Thursday, December 27, 2012

Miles Davis and Modal Jazz


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“When Gil [Evans] wrote the arrangement of "I Loves You, Porgy," he only wrote a scale for me. No chords. And that... gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things.

When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you can be. When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done—with variations.”
- Miles Davis

“In All Blues, instead of a chord sequence, the improvisations are based on a series of five scales, that is, five selections of notes from the twelve available. Davis constructed fragmentary tone-rows which replace harmony in giving the music coherence.”
- Max Harrison

“With regard to style, Miles Davis didn’t merely change with the times, but was largely – if not completely – responsible for most of the changes, particularly those disseminating the use of modal structure among Jazzmen.”
- Jerry Coker

So much has been written about Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue 1959 Columbia LP that I hesitated to do a blog feature about it

But while researching Ashley Kahn’s book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece [New York: Da Capo, 2000], I found that there were some aspects of the music on the recording that were of particular interest to me and which I wanted to emphasize in a posting about it.

One thing that immediately struck me when I first heard the music on Kind of Blue was its space; there was so much openness to it that the music seemed to hang in the air.

Of course, much of this room was due to the manner in which the music was constructed: modes or scales were used as the basis for the improvisations on the recording instead of chord progressions.

The excerpts from Ashley’s book that follow this introduction will address the technical aspects of what modal Jazz is in more detail.

But since modal Jazz was relatively new as the basis for Jazz improvisation when Kind of Blue was issued, Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball and pianist Bill Evans were literally finding their way through relatively unfamiliar territory when they constructed their solos around the album’s tunes.

The modes were less compressed that the usual chord progressions that were the basis for bop and hard bop Jazz recordings at the time and this allowed the solos based on them to unfold, gradually.

The comparative newness of the modes forced the soloist to explore, search in new directions and try different ways to build their solos [i.e.: alternate melodies], which was exactly what Miles Davis was trying to achieve on Kind of Blue.


Miles had been around bebop almost from its earliest beginnings and he was desperate to escape the frenetic running of the changes [chord progressions] that was so characteristic of the early work of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom were viewed as the co-founders of Bebop.

Miles didn’t have the flash and flair of Dizzy whose finger-poppin’ flights of fancy were difficult for most Jazz trumpet-players to duplicate. Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Conte Candoli and other trumpet players with more technical facility and range could play in this manner, but Miles, to put it succinctly, didn’t have those kinds of “chops” [musician speak for technical ability on an instrument].

Besides, fast and furious Bebop improvisations had all been done before; the twenty years or so of Bebop that preceded the issuance of Kind of Blue in 1959 were awash in a flurry of furiously played notes.

How does one catch one breath? How does a modern Jazz musician go in a different direction?  These were questions that were very much on Miles mind and his search for answers to them led to Kind of Blue.

Miles adapted a number of key concepts that, when applied to the themes on Kind of Blue, allowed for a different avenue of Jazz expression.

One of these conceptions was openness, a quality that Miles had been particularly taken with when he first heard pianist Ahmad Jamal darting in-and-out or hovering over the beautifully sustained time played by bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier.

Miles called this “playing the spaces” which, of course meant exactly the opposite – not playing to allow for spaces in the improvisations.

Tempos were another key ingredient: Miles simply slowed things down “… in order to think and not just react.”

All of the tempos on Kind of Blue are either slow or medium which provided for a more relaxed feeling; time to think; time to figure how where to insert space or inference.

Jimmy Cobb was the perfect drummer for the space Miles wanted to bring forth on Kind of Blue.

Philly Joe Jones, whom Cobb replaced in Miles’ quintet just prior to the issuance of the album, would have been too busy.  Philly used a lot of drum “chatter” to push the soloist forward.

By contrast, Jimmy Cobb employed a 22” K-Zildjan ride cymbal with huge overtones which allowed the music to float along almost as though it was being carried on a cloud.

Most of Jimmy licks and fills came down on the “ones” [first beat] of the next thematic phrase which helped the soloists’ orientation as they explored Kind of Blue’s modes. 

Miles was also finding his “voice” on the trumpet at this time, what Gil Evans refers to as “changing the sound of the trumpet.”

Never the pyrotechnic type and with a limited range on trumpet, Miles’s greatest strength was his sound: warm, mellow and lyrical.


He needed a medium to show off his sound and the modal Jazz format of the tunes on Kind of Blue were a perfect vehicle to show off Miles’ unique sonority on trumpet.

And then there was the use of the modes themselves that served as substitutions for the usual chord progressions.

Modes were the keys that unlocked “the secrets” that Miles was looking for in the music at that time.

Modal Jazz uses scales instead of chord progressions as the basis for its themes [melodies] and improvisations.

In Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, author Ashley Kahn further elaborates on these modes and other qualities in Miles music from this period.

© - Ashley Kahn, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“If there is one word that accurately describes the unique and defining feature of all jazz styles, it is improvisation. The spirit of jazz is spontaneous invention; the standard form is variations played off the melodies of well-known blues or songs. The melodies of tunes like "Wild Man Blues" would be interpreted, played with, and "jazzed" to the delight of the soloist and his or her audience. When pioneers like Louis Armstrong brought spirit and form together, the result was timeless jazz.

A melody is basically a line of notes, each a root to a matching chord, with the whole melodic line moving (in jazz, swinging) horizontally through time. This movement is referred to as "chord changes" or simply "changes." In the notes of these chords—the "chordal structure" that is often discussed in jazz theory—lies the harmony, or vertical component of jazz. In almost all jazz prior to 1960, harmony was the improvisers only compass. Without knowing which notes work with the chords being played, the soloist was lost. Then came bebop to make the harmony even more complex.

The genius of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was to reinvent jazz's harmonic and rhythmic possibilities. Their solos broke through to new terri­tory in jazz harmony, locating new notes to play in the chordal structure. At full throttle, they blew through the changes with phrasing that had become more elastic, bending over and across bar measures with a flurry of sixteenth notes never heard before.

With the advent of Bird and Diz's pioneering daredevilry—richly expanding the number of notes available to play within any given chordal structure—there came the need for an even more accurate harmonic compass. In Cannonball Adderley's words: "Bebop's discipline means that you have to have information to play bebop."

Despite bebop's innovations, improvisation and chord changes remained inextricably linked. Various alumni of bebop—and of the cool school that followed it—had tired of the same changes defining the same well-trodden improvisatory paths. It wasn't the material itself; jazz composers were still creating new, exciting tunes and melodies. It was the too familiar structure of changes-after-changes that bred dissatisfaction. By the fifties, signs were pointing players off the chordal thruway, into a new jazz style: modal.


"Modal" (or its synonym "scalar") literally means "of scales." By this definition, all music, or any sonic system that follows a pattern with one, central "tonic" note, is modal. "Modal jazz," in a late fifties context, qualifies that denotation somewhat. Here's how Miles Davis laid it out for Nat Hentoff in October of 1958:

When Gil wrote the arrangement of "I Loves You, Porgy," he only wrote a scale for me. No chords. And that... gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things.

When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you can be. When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done—with variations.

I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords ... there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them. Classical composers—some of them—have been writing this way for years, but jazz musicians seldom have.

When I want J.J. Johnson to hear something ... we just play the music over the phone. I did that the other day with some of [Aram] Khachaturian's Armenian scales; they're different from the usual Western scales. Then we got to talking about letting the melodies and scales carry the tune. J.J. told me, "I'm not going to write any more chords." And look at George Russell. His writing is mostly scales. After all, you can feel the changes.”

Call it The Modal Manifesto. Subtitle: You Can Feel the Changes. In one way, modal jazz was a step in re-simplifying the music, in that it created a structure over which to improvise that, unlike bebop, did not demand exten­sive knowledge of chords and harmonies. In another way, the use of modes implied a greater responsibility for the musician. Without an established chordal path, the soloist had to invent his own melodic pattern on the spot.

The idea of soloing extensively over one chord was not alien to jazz musi­cians. Jazz educator and pianist Dick Katz points out that since chords imply certain scales, and modal jazz is all about soloing on one scale for an extended period,

“it's like a structured cadenza, where at the end of a piece you take one chord and run with it. Or like in Latin music, a lot of Latin bands will stay on one chord and these virtuoso trumpet players would really do their thing. Or you know there's that Duke Ellington tune, "Caravan." It has twelve bars on one chord (sings) until you land on that F minor chord.”

Miles himself had touched upon modal ideas in the past. His "Swing Spring" from 1954 flirted with modal construction. In 1956, he approached a ubiquitous pop song modally as a made-to-order addition for Avakian, slowing down the rate of chord changes and quieting the harmonic activity of the song. Avakian recalls:

“Leonard Bernstein wanted me to give him a version of "Sweet Sue" done in cool jazz style for the album that we did together called What Is Jazz? Instead of using house musicians to see how it would sound if Miles Davis were doing it, I said, "Let's have Miles Davis play it." I had Miles do two versions and what he did when he performed "Sweet Sue"—a very familiar, trite song deliberately chosen by Bernstein—was a formal introduction before it goes into total improvisation, very free. It was a sudden departure in which he streamlined the chordal structure of the melody — it sort of lost the harmony of the song. That could well have been a spark for his going into the floating quality of what he did on Kind of Blue.”


Modal jazz was different because it was composed with that simpler approach as its primary goal. Relative to the complexities and intellectual heights jazz had attained, it was a step backward. It seemed to question the progress of jazz up to bebop and beyond. "Playing changes was the sign of elegance," commented keyboardist and jazz writer Ben Sidran. Miles himself had sought that elegance at one time. "When I asked him in the forties what music he was playing," recollected George Russell, "he said he wanted to learn all the changes. That sounded ridiculous to me. Miles knew how to play all the changes." Russell recognized in that comment the essence of the search that eventually led Davis to modes and modality.

“I felt that Miles was saying he wanted a new way to relate to chords, and the thought of how he might go about seeking this way was constantly dwelled on. Miles and I talked about modes in the late forties and I wondered what was taking him so long, but when I heard "So What" I knew he was using it.”

It is worth noting that the brand of modal jazz brought forth in the latter half of the fifties was not pure modal music. When faced with strict modal guidelines, music scholar Barry Kernfeld explains, many jazz soloists would play off a prescribed scale—hitting the same bluesy notes that were an inherent part of chordal jazz. Even musicians like Miles and Coltrane, who adhered more closely to the modal path, suggested chordal patterns in their solos.

There were two immediate effects—and recognizable characteristics—of late fifties modal jazz. The first was that, reflecting the esthetic espoused by Davis and other modal pioneers at the time, it brought the tempos down to a slower, more deliberate pace. As a means of comparison, author Lewis Porter noted that "in most jazz pieces, the chords and their associated scales change about once a measure. But Davis's new music would stay on the same scale for as long as sixteen measures at a time."

Jazz writer Barry Ulanov recognizes that the structure of modal jazz elicited a welcome relaxation of tempo, further emphasizing the "linear," melodic aspect of the music.

“I think that was a happy development in jazz. As in Baroque music and the classical tradition, when you move into long [melodic] lines, there's a softness and slower speed that follows because you're concentrating on what you're trying to say and not surrounding yourself with overwhelming sound.”


The second effect was that modal jazz compositions tended to extend the duration of solos. Loosed from the traditional thirty-two or twelve-bar song structure—the most common lengths of jazz compositions (ballads at thirty-two, blues at twelve)—the soloist was free to invent and reinvent as long as necessary to tell the story. In theory, with no chords to define a melody, the solo became the song and the improviser became the composer. The modal jazz soloist was indeed the master of the creative moment.

In the case of Miles's sextet, this elastic approach to solo length was particularly suited to Coltrane, whose penchant for long, tireless improvisa­tions had become legendary. And sometimes, as Gil Evans remembered, an occasion for sarcasm:

“One day when Miles came back from a tour I said "Miles, how was the job?" and he said "It's fine. Coltrane played fifty choruses, Cannonball played forty-six and I played two."”

Saxophonist Jimmy Heath, an old friend of Coltrane's from Philadelphia who would later sub for him in the sextet, recalls how the freedom offered by modal jazz pieces might have exacerbated Coltrane's long-windedness.

“Coltrane said the reason he played so long on [modal runes like "So What"] was that he couldn't find nothing good to stop on. That statement really holds true, too. Because if you haven't played in the modal concept, you're looking for some final cadence to stop. I know musicians had the same problem I did, a lot of them because of the absence of the final cadence of II-V-I[the typical ending of a chorus] or some of the cadences that music, heretofore, had been affording.”

It should be added that Heath may well be speaking more of his own trouble with modal structures than Coltrane's, since ‘Trane's recordings from the late fifties and sixties certainly reveal other factors that motivated his verbosity, including an ability to hear and play extended statements and phrases.

What of the modes that gave modal jazz its name? Jazzmen of the fifties—in the spirit typified by Miles's music library visits—sought out new and unusual modal patterns beyond the usual major and minor scales. Those who attended music school could study the twelve modes of the Western musical tradition. All permutations of the basic major scale, the twelve scales were originally defined in the Middle Ages, some to classify Gregorian chants, and were arbitrarily named after ancient Greek cities and regions. Some, like the Ionian and Aeolian modes, are basically modern major and minor scales, respectively. Other modes correspond to folk music scales of various countries. For example, the Phrygian can be exploited to exude a Spanish sonority, as on Sketches of Spain. The Dorian mode— favored by classical composers like Ravel and Rachmaninoff—works well as a blues scale and was employed by Miles on "Milestones" off the album of the same name.

New scales would also be found in musical exercise books. "A lot of the scalar material Coltrane was playing was Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns," keyboardist Joe Zawinul remembers, and he adds: "Most of the reed and trumpet players played out of different violin books, and also scale books like [Carl] Czerny."

Other New York musicians discovered modal inspiration nearby, in local restaurants. David Amram recalls:

“I knew about some of those primary modes, because living in New York you could go to these belly-dancing restaurant-bars like the Egyptian Gardens and hear Egyptian, Lebanese and sometimes music from Morocco, all of which had in common a certain rhythmic pattern and a certain mode. Some of the jazz players were really into that. They'd say, "The baddest cats are Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, and the guys playing in those belly-dancing clubs."”

During the fifties, exotic scales—particularly those of India and various Middle Eastern cultures—found their way into the jazz lexicon, and wound up under the "modal jazz" rubric as well. Miles writes of turning Dizzy on to the "Egyptian minor scales" he had learned at Juilliard. Coltrane shared his own fascination with foreign sounds when he wrote in 1960:

“I want [my solos] to cover as many forms of music as I can put into a jazz context and play on my instruments. I like Eastern music ... and Ornette Coleman sometimes plays music with a Spanish content as well as other exotic-flavored music. In these approaches there's something I can draw on and use in the way I like to play.”

The Austrian-born Zawinul, who would join forces with Miles in the late sixties, brought a native familiarity with ethnic modalities of eastern Europe when he arrived in New York in 1958.

“In the early fifties, we were doing modal stuff in Vienna, you know? We were getting into all these different scales from folk music. Where I come from there were all these different influences from Slavic music, Turkish, Rumanian and Hungarian. I was actually surprised when I came to the States that more people weren't doing this.”

By the late fifties, that would change.

Miles Davis – with Coltrane and the rest of the sextet – was at the vanguard of this new wave of experimentation that would lead to the prime statement of modal Jazz: Kind of Blue.”

Due to certain legal limitations, it is difficult to make available any of the music on the original Kind of Blue. However, we were able to use a version of So What, one of the compositions from the original album, that was recorded by Miles’ quintet in Stockholm in 1960 as the soundtrack on the following slide montage. Joining Miles on trumpet are John Coltrane, tenor sax, Wynton Kelly, piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. [Click on the “X” to close out of the ads.]