The year is 1959 and the place is New York City. Outside the “Birdland” club, a young musician is taking a break when he is told by a patrolman to “move on”. The musician tries to explain that he works at the club. The policeman punches the musician in the stomach and is then joined by another one that beats the musician in the head. Later that night, the musician receives five stitches for a wound on his head. A few days after the attack, he tries to pursue the case in court but has to eventually drop it in order to recover his license to work in the city clubs.
The young musician was none other than Miles Davis who, in that same year, produced his great masterpiece “Kind of Blue”. One of the many fascinating aspects of that amazing album is how its creation epitomized Davis’ commitment to freedom. A sense of freedom that transpires in the more technical aspects of the work that broke the bebop tradition of complex chord changes in favor of modal scales. Freedom also highlighted by Davis’ decision to give a pivotal role in the album to a white and classically trained musician, Bill Evans. Davis made the change despite the ferocious opposition of some followers and even other members of the band like Coltrane.
Why would you bring someone of a completely different background and race into your band? Why should a white boy take the place of a black musician in a jazz band? The answer could not be simpler: it is good for the music or as Davis himself put it:
“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.
The way he approached it, the sound he got was like
crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down
from some clear waterfall”
Let’s not forget that such a decision was made by someone who had often been a victim of prejudice and racist violence. Someone that was afraid of making his own hotel reservations in person just in case he was refused the booking for being black. Yet, despite the ignorance and bigotry around him, he maintained his convictions and kept an open mind for anything or anyone that could help him make better music.
Tradition has certainly value but only as long as it enriches life without becoming a burden that dictates which choices one should make. Equally, our brains may be wired with a tendency to prefer similarity and familiarity over difference and that might have some use in certain situations. However, more often than not, those tendencies simply create artificial limitations based on fear. When we refuse to strike a friendship or work with someone because of the color of their skin, their sexual preferences, gender or even accent…we are making our lives and work much poorer.
“Kind of Blue” is not just an extraordinary jazz album (with 4 million copies sold, it is the best-selling jazz album of all time) but also a great reminder of the immense value of a certain kind of freedom: freedom from prejudice. We ought to exercise that freedom as often as possible to avoid the inevitable mental rust that makes us biased and more narrow-minded as we grow old.
When someone asked another jazz legend, Charlie Parker, why he kept listening to country music, a type of music rarely appreciated by hard-core jazz fans, his disarming answer was simply: “for the stories, for the beautiful stories”. One never knows where beauty can be found and it would be a great shame to miss it.