The album Kind of Blue, recorded March and April 1959 in New York City, is regarded as one of the finest jazz albums, ever. I first heard it in 1960, when I was fifteen. Each of the cuts was outstanding, but my favorite was “So What.” Like most teens, I certainly listened to pop songs of the time, but jazz had a much stronger hold on me. Being a reader of the newspaper I delivered each morning, I knew that jazz was being created against the background of the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks’ bus ride, the sit-ins, the riots in Birmingham were soon to come.
Miles Davis and the men he chose for this recording would become legends: Julian (Cannonball) Adderly, alto sax; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Wynton Kelly, piano (on one track); Bill Evans, piano (on the rest of the tracks); Paul Chambers, bass; and James Cobb on drums.
In the album’s liner notes, Bill Evans writes about how improvising jazz musicians had much in common with “… a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible.” Evans then describes how Miles conceived for the recording dates “frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary…The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exceptions the first complete performance of each was a ‘take’ …”
This extraordinary group of jazz musicians (African-Americans with the exception of Bill Evans) created beauty from the blues — certainly the case in the song “So What,” and that was an especially powerful experience for me at a difficult time of my life.
(Please open the audio file at the end of the poem to hear “jazz transformation” read aloud or try this link <wordsandfeathers.com> which will have this audio file along with audio files from some excellent poets.) Poetry is meant to be read aloud!)