3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool

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Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

James Kaplan’s jazz book explores the lives, separately and then together, of three important figures in modern jazz: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (saxophone), and Bill Evans (piano). The trio came together as part of the ensemble for Davis’ Columbia LP Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz record of all time (recorded in 1959). But their association would prove fleeting—when Evans left the studio for that album, he also left Davis’ employ permanently.

Other books have covered this territory. Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (2000), imparted the sad truth that the musicians were paid $25 for the session—except for drummer Jimmy Cobb, who got $40 because of the $15 carting bonus. The money was in the publishing. But Kaplan’s book informs us that Davis took writing credit for “Blue in Green,” which Evans actually wrote, depriving the pianist of copious royalties. When the mild-mannered Evans complained about this, Davis wrote him a check for $25.

All three of these musicians were geniuses, a term not to be taken lightly. Each revolutionized the playing of their instrument. The case could be made that Evans reached his peak on Kind of Blue (where he was one of two pianists, with Wynton Kelly), but Coltrane soared to other great heights with Giant Steps, Impressions, A Love Supreme, and many more. Davis, well, he kept setting new directions in music for decades to come. But never again with such massive public acceptance.

Kaplan’s structure works well, providing chapters with mini-biographies of the three that, while familiar stories, are contrasted with the lives of the other two. Kaplan interviewed Davis, in 1989 on assignment from Vanity Fair, but admits that he didn’t know much about jazz then and didn’t get a whole lot from the ailing Davis (a fair amount on his feud with Wynton Marsalis, though). As a result, Kaplan relies heavily for quotation on the 1990 book Davis wrote with writer Quincy Troupe, one of the least-revealing, least reliable and most profanity-filled autobiographies ever.

Other musicians who get a say here include Jon Batiste, Dave Liebman, Wallace Roney, Chick Corea, Denny Zeitlin, and Jack DeJohnette. Liebman imparts that when he was playing with Miles (long after Kind of Blue) he caught flak from the other band members as the sole white guy. Miles tells them that Liebman “ain’t got no color.” That reprises what Davis was told when he hired Bill Evans, and throughout his career the outspoken trumpet player had plenty to say about race, but he always hired the best musicians, whatever color they were.

John Coltrane is probably the most elusive figure here, in part because he rarely got personal in interviews, but Kaplan manages to round him out fairly well. The author is very good on all three musicians’ drug addictions, which threatened to bring them down. Davis and Coltrane quit (heroin at least; Davis continued to do massive amounts of cocaine) but Evans—like Chet Baker—remained both productive and addicted for the rest of his life. But the scope of his music, heard most of the time in trio, narrowed.

It's impossible to view these artists in isolation, so the book also acquaints us with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (who’s also on Kind of Blue); saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, who influenced everybody and gave Davis his start; Sonny Rollins and the upstart Ornette Coleman (Coltrane liked him; Davis didn’t); and the great pianist Red Garland, who played with both Coltrane and Davis.

Along the way, Kaplan shows us just how clueless jazz reviewers were at the time, routinely dismissing new forms of music they didn’t understand, from bebop to the avant-garde. The pans must have hurt at the time. Downbeat’s reviewer docked a Davis album featuring Coltrane for the saxophonist’s “general lack of individuality.”

In the end, the public conception of these musicians holds. Miles Davis is a one-of-a-kind combination of yin and yang, sensitive on the bandstand but often grossly insensitive off it. Coltrane is a spiritual seeker who reached the mountaintop but then boxed himself into a free jazz corner. And the lesser known Evans is the influential quiet communicator, hemmed in by his habit.

The stories continue after Kind of Blue but the book could have ended there. Kaplan writes that he finds “almost all the jazz I want and need” in and around bebop, which is perhaps why he doesn’t more effectively illuminate Coltrane’s later on-the-edge recordings or the plugged-in Davis of the 1970s. (He lets pianist Keith Jarrett disparage the latter.) But from the late 1940s to the early 1960s the author is in his element, and by bringing these three together he performs a useful service.