Simple, melodic and catchy, the song has sold millions of copies as the opening track of the landmark album Kind Of Blue
Ian McCann MAY 20 2016
Miles Davis’s “So What” is one of the most famous compositions in jazz, instantly recognizable from its introductory bass phrase. Recorded in 1959, it has sold millions of copies as the opening track of the album Kind Of Blue. It is simple, melodic, and catchy, but the song’s origins are complex. They can be found in what was once revolutionary harmonic theory, in classical music and African ballet, and several sections of the song were “borrowed”.
Davis was a musically restless soul. He played with Charlie Parker in the 1940s as part of the bebop movement; he launched “cool” jazz in 1948 alongside arranger Gil Evans, and had spent the mid-1950s playing hard bop, churning out jazz standards, show tunes, and pop songs with precision and energy. But Davis, a brilliant trumpeter, grew bored with this; improvising over the numerous chord changes of jazz tunes was not a challenge to him. Always as interested in the notes he didn’t play as much as those he did, Davis realized less could be more.
Davis and Gil Evans had fallen under the influence of composer and pianist George Russell, author of The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization, a radical book of “modal” jazz theory. In the late 1950s, Davis began to see Russell’s methods as the way out of the musical cul-de-sac he felt trapped in. He was further intrigued when he saw Les Ballets Africains, a dance ensemble from Guinea that used rhythm and space rather than complex chord changes in their music. Davis’s initial response was to record “Milestones”, a 1958 track that came to epitomize the modal jazz of its era, in which musicians improvised with scales that fitted the key of the song, without being enslaved to the chord changes. Davis decided to cut an entire album of modal material, Kind Of Blue.
“So What” opened this landmark LP. The introductory piano chords, played by Bill Evans, another student of Russell’s methods, were strongly reminiscent of the opening of Debussy’s “Voiles”, composed in 1909. This piano intro and Paul Chambers’ bass riff that follows are said to have been written by Gil Evans. The melody and use of chords are indebted to a mid-1950s cover of Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” by Ahmad Jamal, one of Davis’s favorite pianists. Movie actor Dennis Hopper claimed that Davis thought up the title when Hopper kept replying “So what?” when the pair were talking. “So What” may have had multiple sources, but in jazz’s reductive fashion, its composition was credited to Miles Davis.
Kind Of Blue was a runaway success, and made stars of saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, who played on it, as well as Bill Evans. “So What” has been particularly popular with guitarists, who like tunes based on riffs: Grant Green cut it in 1961, George Benson followed suit 10 years later, and “acid jazz” star Ronny Jordan turned it into a funk hit in 1992. Jordan was not the first, however, as the song was a substantial influence over James Brown’s 1967 classic “Cold Sweat”. Hip jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson added lyrics to Davis’s melody in 1968. Smiley Culture’s musing on the racial unrest in 1950s London, recorded by the dancehall MC for the 1986 movie Absolute Beginners, is the most unlikely vocal version.
Davis remained restless. Kind Of Blue made him one of the few jazz names known to the wider public, but his opinion of this masterwork was pretty much a shrugging “So what?” In 1986 he dismissed Kind Of Blue as “like warmed-over turkey”, even though many other jazz musicians would have loved to have made a record that brought them such commercial and critical acclaim.
style: modal jazz
form: 32-bar AABA
personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Cannonball Adderley, alto sax; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums.
What to Listen For:
- modal improvisation
- stylistic contrast among soloists (Davis, Coltrane, Adderley)
The bass ascends, prompting a two-note response from the piano: this prefigures, in slow tempo, the main head (see 0:33). The chords drift ambivalently, fitting no particular key area.
The piano and bass play a melody together.
Over plucked bass notes, the pianist plays a series of elusive, rubato chords.
The bass rumbles in its lowest register.
Chorus One (head)
In a steady tempo, the bass plays a repetitive riff. It is answered by a two-note chord from the piano, supported by the drums: “So what!”
When the A section is repeated, the response is now voiced by the three wind instruments. The drums intensify, playing the backbeat on the high-hat cymbal.
In a subtle but noticeable change, the pattern is transposed a half-step higher.
Everything drops back down again to the original key.
The trumpet enters one bar early, his entry announced by fills from the drums.
Miles Davis plays a few short phrases, the pianist comping in response.
Davis follows with a longer phrase: the piano is silent.
As Davis’s melodic line reaches its peak, he pulls slightly behind the beat.
Davis plays a few repeated notes; the piano returns.
To signal the bridge, the piano moves to a chord cluster up a half step. He holds the dissonant cluster underneath Davis’s solo.
The shift downward to the original key is signaled by a sharp drum accent.
Davis plays a lyrical, sustained passage over a static but rhythmically active bass line.
The bass shifts back to a walking bass pattern.
Davis enters the bridge one beat early with an unexpected dissonance.
Another drum crash marks the return back to the original key; Davis reprises the lyrical passage from the beginning of the chorus.
At the peak of his last phrase, Davis plays with a bluesy timbre.
While the drums continue to play strong accents to round up Davis’s solo, Coltrane echoes Davis’s restrained melodic statements with a few of his own.
Suddenly, Coltrane switches to a more intense style of improvising with flurries of fast notes. Evans responds with a peculiar comping pattern: holding out a few notes, releasing others.
The drummer plays more actively on the snare drum, matching the soloist in intensity.
As Coltrane reaches the upper limits of his phrase, his timbre coarsens.
Coltrane plays a phrase in his lower register, repeating it with extensions.
The drummer plays a Latin polyrhythm.
As in chorus three, the bass moves to a repeating pattern.
The bass returns to a walking bass pattern.
Coltrane plays a motive, then repeats it in sequence (starting on a different pitch).
Coltrane’s improvisations are built around a single note.
His last phrase begins in his highest register.
The rhythm section quiets down to allow the new soloist, on alto saxophone, to enter.5:08
Adderley alternates brief motives with lengthy, bebop-style 16th-note runs.
Adderley signals the bridge two beats early by playing notes from the upcoming scale.
Adderley bridges the return to the original mode by playing a short, four-note motive in sequence.
Adderley’s phrases interact in call-and-response with the piano.6:02
His next phrase contains a trill that blends seamlessly into his faster bebop lines.
A simple phrase situated firmly on the beat is followed by a sensuous swirl.
On the bridge, Adderley suddenly plays with an intense bluesy edge.
Underneath him, Evans hits his chords quickly, sustaining only a single note.
A short bluesy phrase elicits a high-pitched piano chord.
On his last phrase, Adderley expressively bends a note.
The horns enter with the “So What” riff, now displaced into a new rhythmic position. In response, the pianist plays dense, dissonant chords.
The pianist plays single-note lines, recalling Davis’s lyrical phrases.
On the bridge, the pianist returns to short, dissonant chord clusters.
Back in the home key, the pianist plays thinner clusters: a melody harmonized by the note immediately below it.
Chorus Nine (head)
The pianist shifts the “So What” riff back to its original position. The bass continues to walk.
The bass plays the call, with the horns joining the piano in responding with the “So What” chords.
The piano continues to respond to the bass, while the other instruments drop out. The music fades into silence.