While discussing themes in Black music genres with readers of this #BlackMusicSunday series, a comment made by a series-reading regular (h/t Monsieur Georges) set me off in a new direction. I’m a former art student, and when I think about how I listen to and experience music, I hear it and visualize it in colors. The notes comprise the palette, the final composition of sounds and lyrics are the painting.
It is no surprise that so many songs reference colors and paint us rainbows of tone and emotion. One of the foundational genres in our music is a color—the blues. One of the major music labels for jazz is Blue Note Records, founded in 1939. When we speak of early jazz bands, we describe them as “red hot,” and there is an entire archive with that name. There is no way to cover the color spectrum in Black Music in one Sunday post, so I expect I’ll be doing a mini-series with a mosaic of colors for the next few weeks.
When I started thinking about colors, the first tune that came into my head was the music of the great spiritual and free jazz tenor saxophone player, Pharoah Sanders, combined with the vocals and lyrics of Leon Thomas in the song “Colors:”
Mother Nature seems to love us so
When she smiles there is a subtle glow
And with tears of joy, the happiness flows
I see red and orange and purple
Yellow and blue and green
People say that life is misery
But in him there is no mystery
So he sends to us his rainbow of love
Red and orange and purple
Yellow and blue and green
While most jazz listeners are probably more familiar with “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” from Sanders’ 1969 album Karma, “Colors,” the only other piece on the album, was also composed by Sanders and Thomas and is described by music critic Dominik Böhmer, at Everything Is Noise, as:
a joyous and hopeful greeting extended towards every new tomorrow, a call for the open spirit to enjoy all the little things life has to offer each and every day.
When dealing with colors in art, the first thing you learn in classes is that there are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue (though that has changed in the computer age), from which you can blend more. In jazz (and of course, in blues, blue is the predominant color referenced since the color is the genre title).
Two classic jazz albums come to mind immediately: John Coltrane’s 1958 release of Blue Train and Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue. Coltrane kicked his heroin habit in 1957 with the aid of his wife, Naima, who I wrote about last year in “John Coltrane's favorite composition was the love song he wrote for his first wife, Naima.” Miles Davis had kicked him out of his band, and then Trane got clean. Music blogger Seb Kirby writes:
He was finally free from drugs, able to fully concentrate on the development of his music for the first time. As he later wrote at the time of recording 'A Love Supreme': "During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in my gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." [...]
Many people hear that in the music of "Blue Train"; the beauty that comes from an open hearted sharing of release; blues on the point of transcendence of the oppression of the world.
The title track, "Blue Train" is based around a short minor blues theme that shifts to major when John Coltrane opens up with his liberating eight chorus solo. It is not too simplistic to say that it captures that sense of the opening out to possibilities that his change in direction in life had brought. In an emblematic way it encapsulates everything that came to be felt about John Coltrane as a centre of black pride and optimism that oppression would be overcome; what led Miles Davis to say on John Coltrane's death in July 1967: "Trane's music … represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time. … It was that way for many intellectual and revolutionary whites and Asians as well. … Trane' s death made me real sad because not only was he a great and beautiful musician, he was a kind and beautiful and spiritual person that I loved. I miss him, his spirit and his creative imagination."
Lindsay Planer reviewed “Blue Train” for AllMusic:
The disc is packed solid with sonic evidence of Coltrane's innate leadership abilities. He not only addresses the tunes at hand, but also simultaneously reinvents himself as a multifaceted interpreter of both hard bop as well as sensitive balladry -- touching upon all forms in between. The personnel on Blue Train is arguably as impressive as what they're playing. Joining Coltrane (tenor sax) are Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). The triple horn arrangements incorporate an additional sonic density that remains a trademark unique to both this band and album. Of particular note is Fuller's even-toned trombone, which bops throughout the title track as well as the frenetic "Moments Notice." Other solos include Paul Chambers' subtly understated riffs on "Blue Train" as well as the high energy and impact from contributions by Lee Morgan and Kenny Drew during "Locomotion." The track likewise features some brief but vital contributions from Philly Joe Jones -- whose efforts throughout the record stand among his personal best. Of the five sides that comprise the original Blue Train, the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer ballad "I'm Old Fashioned" is the only standard; in terms of unadulterated sentiment, this version is arguably untouchable. Fuller's rich tones and Drew's tastefully executed solos cleanly wrap around Jones' steadily languid rhythms. Without reservation, Blue Train can easily be considered in and among the most important and influential entries not only of John Coltrane's career, but of the entire genre of jazz music as well.
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue has frequently been judged as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. I’m not going to argue with that assessment. In July of this year, Jazzwise posted “The 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World” and selected Kind of Blue as their best.
Ashley Kahn, the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, explains why it tops the list:
How does one properly gauge impact? There’s no smoldering crater in the case of Kind of Blue, Miles’ melancholy, modal-jazz masterwork. The 1959 disc didn’t arrive with a thunderous clap, yet four decades later, at the end of the millennium, there it was at the top of any and all “best of” lists, nudging aside so many rock, pop and hip-hop recordings. [...]
But perhaps Kind of Blue is better measured by the sum of the constituent parts. Five tunes, exceedingly simple in construction, exceptionally deep in evocative power, played by seven post-bop masters, all in their prime. A once-in-a-lifetime line up that makes the term “all-star” seem inadequate: trumpeter Davis, plus sax men John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.
Certainly, Kind of Blue must be measured by musical influence. Ask any number of influential music-makers who have been around, such as Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and the like, they all agree. At a time when the music had “gotten thick” as Miles said, Kind of Blue distilled modern jazz into a cool and detached essence.
“Blue in Green” is an emotionally evocative ballad. Though there is still debate about whether Miles wrote it—since numerous sources state it was written by Bill Evans—from my point of view, it’s a number-one tune because of how it is played and for the ensemble Miles put together. Thomas Ward writes for AllMusic:
“Blue in Green” is arguably the most beautiful piece of music on Kind of Blue. The ensemble playing reaches new levels of subtlety and transcendence, and the work benefits greatly from the introduction of pianist Bill Evans, one of Miles Davis’ greatest collaborators. Indeed, his piano part is magnificent, and his solo is a masterpiece of his unrivaled lyricism. The tempo of the tune is audaciously slow, and it’s easy for the listener to think that it will fall apart at any moment. It doesn’t, however, due to the genius of the ensemble. “Blue in Green” is also a greatly important piece; it shows that the values of “cool jazz” can have huge artistic value – it’s not just laid-back music for the sake of it, it’s music of extraordinary depth of feeling.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include any blues from the distaff side of today’s musical collage, and so I’ll close with a woman often dubbed “Queen of the Blues,” (no disrespect to Bessie Smith) Dinah Washington:
Dinah Washington was one of the greatest female vocalists to have sung jazz and popular music in the 20th century. Her style and delivery have been emulated by many that followed but few have had a voice to match the Divine Miss D. … Fortunately, her immense talent on record has been well documented and she sounds as good today as she did when she made all those classic albums.
Born in Alabama, Ruth Lee Jones grew up in a staunch Baptist family in Chicago, singing and playing the piano in the choir at her local church and quickly becoming adept at gospel’s characteristic off-beat, syncopated rhythms and bent or sliding notes. At the age of fifteen, she performed “I Can’t Face The Music” in a local amateur competition hosted at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, won and was soon performing in Chicago’s nightclubs, such as Dave’s Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel.
“She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang.” – Quincy Jones
Washington’s signature song “Blue Gardenia,” written by Lester Lee and Bob Russell for the 1953 Hollywood film, The Blue Gardenia, has been covered by a host of male and female singers.
Since my musical brushes are still coated in blue, I don’t want to move on to other colors until we’ve dipped into blue Mondays, blue moons, bluebirds … and more. So join me in the comments below and let us know: What kind of blue are you today?