Wisdom can be found in all of the arts, some of them visual, some written, and some using sound.
Fifty-five years ago in March and April 1959 the Miles Davis Sextet entered the studio at 30th Street Studio in New York City and recorded the album that would be known as Kind of Blue.
The reason I believe this album and, in particular, the song “So What” resonates is that it is an amalgamation of its time, taking into itself the entire history of jazz and jazz culture, which is American culture, and the potential that is American culture when all of its elements–its best elements–come together.
In the 1950s United States that brought Miles Davis and Bill Evans together, one black and the other white, the Civil Rights movement was just getting into swing against both Jim Crow and aggressive racism in the South, and the less obvious discrimination in housing and job opportunities in the north. There was a tension between white jazz musicians and black jazz musicians based on the conditions where white musicians were able to get well paying union gigs, play in studios, in television, and other mediums that allowed them to make a living plying their art, but which denied those same opportunities to the originators of the jazz form. Black musicians felt that many of the more popular white jazz musicians with few exceptions were co-opting their culture.
For jazz is a particular kind of art–an art that speaks of history, of the blues associated with a people who were enslaved, brutalized, escaped enslavement, disenfranchised, and oppressed for the color of their skin, but who overcame these indignities, embracing the blues, finding the wonder in small things, finding joy in living life. It is a particular American voice forged in the underbelly of a society that espoused lofty goals that expressed the hopes and desires of all of human history–to human dignity, to the equal worth of each human life, to freedom, against the strong dominating and devouring the weak–but which fell far short of its goals in practice.
When Bill Evans was introduced to Miles Davis by George Russell there was a tension in the air where they played, especially in black clubs in Harlem, Brooklyn, and elsewhere. The two men had much in common despite the different hues of their skin. Davis had overcome heroin addiction that was the drug of choice in ’50s jazz culture, throwing himself into his music, pushing the urban-inspired form of jazz known as bebop to new frontiers. Evans, a New Jersey boy who fully immersed himself in the jazz life with Russell and Charles Mingus, also had experimented with narcotics and become addicted to the drug–a struggle, which for Evans, would last the rest of his life. But when he played the feelings expressed through the keyboard communicated a musical vision that has been described as the reflection of light from a sun-dappled waterfall. It was this quality that drew Davis to Evans, the style deeply influenced by the French impressionists.
Davis tested Evans by taking him to venues that he knew would challenge his sensitivities and make him aware of the black-white dynamic. Since the 1920s New York City was home to the jazz club and turned a blind eye to integrated audiences and couples. Benny Goodman had integrated his jazz band in the 1940s. But the societal undercurrent was everywhere the band turned. White society denied black people opportunities and dignity. In Davis’ band this dynamic was reversed–Davis was the leader and Evans the sideman. Reverse racism caused by years of oppression was everywhere Evans turned within the black subculture but Davis would have none of it: “Crow Jim is what they call that. It’s [got] a lot of the Negro musicians mad because most of the best-paying jobs go to the white musicians playing what the Negroes created. But I don’t go for this, because I think prejudice one way is just as bad as the other way.” Years later Evans spoke about those years, “It makes me a bit angry. I want more responsibility among black people and black musicians to be accurate and to be spiritually intelligent…to say only black people can play jazz is as dangerous as saying only white people are intelligent.”
So near the end of their collaboration it should not be surprising that these men forged what is considered to be by many the best work of music to be produced in the 20th century. For they arrived at the same place from different origins, they harnessed their love for the jazz form to not only express the past but to express what was possible in the future from the place they stood, pointing the way to enlightenment when others could only see the barriers in front of them.
I believe nowhere did they express that vision better than in the song “So What.” For even the title expresses their shared vision, so what? that they were of different skin colors, so what? that the structure of the song was a break from the bebop structure, so what? that they had to get there by overcoming barriers, some of their own making and some not.