Miles For Amateurs

Jul 09, 2020
At some point in the jazz history class I took sophomore year, someone asked our professor, "Hey, Mr. Lowe – do you say 'the blues is,' or 'the blues are?' Without missing a beat, the reply came: "The blues be." Free-jazz trombone-playing African-American Artist In Residence, 1, effortlessly messed-with classroom full of puzzled young Caucasian adolescents, 0.

Choice of verbs aside, the blues has often served as a window into the work of various and assorted jazz titans I've otherwise found remote or inaccessible so far. Sometimes the problem has admittedly been my own obstinacy – the classic Miles Davis quintets of the 1950s and 1960s were objects of such undiluted worship during my undergraduate and (relatively brief) graduate studies that it took a long time to even listen at face value, much less enjoy those recordings or grasp their actual significance. In my own tepid defense, it can sometimes be hard to appreciate groundbreaking art in retrospect – by definition, you're listening backwards through all the results those breakthroughs have subsequently wrought, making it difficult to discern what made that work so groundbreaking in the first place. So the space, transparency and pointillism of Miles' mid- to late-1950s work only became evident to me once I could hear it from the same side of history as he was making it on – in the context of all those hard bop records made before and during his undisputed tenure as the crown prince of small-group jazz.

Of course, it turns out there is no shortage of Miles Davis playing the blues himself, and I've put together a brief playlist with some of my favorites. And then, since I was thinking about how it's not just the form of blues, but also the groove, tonal color and phrasing that can make certain music feel more accessible, I segued into an Ornette Coleman track, one of my favorite Duke Ellington compositions, and a tune from Oliver Nelson's classic The Blues And The Abstract Truth, recorded less than two years after Kind of Blue. Like the landmark Miles Davis LP, The Blues And The Abstract Truth include Bill Evans on piano, and his soulful 24-bar opening to "Yearnin'" bears comparison to the blues playing of Wynton Kelly, Red Garland or Junior Mance in the same era.

I've posted the playlist on my site; you can find it at the link below, along with previous playlists:

Miles For Amateurs

More soon,