‘This is an absorbing book, whether you agree with it or not.’

By James Kaplan

ISBN 978 180530 200 1

Cannongate Books

James Kaplan does not disguise his intentions. ‘I confess that in the genres of bebop and hard bop, jazz created in the quarter century between, roughly 1942 and 1967, I find almost all of the jazz that I want and need.’

Kaplan describes how when he was casting around for a new subject after he finished his biography of Frank Sinatra. He recalled Sinatra’s first wife, Nancy, when asked why she never married again: ‘After Frank Sinatra, who?’

The answer was this book. You sense that Kaplan’s interest in jazz inspired the commissioning editors at Penguin. So, armed with a commission Kaplan set out to write about Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans because all three were involved in ‘Kind of Blue’. Not bothered that all three musicians had been written about on other occasions, Ian Carr’s Biography, Ashley Kahn’s ‘Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece,’ Eric Nisenson’s ‘The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece’ and Richard Williams’s ‘The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Remaking of Modern Music.’ Kaplan felt that he could find new things to say. And he does. There are fresh interviews that deepen understanding. He is a good writer with a great subject: writing about the turbulence of the forties and the fifties when jazz was changing from entertainment into art.

Kaplan does not deal with them equally: Miles Davis predominates. Coltrane is next and Bill Evans is almost an afterthought. You feel. as you read. that Evans’ music was not a frequent visitor to Kaplan’s turntable.

The road of the three artists leading towards ‘Kind of Blue’ is described. The protagonists encounter racism, incomprehension and a seductive and pervasive drug culture. All three would succumb. In the clubs of New York musicians would play to the painters Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Mark Rothko; the writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara. There are other names who flit through the stories: Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Chet Baker.

Who is this book for? Many of the stories have been told before and will not surprise many jazz aficionados. The incident when Wynton Marsalis tries to play alongside Davis is recounted at length. The occasion when Davis told Coltrane to take the saxophone out of his mouth to curtail his solos. The controversy about the authorship of ‘Blue in Green’ is explored. Undoubtedly, a new reader would gain a great deal from the book because the writing is lucid, flows and engages. To keep a momentum there is violence, orgies, suicide, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, fights, death, squalor, sex, infidelity depression and depravity.

Peter Pettinger, the biographer of Bill Evans, is quoted extensively. Apart from the drug taking and the infidelities you sense that Kaplan had little interest in the life or music of Evans. The pianist’s unchanging setlists seemed to indicate to the author a lack of artistic growth. There is little evidence that Kaplan had an understanding of the way that on certain nights Evans could create music that was transcendental and soul shaking.

Coltrane’s work after his break from Davis is dealt with peremptorily. The beauty of ‘A Love Supreme’ is acknowledged. A quote from Stanley Crouch describes a visit to hear the latter-day Coltrane playing in a club to an audience of three. Kaplan includes quotes from puzzled devotees like Dave Liebman who tells the author: ‘It was difficult music. It was chaotic, it was loud., it was cacophony. For many years, you couldn’t talk about late Coltrane without everybody saying, “I don’t’ know what happened; he lost his mind; he took too much acid. I don’t know what happened. It was difficult music, but it was deep as hell.”’

Wallace Roney in the long interview he gave to Kaplan is quoted as saying about Coltrane: ‘Maybe his spirit outgrew his body.’. Kaplan comments: ‘And maybe John Coltrane didn’t kill jazz. Maybe he just left it behind.’

The career of Miles Davis after ‘Kind of Blue’ is not seen as a continuation of triumph. The Plugged Nickel recordings 1965) are seen as rushed. While many critics have seen the 1960s quintet as the equal of the earlier quintet with Coltrane, Kaplan comments that Davis sounds in Chicago like ‘an irritable hornet’. He goes on to describe the breakup of the quintet, apparently Wayne Shorter was frequently drunk on the stand. When Ron Carter was unable to complete an engagement, Kaplan gives a long quote from substitute bassist Buster Williams expressing bafflement with the way that the quintet played.

All is not lost. Kaplan describes ‘the serenely beautiful album that would become ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’’. He itemises the contribution that Gil Evans made to the shaping and creating of the album. Gil ‘arranged bass lines, voiced horns, and cocomposed (without credit on the album or subsequent reissues) Petits Machins a brightly nervous up-tempo piece in 11/4 time. Gil shared Miles’s love of Jimi Hendrix and helped Davis adapt Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ into a soft, pensive, and beautiful ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’.

‘No amount of track-by-track description here can begin to convey the beauty and intensity,’ the Rolling Stone review read. ‘There are five songs, but really they fit together as five expressions of the same basic piece, one sustained work. The sustained mood was enhanced by the flowing transitions from one track to the next, and the fact that all five tunes were in the same key (F). And a straight line can almost certainly be drawn between the Rolling Stone piece and the incense-and-reefer-perfumed dorm room in which this white boy first heard Filles de Kilimanjaro.’

The period of Davis’s life after Bitches Brew is dealt with sketchily.

The description of Davis’s withdrawal from playing in the 1970s itemises the squalor, excess, depravity and isolation. Kaplan describes the efforts that Columbia made to persuade Davis to return. When they were successful. Kaplan quotes the reaction of an audience in a club in Boston.

‘We want Miles, the crowd chanted.

The Boston Globe’s review was ecstatic:

‘Last night Miles Davis gave solid evidence that he was back to stay, that the chops are still as impressive as ever and the famed mystique has not dimmed an iota. . . . Davis alternated brooding, elongated lines with brief, swinging interludes. Evans, on soprano, was superb and the group interplay seemed contagious, taking its lead from Davis who, despite five years of inactivity, was playing with seasoned assuredness as he continually inserted pauses like a nervous suitor.’

‘But was the review for the music or the mystique? asks Kaplan. ‘His mystique had always been one of his great creations; more and more, it was all he had left.’

Kaplan knows enough about music but not too much to slow the narrative. With carefully inserted interviews, intensive research, and incisive editing, he keeps the many stories and characters lively without losing sight of his main aim. Essentially, the book is a lament for ‘the lost empire of cool’. Kaplan muses that ‘It was remarkable: over fifty years in America, the very word jazz had gone from sex, scandal and sensation to the low-price bins at record stores.’

Finally, Kaplan disagrees with Davis who in the eighties announced that ‘he had no interest in returning to the lyrical masterpieces he produced between 1944 to 1961 saying that to him revisiting that music would be like eating leftover turkey—with all respect to Miles, the thrill of this great and never-fading music is this book’s pulse.’

This is an absorbing book, whether you agree with it or not.