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Davis classic 'Kind of Blue' still kicking at 50

Steve James | 10/8/2008, 5:26 a.m.
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis performs in concert in the old Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea, north of Tel Aviv, Israel, in this June 1, 1987 file photo. Fifty years after its release, Davis’ landmark record “Kind of Blue” still captivates listeners, inspires contemporary artists and maintains its status as one of the greatest albums of all time. AP

NEW YORK — As albums go, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” may not by the biggest seller of all time, but the legendary recording — which recently celebrated its 50th birthday — has influenced generations of  jazz and other musicians.

“Kind of Blue” has sold more than 3 million copies since its 1959 release and was named No. 12 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time in any genre, let alone jazz.

Davis’ horn has been silent for 17 years now, but mention the album’s five tracks — “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” — and any jazz fan will hear that haunting, reedy sound again.

“Kind of Blue” — the result of less than 10 hours of actual recording time at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio — featured the iconic Davis and his remarkable legend-stocked band: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto saxophone, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking work, Columbia/Legacy, a division of Sony, released a luxury collector’s edition that went on sale Sept. 30.

It includes two compact discs of the original album, plus outtakes and alternative versions, a documentary DVD, a book of essays and photos, as well as the original 12-inch LP package pressed on blue vinyl.

“We wanted to commemorate one of the greatest, most influential albums,” said Vince Wilburn Jr., Davis’ nephew and a manager of the jazz great’s estate, along with Davis’ son Erin and daughter Cheryl.

Reissued and remastered several times, although it took three decades for “Kind of Blue” to sell 1 million copies, it has sold another 2 million since Davis died in 1991.

“I’m not surprised it’s selling still — this is Miles Davis,” said Wilburn. “It’s music, groundbreaking and fresh. People love Miles.”

Davis’ son Erin said the longevity of his father’s phenomenon was astounding because Miles Davis was never one to dwell on the past, always preferring to move on and embrace new styles.

“Maybe he would be scratching his head, wondering, ‘Why this one?’” Erin Davis said. “He liked people to like the music he was making at the time, but he was always looking ahead.”

Wilburn said there was no end to Miles Davis’ music that can be released in the future.

“There is tons of material, bootleg sessions and endless hours of music,” Wilburn said.

The trouble is deciding what to release.

“The quality is there, but it’s a question of respecting the music,” said Wilburn, who played drums with the band in his uncle’s later years.

In addition to the 50th anniversary album release, there is a Miles Davis exhibition planned for the Cité de la Musique complex in Paris, and a feature film in the works starring Don Cheadle as the famously idiosyncratic and contrarian artist.

Erin Davis, who moved in with his father when he was 15, has more personal recollections of the man.

“He taught me what class means in different ways — like, it was not wearing an ascot and walking with a cane, but how you carry yourself in public,” Erin Davis said.

“He taught me how to eat soup with the spoon away from you rather than shovel it in your mouth,” he recalled. “When he dressed, he told me, ‘Always start with the shoes — shoes make the man.’”

Davis’ influence can still be heard in today’s music.

“Everybody I run into, they were influenced by Miles — Sting and Keith Richards, Q-Tip and Nas, Joni Mitchell,” said Wilburn. “Everybody was touched by Miles. His spirit lives on.”

Asked if people would still be listening to “Kind of Blue” in 2026, the centenary of Davis’ birth, his son replied:

“Why not? Definitely, there’s such a lack of inspiring music now.”

(Reuters)