind.
For those of you who didn’t take the time to join Spotify, here’s “So What” the first cut off of Kind of Blue. It really helps to have good speakers to enjoy the textured loveliness of these tunes.
Maybe the reason why I dig this new direction in jazz is because it jettisons so much of the old forms of jazz. Miles Davis and Bill Evans prepared very little in the way of musical notation for the musicians to follow. Fred Kaplan explains what they are doing in words, but these seven musicians are improvising from very little structure, mainly just the mood of the piano. I wish I understood music to know what they are doing, but I don’t.
All I know is this music lights up my mind. I highly recommend getting a copy of Kind of Blue and play it when you are ready to just relax and listen. Let your mind go with the music. It’s very different, yet this album has influenced many artists since. I really got into The Allman Brothers in 1969, and even got to see them before Duane was killed. Duane Allman loved Kind of Blue and claims it influenced his music. In can feel “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” in “Freddie Freeloader” which you can play here:
“Blue in Green” is so moody that it feels more like a soundtrack for a story, or music for a modern dance piece. This third track was the final song recorded in the March 2, 1959 session. Give it a listen:
The final two cuts were performed on April 22, 1959.
“All Blues,” the first cut on the back side of the LP, picks up the tempo and is the longest cut on the the album (11:31), and my favorite, but sadly it’s cut short here on YouTube because of the 10 minute limit.
The last track, “Flamenco Sketches.” This is so far from modern pop music that I’m not sure if young people will be able to get into this kind of music at all. I think one reason why I love this Miles Davis over his earlier work is because the music is slower. I couldn’t handle the frantic tempo of Bebop, nor did I relate to the old tunes being blended into Hard Bop. This music is as modern as NASA, the agency that was created just a year before in 1958. This music is light-years away from the teen idols I was hearing on the radio at the time.
Is this really the sound of 1959? The music of bomb shelters and revolutions in Cuba? It certainly sounds like music for books by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, but how many regular Americans listened to this album? I’m sure its as esoteric as Zen Buddhists to mainstream America, yet it was significant to our culture.
Us baby boomers can’t let go of the 1950s. Look at TV shows like Mad Men, that started with 1950s ad men confronting the beginning of the 1960s or the film The Tree of Life, which tries to put the 1950s in context of the whole history of the universe. Or read a book like The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which is a nostalgic memoir of the times by Bill Bryson.
I wonder what people from generations after us baby boomers think of the 1950s. It must be as alien as the 1920s are to me, the decade my parents were children, or the 1930s, the decade they were teens.
Kind of Blue was a musical experiment. A few other albums after it pursued the same techniques, but as far as I know, it’s a dead end for a trend, yet fleeting pieces of its sound show up in music all the time. Modern pop music is almost a rigid formula – I almost ache to hear something new and different. What musical experiments are going on now in 2011 that will be written about in the 2060s?
JWH – 7/30/11