Miles Davis’s “So What” is one of the most famous compositions in jazz, instantly recognisable 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 realised 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 who 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 epitomise 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 favourite 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.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Hulton Archive