Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue broke new ground in the world of jazz in a year that saw an unusual number of groundbreaking jazz releases, 1959.
Following up his experiments on 1958’s Milestones, Davis’ move from bop to modal jazz improvisational techniques shifted the terms of the genre, and, as many critics have argued since, the terms of Western music, popular and classical.
Released in August of ’59, Kind of Blue was recorded in New York by Davis’ famous sextet in March and April of that year, and before listeners had a chance to hear the record, those few people lucky enough to be in attendance at the April performance above - at CBS’s Studio 61 - got a chance to hear what Davis was up to.
Doubtless those lucky attendees were few indeed, but one of them, producer and presenter Robert Herridge showcased the performance for a July, 1960 broadcast of his show The Robert Herridge Theater.
The Davis sextet play a few versions of “So What” from Kind of Blue, previewing the album Quincy Jones would call his “orange juice” for its daily jolt of inspiration.
The remainder of the performance consists of compositions by Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, and Ahmad Jamal. See the full track list below.
1 So What
2 Introduction (Robert Herridge)
3 The Duke (D. Brubeck)
4 Blues for Pablo (G. Evans)
5 New Rhumba (A. Jamal)
6 Announcement (Robert Herridge)
7 So What (reprise)
8 So What (reprise)
9 Orchestral fragment
The style of “So What” and the other compositions from Kind of Blue have been credited with creating, in Chick Corea’s words, “a new language of music.”
But Davis cannot take all of the credit. He must share it with pianist and educator George Russell who published a theoretical account of a new way of improvising in 1953 called Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.
Davis was greatly influenced by Russell’s theories and found in them a way out of the manic style of bop that had begun to tire him. Russell’s “modal” jazz moved away from basing jazz improvisation on chords and traditional major and minor scales. Though the theory was new, its basis, the Lydian mode, is as ancient as the Greeks.
In the video above, see Russell in an interview discussing his modal theory, which Ben Ratliff in Russell’s 2009 New York Times obit describes as “simple”:
[Russell] believed that a new generation of jazz improvisers deserved new harmonic techniques, and that traditional Western tonality was running its course. The Lydian chromatic concept - based on the Lydian mode, or scale, rather than the familiar do-re-mi major scale - was a way for musicians to improvise in any key, on any chord, without sacrificing the music’s blues roots.
Without Russell, we’d have no Kind of Blue, but it’s probably safe to say that without Davis’ brilliant appropriation of modal theory, Russell’s ideas may have faded into obscurity.
The collaboration between the humble theorist, the flamboyant composer and bandleader, and his tremendously talented 1959 ensemble produced one of the most enduring musical documents of all time, and in the archival footage above, we can see some of its critical pieces come together.