One of my favorite writers and friends on WordPress, Kevin Brennan shares his story for my Saturday guest blog series, answering the challenge “what book, movie or record changed how you see the world?”
“Out of a clear blue sky”
by Kevin Brennan
It’s hard to distill a whole life’s worth of culture experience into a handful of things that “changed how you see the world,” but when I started thinking about it, some contenders floated to the top.
Almost every book I read as a young ‘un seemed to qualify. Any teen boy who read Slaughterhouse Five in 1970 or so was never the same. Catch-22 was huge for me, as were John Gardner’s novels October Light and The Sunlight Dialogues. And in music, any young rocker who obsessed over the Stones’ Exile on Main Street in ‘72 knew he was tasting the sticky, decadent resin of the form — it wasn’t going to get any rockier after that. Just variations on a theme.
But taking “changed how you see the world” almost literally, I’m looking at a time later in life, when a particular record came across my radar and showed me that I’d been looking for the sublime in all the wrong places.
It was the groundbreaking Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis — that pivotal jazz treasure — that changed how I see the world. My world, anyway.
I didn’t stumble upon it till I was about thirty. Up till then I thought of myself strictly as a pop/rock guy who dabbled in standard classical stuff for well-roundedness. But I was trying to write a novel at the time that had a jazz element so I thought I should educate myself. I read one of those articles in Esquire or some outlet like that, “Ten Must-Own Jazz Albums,” and of course Kind of Blue was at the top of the list. I had a fairly new CD player I was itching to try out, so the Miles Davis was the first jazz CD I ever bought.
I guess I thought of jazz in those days as a Louis Armstrong thing, a little old-fashioned and even kind of cartoonish. People were “cats.” It reeked of Beatniks and berets. The Big Band sound also had a grip on it, which I didn’t much care for, and though I didn’t like him at the time, Buddy Rich was always on The Tonight Show in my teens and I thought he was a joke. What a dunce I was.
But when I sat down and listened to Kind of Blue for the first time, I understood I wasn’t listening to what I thought of as “jazz.” The piano/bass duet that starts the first number, “So What,” is like a title card that says, “Get ready. Here we go …” Then the bright clarity of Miles’ trumpet a minute and a half in is pure light. Plus, the thing is swinging like mad.
That song wasn’t even finished before I knew, “I’m a jazz lover now.”
I hear that what made this record different was its use of modes to build the songs rather than chord changes. I don’t think that applies to all the numbers, because “Freddie Freeloader” and “All Blues” sound like regular twelve-bar blues to me, but even so, the average listener isn’t tuned into the modal thing. Instead it’s the vibe. Maximum cool. Relaxed and wavy. Moody at times, and textured like the palm of a leather glove. Who cares about which modes are under the skin?
Beyond the music itself, this record also introduced me to other players I’ve been worshipping ever since. Miles, naturally, but this sextet includes John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly (on one cut). And each of them, explored in a little detail, branches out to dozens more, so that this one collection of five tunes laid out the framework for a lifetime of jazz appreciation. It’s like an enormous family tree, and any limb leads to giants like Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Mingus, Dizzy, Monk, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and on and on and on. It’s a rabbit hole you’re happy to get pulled into.
Kind of Blue is the record that opened up this world to me, and that’s like finding a portal to Nirvana behind your hallway mirror. I’m learning to play some jazz on the guitar too, realizing it doesn’t have to be fast and complicated, thanks to Miles. If you love classical piano, you can probably learn to play “Für Elise” if you want, and if Kind of Blue has gotten under your skin you can pick up a guitar and learn some jazz chords. They’re all not impossibly hard. They all sound really cool.
Believe me, I still love my rock n’ roll, but every day I get a good helping of jazz, and it all started with Kind of Blue.
Here’s a video of “So What,” which is worth watching just for Coltrane’s solo. That should whet your whistle.
Kevin Brennan is the author of five novels. His latest is Fascination, a tale of self-realization and vengeance set against the seedy ambiance of defunct arcade game parlors. Sample all of his books here and read his blog, What The Hell.