Author Ashley Kahn to discuss Miles Davis at UT

Musician Miles Davis is shown during recording session in 1959 for
Musician Miles Davis is shown during recording session in 1959 for "Kind of Blue."

In 1959 Miles Davis gathered a group of the most talented jazz musicians on the planet and made a masterpiece.

“Kind of Blue” is a musical benchmark that belongs at the top of any list of seminal 20th century recordings thanks to its melancholy vibe and deep exploration of gospel, soul, and classical styles. Even now, more than a half century later the 55-minute recording is at the top of playlists, has sold more than 6 million copies and has 1.4 million (and counting) hits on YouTube.

It also is at the center of a program at the University of Toledo to open the eyes and ears of students as part of the First Year Experience program. Freshmen in the First Look and Listen class have been studying it since the beginning of the semester and noted jazz aficionado and author Ashley Kahn will be on campus tonight to discuss it in a multi-media presentation.

He will speak at 7 p.m. at the Center for Performing Arts and the talk is free.

A teacher at New York University, the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece relishes the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for a great piece of art with 18 and 19-year-olds.

“The idea of speaking to a younger audience when their ears are open, their minds are hungry for new information, absolutely it’s the time to say, ‘Guys, if you are even going to think about calling yourselves musically literate or culturally aware, you can’t just rely on what’s coming at you on Spotify or Pandora or whatever the source of the moment is,’ ” Mr. Kahn said in a telephone interview from New York.

“There’s a whole world out there and you can go fishing on the shore here or in your little pond, or you can realize you can get in a boat and go way out there and really discover this incredible universe of sound that represents great music.”

Jennifer Rockwood, director of First-Year Experience at UT, said “Kind of Blue” was selected by a committee for students to study, write papers on, and analyze much as freshmen in previous years studied books.

“It’s a music generation and I think it was just to test it out and do some assessment,” she said. “The idea was [to] bring a community of students together and have them experience the same thing.”

At the time Davis made “Kind of Blue” he was on a remarkably prolific five-year creative run that also saw the releases of “Sketches of Spain,” (1960), “Porgy and Bess” (1958), “Milestones” (1958), “Miles Ahead” (1957), and “Cookin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet” (1957) among others.

Surprisingly, at the time “Kind of Blue” wasn’t considered all that special.

“‘Kind of Blue’ was just seen as another good album, but not seen as this incredible door-opener,” Mr. Kahn said. “It wasn’t until the music world started listening to these very melancholy, kind of modal pieces and as it sort of worked its way into the vocabulary of modern jazz, it’s effect was really felt about 10 years later with the coming of fusion.”

Part of what makes the album so amazing are the musicians — John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers — who were in their primes and given creative license by Davis on the album’s six songs.

“He created this very open canvas for some amazing, amazing improvisers. You’re looking at the future of modern jazz right there,” Mr. Kahn said.

At the time, the trumpeter considered it a failed experiment, he said.

“He was trying to weave together a bunch of musical ideas and influences, including the modality and the sort of moodiness of modern composers from the classical world. He was very much turned on by the French impressionism and Russian, mid-20th century composers,” Mr. Kahn said.

“At the same time he sort of wanted to bury deep, soulful feeling from gospel music. He didn’t see that attempt to fuse those different influences as being successful.”

Mr. Kahn uses music, images, history, modern pop culture and anything else at his disposal as a lecturer to discuss the album with students. Jazz shouldn’t be intimidating and nothing more than an open mind and a good set of ears are required to appreciate the music, he said.

He noted that part of the genius of “Kind of Blue” is that it can serve as “audio wallpaper,” but also rewards close listening and analysis.

“You do not need to know Miles Davis’s whole history before you pick up ‘Kind of Blue’ and listen to the music,” Mr. Kahn said.

“You do not need to be told that this is some music that really goes to some emotional territory that a lot of pop music doesn’t go to. This is music that allows you to interact with it any way you want to.”

Ashley Kahn will speak at 7 p.m today at the University of Toledo Center for Performing Arts Recital Hall. Admission is free.

Contact Rod Lockwood at or 419-724-6159.