"In the church of jazz, 'Kind of Blue' is one of the holy relics," music critic Ashley Kahn writes in his book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. "Yet, Kind of Blue lives and prospers outside the confines of the jazz community," Kahn continues. "No longer the exclusive possession of a musical subculture, the album is simply great music."
In 2009, 50 years will have passed since a young trumpet player named Miles Davis and his band walked into Columbia Records' East 30th Street recording studio (a building that was once a church itself) in New York City to tape that seminal album. The album was an instant classic. With its less-is-more arrangements and emphasis on the tone of notes rather than the speed of solos, the record changed the landscape of jazz in 1959 and has been a perennial bestseller ever since. Should you need refuge in 2009 from the bleak economic news or the general overload of 21st-century media hype, Davis's masterpiece offers musical solace and clarity.
Because of its popularity, Kind of Blue gets reissued or repackaged every few years, so there are a number of versions. The standard one ($12) is best. Its six songs on one disk best mirror the simplicity that Davis was aiming for in his sound (which came to be called modal jazz), and the releases currently for sale have been remastered for today's audio equipment. Of course, there are upgrades, too. Columbia Records recently released a comprehensive four-disk box set ($110) for the album's anniversary. The multiple versions of songs will seem excessive to casual fans, but the bonus DVD, which features a minidocumentary, and the other packaging (a minibook, poster, and postcards) are nice touches. You can also get a short documentary film about the album on the Dual Disc version (one side is a CD, the other a DVD; $19).
If you already own a copy of the album, you can celebrate its 50th anniversary by tracking down a copy of Kahn's book, published in 2000. It's a brisk read, full of rarely seen photos and sidebars on everything from the inspiration for the song "Freddie Freeloader" (Fred Tolbert, a bartender at a Philadelphia club called Nightlife, of whom piano player Herbie Hancock says, "Freddie was very street-smart, and Miles was always attracted to people who had brains and an interesting approach to life") to the pre-Blue history of Columbia Records.