Welcome to Night Lights… I’m David Brent Johnson. In 1958 trumpeter Miles Davis brought a new pianist named Bill Evans into his sextet who stayed only a few months, but whose influence helped spark one of the most artistically notable and commercially successful albums in the history of jazz. In the next hour we’ll hear some of the music from that album, as well as other recordings that Davis made with Evans and fellow group members saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, as we explore the creative alchemy behind KIND OF BLUE. It’s “Kind Of Two: Miles Davis and Bill Evans”… coming up on this edition of Night Lights.
Miles Davis, “Stella By Starlight” (4:43)
Trumpeter Miles Davis performing “Stella By Starlight,” with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums… recorded in May 1958 and originally released on the 1959 album JAZZ TRACK….and one of the very first studio recordings that Miles Davis and Bill Evans made together.
On May 26, 1958 trumpeter Miles Davis turned 32. He had already accomplished much at that young age—coming to New York City in the mid-1940s and joining saxophonist Charlie Parker’s trailblazing bebop group, playing a primary role in the progressive-jazz sessions that came to be known as the Birth of the Cool, and kicking a destructive heroin habit before signing with Columbia Records in 1955. He had made standout small group records for the label as well as a large-ensemble collaborative effort with Gil Evans, MILES AHEAD, that revealed his restlessly inventive musical ambition. Now, once again, Davis was moving in a different direction. On his 32nd birthday, he was back at Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York City, with a sextet that included saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and two new additions—drummer Jimmy Cobb, and pianist Bill Evans. Cobb had replaced the talented but unreliable Philly Joe Jones, while Evans was there instead of longstanding pianist Red Garland because “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano,” Davis wrote several decades later in his autobiography. “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” “One night I looked up,” Evans later remembered of a gig at the Village Vanguard, “opened my eyes while I was playing, and Miles’ head was at the end of the piano listening.” Evans had been recommended to Davis by jazz composer/arranger and theorist George Russell, an advocate of what would become known as “modal jazz,” a system of improvisation based on scales rather than chords—an approach that would be at the heart of the album KIND OF BLUE. Here, in the studio for the first time, is the group that would eventually make that legendary album, performing “On Green Dolphin Street.” The understated clarion quality of Evans’ piano opening, like a series of small jazz bells being quietly rung, begins to conjure the kind of ethereal sound that Davis would manifest fully on KIND OF BLUE nearly a year later:
Miles Davis, “On Green Dolphin Street” (9:48)
Trumpeter Miles Davis performing “On Green Dolphin Street,” with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums—from the first studio session featuring Evans in the band, recorded on Davis’ 32nd birthday in 1958 and released the following year on the album JAZZ TRACK. The sextet with Evans on piano was recorded by Columbia in concert twice that year, at the Newport Jazz Festival in July, and again at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in September. Some members of the group, including Evans and Coltrane, also joined Davis for a Columbia date led by arranger and composer Michel LeGrand. Davis was working as well that summer on a new collaboration with Gil Evans, a jazz treatment of the score for PORGY AND BESS.
In addition to their mutual interest in modal jazz, Davis and Evans also bonded over a shared love of classical music and composers such as Ravel and Rachmaninoff. But playing in Davis’ group took a toll on Evans. In addition to the demands of playing in a successful, frequently-engaged ensemble, racial tension arose from his being the sole white member of the band; one spectator described Evans as “looking like a Harvard professor on a Harlem street corner.” “It was more of an issue with the fans,” Evans later recalled. “The guys in the band defended me staunchly. We were playing black clubs, and guys would come up and say, ‘What’s that white guy doing there?’ They said, ‘Miles wants him there—he’s supposed to be there.”
“At the time I thought I was inadequate,” Evans continued. “I wanted to play more so that I could see where I was going. I felt exhausted in every way—physically, mentally, and spiritually. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the road. But I think the time I worked with Miles was probably the most beneficial I’ve spent in years, not only musically but personally. It did me a lot of good.”
We’ll hear Davis and Evans now from that live performance at New York City’s Plaza Hotel in September 1958. With saxophonists Coltrane and Adderley laying out, it’s a unique opportunity to listen to the trumpeter and pianist in intimate tandem, playing a song that Davis was helping to turn into a jazz standard—and also foreshadowing the sound of KIND OF BLUE to come. Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and “My Funny Valentine,” on Night Lights:
Miles Davis, “My Funny Valentine”
Trumpeter Miles Davis performing “My Funny Valentine” with Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, live at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on September 9, 1958, from the album JAZZ AT THE PLAZA. Evans left the Miles Davis group shortly after that performance, but he would return a few months later for two studio sessions that would result in one of jazz’s most beloved albums. I’ll have more of the music of Miles Davis and Bill Evans in just a few moments. You can hear many previous Night Lights programs on our website at wfiu.org/nightlights. Production support for Night Lights comes from Columbus Visitor's Center, celebrating EVERYWHERE ART AND UNEXPECTED ARCHITECTURE in Columbus, Indiana. Modern architecture and design to explore forty-five minutes south of Indianapolis. More at Columbus dot I-N dot U-S. I’m David Brent Johnson, and you’re listening to “Kind Of Two: Miles Davis And Bill Evans,” on Night Lights.
Miles Davis, “All Blues” (1:00)
I’m featuring the music of Miles Davis and Bill Evans on this edition of Night Lights. Evans joined Davis’ group in May 1958 and left in late autumn that year, wearied by the band’s performance schedule, the racial tension of being the only white musician in the group, and his desire to forge his own career as a leader. When Evans released his second studio album, EVERYBODY DIGS BILL EVANS, in March of 1959, the cover featured several admiring quotes from fellow musicians, including one from Davis that stated, “I’ve sure learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played.”
That same month, Davis went into the studio to record a new album for Columbia. The hard-swinging Wynton Kelly now held the piano chair in Davis’ group, but for this album date Davis would employ Kelly’s services on only one track, “Freddie Freeloader,” which required the kind of funkier swing that Kelly could bring. For the other four, Davis wanted Bill Evans. “I planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans,” he wrote in his 1989 autobiography.
The authorship of KIND OF BLUE has generated some controversy over the years. The bulk of the music was based on sketches that Davis gave to the rest of the sextet, but some of it seems to have originated with Evans as well. The composition “Blue In Green” is one example. “One day at Miles’ apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G-minor and A-augmented,” Evans later remembered. “And he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue In Green.’” As several writers have pointed out, “Blue In Green” sounds similar to some of the ideas Evans put into a recording he had done of “Alone Together” with Chet Baker not long before the KIND OF BLUE sessions. When the album was released, only Davis was credited; when Evans recorded it on his own in subsequent years, he insisted on the piece being credited to both him and Davis. Moody and evocative, “Blue In Green” perhaps comes closest to Davis’ description of the feeling he was trying to summon for the album, a feeling of walking home as a child along darkened rural roads with his cousin. Miles Davis and “Blue In Green,” on Night Lights:
Miles Davis, “Blue In Green” (5:36)
Miles Davis performing “Blue In Green,” with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums… a tune that grew out of a creative collaboration between Evans and Davis, from the 1959 album KIND OF BLUE.
The album kicked off with a tune called “So What,” with an introduction thought to have been written by another Evans—Gil Evans, Davis’ collaborator on albums such as MILES AHEAD and PORGY AND BESS. It was also an example of the modal-jazz approach that Davis had hired Evans to help implement—so much so that a later critic would cite “So What” as becoming the same kind of vehicle for modal-jazz improvisers that “I Got Rhythm” had been for beboppers. Evans biographer Peter Prettinger describes how “the piano’s and then the band’s answering “amen” (or “so what”) riffs were built up largely in fourths, as opposed to the thirds that are basic to the tonal system… The improvising frame of “So What” was simplicity itself: an AABA form, the B of which merely slid the Dorian scale up a semitone like a geological fault. When this point came in his solo, by way of answering the “preaching” band riffs, Evans took on the role of a one-man big band with dramatic relish.” Miles Davis and “So What,” on Night Lights:
Miles Davis, “So What” (9:22)
Miles Davis and “So What” from the second and final recording session for his 1959 album KIND OF BLUE, with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Miles Davis and Bill Evans never recorded together again after concluding work on KIND OF BLUE. Like sextet saxophonists Coltrane and Adderley, the pianist pursued his own path as a leader, forming a trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian that made several landmark studio and live recordings between 1959 and 1961. Many years later Motian said that the trio was planning to record with Davis, “that it was all set up,” but that the date fell by the wayside after LaFaro died in a car crash in the summer of 1961. It’s intriguing to consider what such a session would have sounded like, bringing together the dynamic interplay of the Evans trio with Davis’ restless and endlessly-questing musical mind, but the recorded legacy of the trumpeter and the pianist remains confined to an 11-month stretch at the end of the 1950s. I’ll close with the final track on KIND OF BLUE, which grew out of Davis’ initial suggestion that the sextet do Evans’ “Peace Piece,” an improvisation the pianist had recorded on the show tune “Some Other Time.” Evans suggested a variation that he and Davis worked out on the piano together before the first KIND OF BLUE session, but that wasn’t recorded until the album’s final date. The delicate brush strokes of Evans’ piano solo on this composition, “Flamenco Sketches,” bring to mind the liner notes that he penned for KIND OF BLUE, in which he compared the creative process for the album to a spontaneous form of Japanese painting.
Looking back years later, Evans said, “I suppose that KIND OF BLUE has been a far-reaching influence. But when we did the album we had no idea it would become that important. I have wondered for years just what was that special quality, but it is difficult for me as a contributor to be objective about it. Of course, just to record with a band like that was a special experience for me… There was always some kind of magic and conviction with Miles. Whatever he did became a point of departure for so many people.” Bill Evans talking about KIND OF BLUE. On KIND OF BLUE, Miles Davis hit a pinnacle of beauty and cool in jazz that has never been surpassed—and though it is Davis’ achievement as a leader, it’s impossible to imagine it without the presence of Bill Evans. Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and “Flamenco Sketches,” on Night Lights:
Miles Davis, “Flamenco Sketches” (9:25)
I closed with Miles Davis and ”Flamenco Sketches” from the 1959 album KIND OF BLUE, with Bill Evans on piano, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Thanks for tuning into this edition of Night Lights. You can listen to many previous Night Lights programs on our website at wfiu.org/nightlights. Production support for Night Lights comes from Columbus Visitor's Center, celebrating EVERYWHERE ART AND UNEXPECTED ARCHITECTURE in Columbus, Indiana. Modern architecture and design to explore forty-five minutes south of Indianapolis. More at Columbus dot I-N dot U-S. Night Lights is a production of WFIU and part of the educational mission of Indiana University. I’m David Brent Johnson, wishing you good listening for the week ahead.