Home > Essays > When It Was New: Miles Davis’s “So What”
Published: Mon Jul 1 2013
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
When It Was New: Miles Davis’s “So What”

Four weeks after first recording “So What,” on March 2nd, 1959, Miles Davis’s band recorded the song again in a Manhattan TV studio. Shot for a thirty-minute episode of CBS’s short-lived Roy Herridge Theater series, the footage aired as The Sounds of Miles Davis, an episode dedicated to the trumpeter’s music and broadcast during the era of his skyrocketing fame. What makes this televised version significant isn’t simply the way it captures the first recorded public performance of one of jazz’s most beloved compositions. Nor is it that the band plays the song without alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (he was sick with a migraine), or that pianist Wynton Kelly takes the place of pianist Bill Evans, although those elements do contribute. What’s significant is its feel.

To my ears, the emotional power and melodicism of Davis and Coltrane’s solos match those of the originals on Kind of Blue, which isn’t something I can say about most of the live recordings Davis’s bands made of “So What” in the decade that followed. The fact that we have two equally inspired versions of this canonical song, from the month of its birth, confirms and complicates what seems like the simple idea behind Davis’s approach to the album: that first takes are best takes. It also shows how right Davis was about the connection between improvisation and newness. He knew that a certain lack of familiarity with the material could improve a soloist’s ingenuity, and that band leaders were wise to create conditions which fostered this relationship.

As biographer Ian Car put it, Miles—like his mentor and old bandmate Charlie Parker—believed that “the most creative and dynamic solos occurred on the first takes.” “I’ve recorded with Miles,” said trombonist J. J. Johnson, “and I know how he operates. Most of the time he goes into the studio and one take is it! Goofs or not, there’s no second or third take.” When Davis took his sextet in to record Kind of Blue, he pushed the first take philosophy even further.

The legend has Davis arriving at the studio with a few rough song sketches jotted down. The engineer rolls tape, and each musician nails their moving, inventive solos on the first try, while essentially learning each tune. In the album’s original liner notes, Bill Evans encourages this perception when he says, “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates.” The truth is more complex.

Kind of Blue is composed not of first tries, but of, with one exception, first fulltakes. Davis arrived at the studio with certain songs loosely charted. Some, like “Freddie Freeloader” and “So What,” weren’t written down at all. He gave his musicians scant directions, sometimes about where to solo, sometimes about the type of drum beat to play. Unlike sessions for most of Miles’s midcentury recordings, the band never formally rehearsed the material; yet it wasn’t entirely new to them either. The song “All Blues” developed during a few months of live performance. Bill Evans composed part of “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches,” though the amount is debated. And according to drummer Jimmy Cobb, before the recording session, the band “had played [‘So What’] once or twice on gigs.”

Despite this rough preparation and vague familiarity with certain tunes, spontaneity still defines the album. What you hear on record are performances electrified by the anxiety and excitement of discovery, of musicians fumbling and fretting and figuring out each song’s melodic potential and essential character as they went. This is what Davis wanted: songs composed of improvised passages, where off-the-cuff solos, as much as ensembles or prepared themes, defined the composition.

As Cannonball Adderely explained it, Miles was “tired of tunes.” In Bebop and into its successor, Hard Bop, the standard jazz song had musicians playing the song’s theme. Each musician then took a turn to solo, moving through a limited number of chord changes, before returning to the theme to wrap it up. Miles wanted more. “A solo is the way he thinks about the composition, and the solo became the thing,” said Adderley. “He thinks a solo can be a composition if it’s expressed the right way.” Davis’s first take philosophy helped make that happen on Kind of Blue. It wasn’t the first time.

In order to satisfy contractual obligations in 1956, Davis famously took his quintet into the studio on two separate days and recorded enough material for four albums: Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’ and Relaxin’. The material is timeless. Many fans consider it some of jazz’s best. In addition to the personnel and set lists, what animates these sessions is the approach: they’re live albums, recorded without overdubs or second takes. The band had played these tunes numerous times—it was essentially their working repertoire—so the material wasn’t unfamiliar in the way that the Kind of Blue material was when they recorded it. But by trusting his musicians’ instincts, Davis’s first take, best take philosophy captured his band as they sounded in clubs, and he provided undeniable examples of the way the pressure and freedom of live performance can yield exalted, imaginative solos.

If Kind of Blue displays the strengths of the first take philosophy, then the life history of “So What” provides a window into the flipside of improvisation: the way continued live performance can inhibit innovation and yield less imaginative, or at least less appealing, solos.

The CBS TV footage marked the beginning of the song’s inclusion in Davis’s live set list. From 1959 to 1969, Davis’s bands regularly performed the song in concert. It was popular. In the spring of 1960, Davis played it night after night in Europe with Coltrane, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly. After Coltrane left, saxophonist Hank Mobley filled the tenor slot and played “So What” with Davis. And in 1963 when Miles replaced his old band with a new one containing Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, they played “So What” all over the world. In the case of this song, Davis gave audiences what they wanted, though not in the form they might have craved.

Each new musician altered the band dynamic, as did Davis’s ever-changing interests. These factors combine to make the live versions of “So What” a map of the trumpeter’s continuing evolution: from modal jazz and Hard Bop, to a more free form experimentation that led him to fusion. In the process of evolving, Davis so thoroughly transforms the song that the mid-60s versions almost demand a different title than the 1959 and 1960 ones.

Listen to 1961 “So What” recorded with Mobley at Carnegie Hall. Listen to the take with Hancock and Carter from Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, and the 1964 takes from Lincoln Center on Four & More, 1964 Tokyo and Berlin, and the Plugged Nickel in 1965. The post-Coltrane versions are faster. The percussion becomes more forceful, polyrhythmic and free-ranging, often raucous and messy. Davis and the tenors after Mobley aren’t playing in the Hard Bop idiom so much as playing a decorously avant-garde, sometimes aggressive style in a post-Ornette Coleman world. There’s a loosening of conventions in these later versions, less interest in melody, standard rhythms and traditional harmonic progression. Although it’s not truly free jazz, the music often sounds a lot like it. Now listen to the versions from CBS television and Kind of Blue. The tempos are slower, the drumming simpler, more ventilated.

Both takes are poignant and moody, and they contain the strengths of many of Davis’s best mid-century solos and ballads: lyricism, grace, melody laced with darkness and sensitivity, composed as much by the notes he plays as by the spaces he leaves between them. This is why they resonate with me.

The longer Davis performed “So What,” the less emotionally engaging it became. Although the basic song structure seemed to remain interesting to the musicians as a forum for experimentation and point of departure, repeat live performance was also a form of emotional dilution—if not the opposite of the improvisational freshness that Miles sought in studio, then at least a process that inhibited the profound, expressive moods of the originals. In other words, the first takes were the best takes. The later soloists are still improvising, just in a different way than when the song was in its infancy. They’re not exploring a new composition to see where they can take it melodically so much as testing the nature and meaning of jazz itself. As a listener, I find that less appealing.

Reviewing Davis’s 1965 album E.S.P. for Down Beat magazine, trumpeter Kenny Dorham inadvertently articulated the problem: “I like to rate albums in the way that they move me emotionally as well as otherwise. Emotionally, as a whole, this one is lacking. It’s mostly brain music. . . .E.S.P. music, in general, is monotonous—one long drone. It’s not for me.” What Miles said in the Sketches of Spain liner notes applies as much to his approach to that album as it does to the inadequacies Dorham references. “It was hard to get the musicians to realize that they didn’t have to play perfect,” Davis wrote. “It was the feeling that counted.” Even though feeling clearly matter to Davis, later versions of “So What” contain so little of it. They’re mostly brain music.

How you react to Dorham’s and my assessments reveals less about the quality of the songs as it does about you as a listener. Tell me which versions of “So What” you like, and I’ll tell you what kind of jazz fan you are. Do you prefer the avant-garde or the swinging stuff? The bluesy, gospel-infused back beat of Hard Bop, or cleaner, brassier, funkier ensembles? Ornette Coleman or Coleman Hawkins? Oscar Peterson or Thelonious Monk? Of course, you can like them all. More often than not, Ornette fans find Hawkins ordinary or outdated, and Monk fans find Peterson lacking a certain fire and angularity. (In the world of distilled spirits, people often say that you either like Scotch or bourbon, but not both. I like both, just specific kinds.) The issue of “So What” is a matter of taste not quality, because it isn’t the same song across the years. It’s played not only by different musicians, but by different Miles Davises.

Some fans and critics like to say that Davis played “So What” so fast in the ’60s because he’d grown bored with it; he performed it out of obligation to concert goers, but sped the tempo to get it over with. Whether or not that’s true, by the time he hired Hancock and Carter, he’d lost interest in many of the ideas that went into the recording of Kind of Blue. He wasn’t modal Miles anymore. He was interested in what he and Hancock called “controlled freedom”—not quite free jazz, but equally exploratory in its defiance of tradition. Davis was always changing. “I have to change,” he once said. “It’s like a curse.” The live versions of “So What” chart specifically how he changed.

As Hancock described the band, “[W]hen people were hearing us, they were hearing the avant-garde on the one hand, and they were hearing the history of jazz that led up [to] it on the other—because Miles was that history. He was that link.” So too with “So What.” The song bridged the post-Bop and free jazz eras, combining the mix of tradition and reinvention that defined those revolutionary times in jazz and American society. “So What” was effectively an artifact from Davis’s previous identity. He no longer played it how the band first composed it, because he was no longer the same person.

As a listener, I’m still not into it. To me, the later versions don’t completely lack feeling so much as lack the feelings that I gravitate to in jazz. I like early and middle Freddie Hubbard and Jackie McLean, not later. I like blues and gospel, prefer Art Blakey and Horace Silver to Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill. And my Miles is Workin’ and Milestones Miles, not Nefertiti or Bitches Brew. Although the 1961 version of “So What” recorded at the Blackhawk Supper Club in San Francisco is often hailed as a classic, I find it more chaotic than emotive. The strongest feeling it induces is frazzled nerves. Same with the Lincoln Center and Plugged Nickel performances. To me, they’re too fast, too frantic, the solos too showy. Flash and verbosity take the place of melody and emotion. Where Kind of Blue and Davis’s mid-’50s style scaled back the clutter and speed of Bebop and highlighted his lyricism, the mid-60s saw speed and clutter return to his performances, a concern with pyrotechnics rather than the lyricism of economy. I’m with Dorham: “It’s not for me.”

During a March, 1969 concert at Duffy’s Backstage in Rochester, New York, Davis performed “So What” for the last time. It seems safe to assume he’d tired of it, since whenever he changed, he rarely looked back at his previous work, and he’d changed a lot by then. As he told The Jazz Times in 1986: “‘So What’ or Kind of Blue, they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over [. . .]. What I used to play with Bill Evans, all those different modes, and substitute chords, we had the energy then and we liked it. But I have no feel for it anymore—it’s more like warmed-over turkey.” If he had “no feel for” the song anymore, we might take that to mean he no longer found it stimulating to experiment with, or that he no longer even found it bearable to perform by rote. A mapped frontier offers few opportunities for exploration, and pioneers like Davis are only interested in exploration. According to one exhaustive Miles Davis fan site, he’d performed “Bye Bye Blackbird” live for seven years before retiring it, “Now’s the Time” for ten. As he said, Kind of Blue was done at “the right hour, the right day”, which is the essence of a first take: a single, ephemeral convergence of factors, whose energy and dynamics you cannot recreate and have to let go of once they dissipate.

Like most of his songs, “So What” held the most interest for him during the beginning of his relationship with it, and I, as a listener, can hear his interest peak and wane. Maybe I’m reading into it. Maybe I’m hearing boredom where there are only stylistic shifts. I don’t think so. Whatever his reasons, Davis struck the song from his set list, exactly ten years after he first recorded it, and moved onto the next thing, just as he should have.

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Tin HouseAGNI, Black Warrior Review, Brick, The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg ReviewThe Normal School, and Hotel Amerika, and articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Yeti. He sells tea in Portland, Oregon and lives online at aarongilbreath.wordpress.com. (updated 1/2013)

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