Category Archives: Miles Davis

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and modal jazz

In 1959, Miles Davis changed jazz music forever and set a course that would later greatly influence musicians from all genres, most notably rock and roll. It all happened when Kind of Blue was released.

51UVX5HKIiL._SY300_Up until Kind of Blue, popular music was (and still primarily is) based on chord progressions within a major or minor scale. Miles Davis began to base his music on modes rather than chords.

What are modes? Good question. Stewart Hendrickson of St. Olaf College explains:

I’ve often heard said about a traditional song or tune, “it must be modal.” What does that mean? Strictly speaking, a mode is just an ordered series of notes defined by the intervals between. In that sense there is no difference between scales and modes; a mode is simply a particular musical scale.

See, we’re used to music being based on scales and their notes within. For example, if a song is set in the key of C major, the notes that our Western ears would be most comfortable hearing are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. However, Miles shook it up for us Westerners. No longer would a song simply be written in a certain key. Instead, each soloist would be given prescribed modes in which they were to play. Hendrickson writes about the seven common modes in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Besides the fact that the names of the modes come from Greek words, that, my friends, is where my understanding stops for now. Research modes, figure it out, and get back to me.

Now, back to Kind of Blue. “Flamenco Sketches” is commonly referred to as one of the prime examples of modal jazz. However, the song’s composition is still confounding people.

Samuel Barrett of the freaking University of Cambridge writes about a recent study done by Ashley Kahn. In the study, a session photo of a chart from Cannonball Adderley (unbelievable saxophonist and definite future bandbyweek artist) was blown up and studied to look for what modes he was told to play in. Kahn’s study only added to the confusion over how exactly Kind of Blue was composed. Barrett writes:

Previous attempts to describe the musical design of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have examined either scalar or chordal organisation. Among writers who have turned to scales, loosely termed modes, the five scales used on ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have been the subject of some disagreement. Ashley Kahn, in his recent study of the making of Kind of Blue brought both clarity and confusion to the matter by enlarging a session photograph showing Cannonball Adderley’s chart for ‘Flamenco Sketches’. Along-side the photograph, Kahn listed not the scales on the chart, but the scales that Davis used in his solos since, of the soloists, only Davis plays what might be termed pure ‘modal’ scales.

As you can see, the precise composition of Kind of Blue is still being debated, and I think this is totally fitting for the album. When it was released, it was completely new. To this day, it is not only a confusing and quintessential modal jazz album, it is a necessity in any music lover’s collection. Fittingly, it is still the most widely sold jazz album of all time.

Check out this video to hear more of the awesomeness of modal jazz, Kind of Blue, and Miles Davis in general.


Further Reading:

Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz by Samuel Barrett

Musical Traditions: Of Scales and Modes by Stewart Hendrickson


The night that changed Miles Davis

One night in August, 1959, Miles Davis had an experience that he said changed him. He and his quintet were playing in the famous Birdland club in New York City. During a break, Miles Davis made his way outside and into a scuffle with a New York City police officer. Davis recounts the night:

I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed up to my name on the marquee all up in lights. He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!”

These events led to a fight between Miles and several officers. Davis was hit in the head with a billy club. The photograph of this event circulated wildly around the world, fueled the racial tension already festering in the country (especially in NYC), and dragged Davis into a legal battle, eventually ending with everyone simply walking away from the incident.


However, the events of that night in August live on. Davis himself said in his autobiography, “That changed my whole life and whole attitude again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country.” Davis’ reputation as a rather cold, standoffish man would continue to grow, possibly perpetuated by that night.

More recently, the legend of that night has lived on in none other than Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. Davis’ blood-stained suit from the famous photo was a direct inspiration for Coyne’s bloody garb, a tiny but powerful trademark.


Strangely enough, it wasn’t until 1985 when Davis released You’re Under Arrest that a clear stance against racism would make its way into his music. In case you’re like me and you listen to “You’re Under Arrest,” are unaffected and feel depressed that Miles Davis would create something that doesn’t blow you away, remember that he is still the guy that recorded Birth of the Cool (1957), Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), Bitches Brew (1970), and about a thousand other breathtaking records.


Further Reading:

Miles: The Autobiography

Miles Davis and American Culture