Valentine's Day 2024 Falls on Day 7 of The Coltrane Legacy. It's OK to Feel Kind of Blue

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Valentine's Day 2024 Falls on Day 7 of The Coltrane Legacy. It's OK to Feel Kind of Blue

Still the best selling jazz record of all time, “Kind of Blue” is the point of entry into jazz for generations of music listeners, from casual listeners to serious ones to people who have the album because they know it’s culturally significant but don’t really know why.

By Matt Silver

On December 26, 1958, John Coltrane led a recording session that produced enough music for 3 LPs: The Believer, Stardust, and Bahia. These would be his last recordings for Prestige Records; Trane’s contract was up.

But his free agency would not last long. After negotiating with both Atlantic Records and Orrin Keepnews’s Riverside label, Coltrane signed with Atlantic. And by January 15, 1959 he was in the studio with his new labelmate, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, recording Bags and Trane, a good-for-all-timezones label debut with a bit of everything: blues, a few burners, and a pair of beautiful ballads.

As part of the deal with his new label, Coltrane formed his own publishing company and retained the royalties from his original compositions. So, naturally, we find Coltrane originals peppered much more liberally throughout his Atlantic discography. Even though his originals on Blue Train, including the title track, “Lazy Bird,” and “Moment’s Notice,” were well received and have become iconic as they’ve aged, it’s his compositional deluge for Atlantic which leaves no doubt as to just how prolific a writer Coltrane was. He’s like Monk, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, and Benny Golson—except probably held in even higher regard. Up here, where the air is rarefied, it’s Bird and it’s Trane. 

A larger role in profit sharing also meant Trane became more selective about recording dates. 

During his years recording for Atlantic — Jan. 1959 to May 1961 — he stopped taking freelance recording gigs and only recorded on his own LPs, with the Miles Sextet, and with Atlantic labelmates Milt Jackson and Don Cherry.

Trane would make an exception, however, in early February 1959, when Cannonball Adderley, by then his bandmate with the Miles Davis Sextet, recruited him along with the Sextet’s rhythm section—sans Bill Evans—to join him on his final recording for the Mercury label. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago is a fun, testosterone fueled cutting session between saxophonists of strikingly different musical personalities who’d go on to become much bigger stars after the next thing they’d do together.

From left: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans in the studio during the "Kind of Blue" recording sessions. Photo by Don Hunstein.

Which, of course, was Kind of Blue. It had been nearly a month to the day since most of the band had convened in Chicago for the Cannonball date, and now the gang’s all back together at Columbia’s 30th St. studios. Critically, Bill Evans was there, too. He’d taken a break from Miles’s taxing touring schedule at the end of 1958 and recorded his second album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, in the interim, but Miles knew that Evans would be indispensable to the record’s audacious exercise in simplicity and so asked him to rejoin in early ’59. 

Even though, along with Miles, Evans would be Kind of Blue’s aesthetic architect, when asked years later, he said that though he’d initially felt good about the sessions, he never could have predicted the prominence the record would come to occupy in American culture.

“There was a good feeling on the date,” he said in an interview with WKCR-FM in New York City in July 1979. “But I really had no idea, and I don’t think anybody did, that it would have the influence or the duration that it did…because you just go and you do, you know, you do your thing.”

Coltrane, for his part, did his thing, too. You might think the relative freedom of the modal aesthetic would’ve thrown Trane, who around that time, had just finished up composing “Giant Steps,” which represented harmonic thinking coming from another kind of brain entirely. And yet, as Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter writes in the liner notes to The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings box set released in 1995, the way Coltrane can be heard developing his ideas on Kind of Blue’s “So What?” does more to indicate the direction that Coltrane’s music was to take during the 1960s than “Giant Steps.”

We’ll pick things up tomorrow with a deep dive into "Giant Steps," both Coltrane’s mind-blowingly maximalist masterpiece and the album of the same name, his first as a leader for Atlantic Records.

But today, on this Valentine’s Day, give yourself permission to feel Kind of Blue. 




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