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HomeEducation & JobsWhat’s the Greatest Jazz Record? Here’s a Clue: Miles Davis.

What’s the Greatest Jazz Record? Here’s a Clue: Miles Davis.

He never makes it clear why, “Kind of Blue” aside, he considers these three musicians uniquely emblematic of their era in jazz history; why them and not Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman? But he leaves no doubt that they loomed large, and he deftly draws a line from Davis, who began as a musically untested disciple of the pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker in the late 1940s, to both Coltrane, who was a largely unknown quantity when Davis hired him in the mid-1950s, and Evans, a similarly under-the-radar white pianist whose presence in Davis’s sextet a few years later raised eyebrows for racial as well as musical reasons. (If he never quite makes a connection between Coltrane and Evans beyond their brief time together with Davis, there’s a good reason: There really isn’t one.)

This book does not contain much that the serious jazz fan won’t already know. Kaplan does offer enough new material, culled from interviews he has done over the years with, among other people, Miles Davis himself, to hold the interest of even the most jaded I’ve-heard-it-all-before jazzbo, but his book seems primarily aimed at the jazz novice.

Moments here, however, are likely to leave the jazz novice feeling lost. For example, early in the book Kaplan quotes Davis’s trumpet protégé Wallace Roney recalling that Davis told him, shortly after their first meeting, “I never liked Brown — Clifford Brown.” Anyone who shares the widely held view that Clifford Brown was one of the outstanding jazz trumpeters of the modern era will probably wonder: Was Davis just trying to get a reaction? Was he, even decades after Brown’s early death, jealous? Or did he really mean what he said? The non-aficionado, on the other hand, will probably wonder: Who’s Clifford Brown? Kaplan doesn’t say, and he doesn’t shed any light on Brown’s place in jazz for another hundred pages.

Telling three life stories in one book is an impressive feat of conciseness for an author who took two hefty volumes (“Frank: The Voice” and “Sinatra: The Chairman”) to tell the story of Frank Sinatra. Inevitably some nuance has been sacrificed, some details left out — I wish crucial sidemen like the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, a key member of Davis’s second great quintet, had gotten more attention — but Kaplan hits the most important notes.

Whether “3 Shades of Blue” amounts to more than three mini-biographies is another question.

Kaplan’s subtitle suggests an ambitious agenda. I’m not entirely sure what he means by the “empire of cool,” but this is his basic thesis:

His three protagonists played a vital role in bringing jazz to an artistic peak in the 1950s and ’60s. Then things went south for the music, in terms of both its quality and the size of its audience, to the point that “jazz today, when it isn’t utterly ignored, is widely disliked.” For Kaplan, the genres known as bop and hard bop, which flourished in those years, provided “almost all of jazz that I want and need.”

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