31. Milestones

Milestones1Record: Milestones
Artist: Miles Davis
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

One of the best gifts I've ever received came, not surprisingly, from my wife. We had been married only a year or so when she presented me with a 6-CD collection, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961. This was during a time period when record companies were regularly issuing remastered versions of classic albums and releasing career compilations like this one in massive box sets. It was a bonanza for music lovers, specifically jazz fans. Once constricted by vinyl's physical boundaries of twenty-two minutes per side, these companies could now dig deep into their archives, not just for longer live sessions but also for alternate takes that had never been heard outside of the recording studio.

When a gift doesn't hit the mark, someone will often offer a condolence of sorts. "Well, it's the thought that counts." But here's the thing -- it's always the thought that counts, especially when a gift does hit the mark. When I unwrapped this particular gift twenty-three years ago, I looked at my wife with awe. She has never been a jazz fan, and likely had never heard of either Miles Davis or John Coltrane before we met, and yet she had found and gifted me a collection of their work, a collection that I didn't know existed. I appreciated the music, but I appreciated the thought so much more. She knew me.

The bad news is that I'll almost certainly never listen to these six CDs again. They were right when they promised us that the music would last forever in this new format, but how could they have known that all the CD players would be gone within a few decades? Even so, this set is worth keeping. Packaged in a striking red and black metal slipcase with a stark image of the two subjects on the cover, it's simply beautiful. Inside that slipcase, the CDs themselves rest in a cloth-bound booklet with more than a hundred pages of liner notes featuring photographs, essays, session details, and track information. It's a coffee table book that fits in your pocket. Come to think of it, it should be on my coffee table, not relegated to a dark corner of our garage.

The six-year span of time preserved in the collection encompasses some of the most important music ever recorded, and one of the albums produced was this one. And so while I never had my own stand alone copy of Milestones, all of these tracks are familiar. I knew them as part of the lengthy collaboration between these two giants, but this was the first time I'd listened to them as intended, six tracks recorded over two sessions in the spring of 1958.

When I first pulled this record from the shelf, it was the cover photograph that struck me. Miles Davis is often rightly described as a musical genius, and perhaps one of the most influential figures in music history, but the portrait on the album sleeve emphasizes another aspect of his persona. Gripping his horn tightly in one hand and holding a cigarette loosely in the other, Davis stares almost defiantly through the camera and into the viewer's soul. He was not quite 32 years old during the Milestones studio sessions, and some of his greatest work still lay ahead of him, but there is an undeniable confidence in him here. "I am the baddest motherfucker you'll ever come across," he seems to be saying, and he would be right. Because he's Miles Davis.

And what of the music? I've been listening to this record every day for almost two weeks, and still I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said. First, consider the lineup. Davis has Coltrane with him on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone, which is kind of like LeBron playing with Kobe and Jordan. The sextet is rounded out by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and together they actually changed the course of jazz.

Modal jazz was not new at the time, but Milestones was probably the first mainstream record to explore this avenue. Rather than relying on chords and scales as the structure for improvisation, musicians following the modal approach enjoy the freedom -- even the necessity -- to experiment with rhythm and melody as they improvise. Miles explained, "When you play this way, you can go on forever... You don't have to worry about changes... The challenge is to see how inventive you can become melodically."

Any type of change, of course, brings with it a certain degree of tension. Pianist Red Garland wasn't ready to take this leap with Davis and the rest of the sextet, and Garland actually got up and left at one point, leaving Davis to sit in for him. "I played piano on 'Sid's Ahead,'" explained Davis, "because Red got mad at me when I was trying to tell him something and left." Sometimes genius is like that.

But beyond the music theory and the innovation, this record is simply a pure joy. Coltrane and Adderly exchange bristling solos, each taking turns leaping away from the melody for walks on the wild side before returning home. The rhythm section of Garland, Chambers, and Jones holds everything together, but always there is Miles Davis. Davis's trumpet is sometimes quiet and restrained, sometimes frenetic and fierce, but always exactly where it needs to be.


Side 1
Dr. Jekyll*
Sid's Ahead
Two Bass Hit

Side 2
Billy Boy
Straight, No Chaser

*This track incorrectly labelled on early editions. The actual name is "Dr. Jackle."

27. Lady in Satin

Satin1Record: Lady in Satin
Artist: Billie Holiday
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

When you listen to Billie Holiday, are you listening to jazz? On this particular record, her first recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra, it seems at first that you aren't. Ellis's orchestra is what you would expect from the label -- there's a full string section with ten violins, two violas, and two cellos, and there's even a harp. If you were to remove Ms. Holiday's vocals, the tracks left behind would certainly never be classified as jazz.

But with Lady Day? Irving Townsend addresses the question in his liner notes. "Is this jazz? And the answer must be: Yes. It is jazz because Billie Holiday sings jazz, no matter what the accompaniment is, no matter what the song is." And so I will defer to Mr. Townsend. Jazz it is.

But obviously it's decidedly not jazz, at least not if you listen in a vacuum. Maybe it's easy listening, maybe it's R&B or even neoclassical, but the music itself is not what we think of when we think of jazz. It simply isn't.

In today's world we often hear that hip-hop is not just music but a culture, something that influences and infuses fashion, language, sports, and more. Today's biggest starts aren't selling albums, they're selling a lifestyle that comes with a soundtrack, and that's what's going on with Billie Holiday.

She rose from the night clubs of Harlem to become one of the first star vocalists of the jazz era, so it would be wrong to classify her music -- and we could have a much longer conversation about our need to classify art -- as anything but jazz. Really, we should just listen and be thankful for the gift she's given us.


Side 1
I'm a Fool to Want You
For Heaven's Sake
You Don't Know What Love Is
I Get Along without You Very Well
For All We Know
Violets for Your Furs

Side 2
You've Changed
It's Easy to Remember
But Beautiful
Glad to Be Unhappy
I'll Be Around
The End of a Love Affair

26. Somethin' Else

SomethinElse1Record: Somethin' Else
Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Released: Blue Note Records, 1958

If you were to look at any list of the greatest jazz albums of all-time, "Somethin' Else" would rest comfortably in the top ten or twenty, and for good reason. It's nearly perfect.

It all begins with the personnel. This is Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's show. He was only thirty years old when he sat for these recordings in the spring of 1958, and only four years before that he had been earning his living as a band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His lilting alto saxophone weaves in and out of the tracks here, just as comfortable on the Side 1 standards as on the original compositions of Side 2.

And who's that on trumpet? Miles Davis. It's hard to come up with an analogy for this. I've written before in this space about the collaborative nature of jazz and the willingness of legendary artists to share billing with each other in pursuit of something beautiful. Perhaps it's something similar to what we see now in the NBA with superstars gravitating towards one another as they pursue not just championship rings but the opportunity to play alongside fellow geniuses.

Miles was already a superstar in 1958, with the landmark album Birth of the Cool behind him, and just a few weeks after this session he'd record Milestones; a year later he would reunite with Adderley and a handful of other legends to record his greatest record, Kind of Blue. (I will accept no argument on this.) 

On drums we've got Art Blakey, who tops many lists as the greatest jazz drummer ever to hold a pair of sticks. The point, I suppose, is this -- the people on this record can play.

We've seen teams of great individuals that can never seem to get things together on the court, but that isn't the case here. As difficult as it might be to believe, as great as the parts are, the sum is still greater. There are countless sub-genres that make up the spectrum of jazz, and this record represents a merging -- or at least a meeting -- of two of my favorites, bebop (Adderley) and cool jazz (Miles) . In his typically thorough notes on the back of the album cover, Leonard Feather points out that "Both Cannonball and Miles agree that there has been far too much labeling of jazzmen, that there is an almost limitless degree of overlapping between schools, and that what counts is not the branding of the music but the cohesive quality of their concerted efforts." Indeed. Whether you want to call it cool or bebop or even cool bebop, there's no denying the greatness of this record.

All of which brings us to the physical record that I pulled from the sleeve this week. There's a great internet source that I've discovered called Discogs that allows me to catalogue my collection and learn about the myriad different editions of these records that were printed. (I can't imagine I'll ever sell any of these records, but the site also provides a rough valuation of any collection a user creates.)

According to information gained from Discogs and a few Google searches, I'm fairly confident that my father purchased this record in 1959. The original was released in mono format in 1958, but this is the stereo version. (If you're interested in following me down the rabbit hole, here's a deep dive into the verification process for a collector's item like this. Near mint copies of the original 1958 release sell for thousands of dollars; I'm guessing my copy is probably worth a couple hundred.)

But there is no price tag for this record, either figuratively or literally. Some of the albums in my father's collection still carry a sticker in the corner, usually showing a price of around $4.99. You could tell the same story about a baseball card or a painting or a Ford Mustang, but I still can't imagine that my father could ever have imagined that a circular piece of vinyl in a large cardboard envelope purchased for five dollars in 1959 would one day be worth so much. I'd also guess that there's no way back then he'd ever have guessed that it would be worth even more to his son.


Side 1
Autumn Leaves
Love for Sale

Side 2
Somethin' Else
One for Daddy-O
Dancing in the Dark

5. Newport 1958

NewportFrontRecord: Newport 1958
Artist: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Released: Columbia Records, 1958

The idea of composing music of any kind is completely magical to me. I can understand DaVinci dipping a brush into his oils and producing the "Mona Lisa" or Dante spinning his Divine Comedy, but how, I ask, can a composer conceive an original work, imagine the different instruments that might contribute to its overall tapestry, and finally bring the entire piece to fruition? People sometimes speak of a hypothetical room full of monkeys and typewriters eventually producing the works of Shakespeare, but we've never heard any speculation about monkeys and pianos. That genius can never be attributed to the hand of chance. Whether it's John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down to write "Eleanor Rigby" or John Coltrane creating "A Love Supreme" or a deaf Beethoven writing his 9th Symphony, there is an element of the divine. It's no wonder the Ancient Greeks spoke of muses inspiring their artists. How else to explain miracles like these?

Duke Ellington is one of these geniuses, a songwriter beyond compare, and this won't be the last time one of his records shows up here. This particular record has an interesting history. The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the oldest and most important gatherings of musical talent in the United States, and the 1958 edition featured dozens of legendary musicians aside from Ellington. Like Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Mahalia Jackson all later issued "live" albums, each titled Newport 1958.

As was common at the time, Ellington's record isn't completely live, even though the album jacket claims that it was "recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival." Ellington and his orchestra did perform all of these songs at Newport, but those live recordings aren't preserved here. Dissatisfied with the performance -- several of these tracks were played for the first time at the festival -- and possibly the limitations of the live audio, Ellington took his band into the studio to record the songs again for the record. Crowd noise from the festival was dubbed in, so perhaps the subtitle on the jacket isn't completely wrong.

This is the story behind the original record from my father's collection, but by the time I was searching for the CD to add to my own, an expanded two-disc version with many of the original live recordings had been released, so that's the one I've always listened to. It was fun to listen to the vinyl this morning, filled mainly with polished versions of the tracks I had heard, but the genius was still there.


Side 1
Just Scratchin' the Surface
El Gato
Happy Reunion
Multicolored Blue
Princess Blue

Side 2
Jass Festival Jazz
Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool
Prima Bara Dubla
Hi Fi Fo Fum