Book Review: “3 Shades of Blue” — Transcendent Art, Despite Personal Demons

By Allen Michie

3 Shades of Blue is at its most compelling seen as an extended essay about drugs, creativity, the jazz life, and the mysterious nature of musical genius. 

3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool by James Kaplan. Penguin, 496 pages, $35.

This is a book that promises something other than it delivers, but it ends up being all the better for it.

Starting with the title, the implication is that 3 Shades of Blue is about the famous Miles Davis album Kind of Blue (1959) and the three central musical geniuses behind it. But Kind of Blue isn’t at the center of this book, and neither is it at the center of the careers of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Bill Evans (hereafter referred to as the KOB3). Also, this book isn’t about what it means to be “cool,” how “cool” formed some kind of “empire,” or how the “cool” ever lost said empire. The title has the ring of something a committee at Penguin Books came up with, not James Kaplan (an experienced novelist, essayist, reviewer, and author of two Frank Sinatra biographies).

So what is 3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool about? It’s trying to do several smaller things, not one big thing. What it gains in scope and ambition, it sacrifices in cohesion. It contains three shortened, general biographies that alternate more often than they overlap. It’s also a book about Kind of Blue, although those sessions account for less than 5% of its pages. Above all else, the volume is an extended essay on the paradox of the slow, painful climb to the pinnacle of one’s artform, followed by the rapid, even more painful self-imposed descent to a place far worse than the starting point. Miles Davis and Bill Evans both went there, and came back, and went there again. John Coltrane went there, came back, then ascended to someplace unknowable.

Here’s what Kaplan set out to write, according to his acknowledgements section:

But what if, instead of just writing about the album, I were to tell the stories of these three great artists both as men and musicians, before, during, and after the recording of the record that brought them together? There was a lot there: musically, historically, psychologically. Racially. There was the big story of the devolution of jazz — the only purely American artform — in the second half of the twentieth century, from a music that brought the country together, made it dance, to an art music, a niche music, one that fewer and fewer people found understandable or compelling. Kind of Blue seemed to sit almost precisely at the hinge between jazz’s 1950s glories and its slide into esotericism.

That’s a ludicrously tall order for one book. Three lifetime biographies, a history of jazz from bebop to the death of Davis in 1991, and the (supposed) devolution of jazz. Experienced jazz listeners familiar with these three life stories will find the biographies frustratingly reduced. There are some fresh observations about Kind of Blue, but nothing that rivals the detail supplied by Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (2000). There’s little new information or research to add to the record, apart from some original interviews (including with Davis). However, readers new to jazz, eager to explore exactly what clicked inside them when they heard Kind of Blue for the first time, will profit from every page of this book.

Kaplan the subjective essayist is more compelling that Kaplan the objective historian. The book is at its most engaging as an extended essay about drugs, creativity, the jazz life, and the mysterious nature of musical genius. He’s also an excellent storyteller. Even while he debunks some myths about these jazz legends, Kaplan has a way with a good anecdote; his use of them, at times, makes 3 Shades of Blue seem like a novel with a trio of gripping subplots that sometimes interweave. Perhaps it’s that novelistic feel that creates the expectation that the Kind of Blue recording sessions should serve as the climax. But the fact remains (and Kaplan prioritizes fact over storytelling) that Kind of Blue was something of a lucky one-off fluke in the careers of the KOB3. The most advanced parts of all three careers came after Kind of Blue; in fact, the album wasn’t particularly influential regarding their later music. Kaplan resists the temptation to make the album more than it really was, pointing out that the reputation of Kind of Blue only took off when all three musicians had moved beyond, with Davis and Coltrane already into radically different styles of music. Much of the album’s reputation is due to the undeniably superb music, but Kaplan also clears space to give a good deal of credit to the canny and aggressive advertising department at Columbia Records, which was determined to make Miles Davis a star. And did.

As both Kahn and Kaplan make clear in their books, Kind of Blue was just another recording session for the KOB3, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers. There wasn’t even a sense during the two recording sessions that something very special was going on tape. Excellence at this level was fairly routine for what became known as Davis’ First Great Quintet (plus the brilliant addition of Adderley), indisputably one of the greatest jazz bands ever assembled. What Kaplan adds to Kahn’s book is a more detailed emphasis on how Kind of Blue was actually less innovative, in some ways, than the legend has led us to believe. The author rightly gives much of the credit to George Russell, and via Russell to Evans, for bringing modal music to jazz. There’s a fine section on what modal music is, how it works, and how it feels in contrast to standard song forms based on chord changes. Kaplan pinpoints how modal music was a perfect match for Davis’ style. For example, Kaplan writes that the track “All Blues” both graces and transcends the form that Miles is about to leave behind:

“All Blues” contains two inventions by Davis that, characteristically, are seemingly simple but subtly powerful. A normal blues in G stays in G for the first eight bars: the change is in shifting from G7 to what Jimmy Heath called ‘a G minor sound . . . [making Miles’s] improvisation sound a little dissonant, and a little more sophisticated.’ Less chordal, more modal. Kind of blue.

Fans of Kind of Blue (and if you’re not one, seriously, treat yourself) will find revelations here. Davis was strongly influenced by the kalimba, the African thumb piano, both in his approach to modal music and in discovering a new way to structure melody. You might have never noticed the similarity of “So What” to Bobby Timmons’ hit with Art Blakey, “Moanin’.” And credit is given to the key roles of the producer and sound engineers on the sessions. On the other hand, it’s a little depressing to see almost no attention given to the contributions of Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers. That’s a mistake not made in Kahn’s book.

Now for a few comments on the four main characters of this history: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Heroin.

After a gossipy opening section rehashing the overly hyped clash between Davis and Wynton Marsalis, Kaplan takes a careful walk through Davis’ early years in East St. Louis and his move to New York City to study at Julliard. That didn’t last long before Miles revealed to his stern father the real reason for his going to New York, which was to track down Charlie Parker. Even as a teenager, and even when he didn’t have the trumpet chops to back it up, Davis was ambitious. It’s like he already knew he was going to be MILES DAVIS when he became an adult. Parker is a strong presence for both Davis and Coltrane in the first quarter of the book (there’s a smart take on an early photograph of Coltrane listening to Parker), and Kaplan shows how Bird’s influence was as much psychological and cultural as musical. Kaplan is excellent on the development of the “Birth of the Cool” band and sessions — one of the best parts of the book is about Gil Evans’ chaotic apartment and the social/musical networking that went on there. It was truly a different age; these days kids major in Jazz Studies and get MFA degrees.

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans recording A Kind of Blue. Photo: Wiki Common

Davis’ hot-and-cold personality, and the convienent division of his career into tidy chapters, makes for great storytelling. Rather than relying on clichés about Davis the Great Leader, Kaplan argues instead that Davis, in contrast to Parker, was by nature a great collaborator. “His artistic ambitions — and limitations — led him on a lifelong quest for collaboration and broader musical meaning, and Gil Evans joined him at the start of his voyage.” Kaplan also busts the myth of Davis constantly moving forward — he even commits the heresy of arguing that Miles went backward with the Second Great Quartet, playing the old songs from the ’50s when Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter were eager to play the brilliant new Shorter songs they were putting on record and experiment with elements of the new Free Jazz. Davis takes some hits in the ’70s, too, when he was none too happy about seeing his audience thin out (and whiten), on top of the indignity of playing as opening act for Hancock, one of his former sidemen.

So much is left out of Davis’ long, complex, and varied life. The trumpeter’s 1959 beating by a cop outside of Birdland is treated only parenthetically, though it was a central shaping event in Davis’ psychology for the rest of his life. The Ascenseur pour l’echafaud soundtrack session isn’t given enough attention as Davis’ main follow-up to the modal approach of Kind of Blue. The disproportionately long “After” chapter completely misses In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson, and everything from the ’80s and ‘90s after We Want Miles.

Davis is the center of gravity in Kaplan’s book by virtue not only of his band leadership, but also by his dominating personality. He kept others in their subordinate place: he once punched Coltrane in the gut, and he played a cruel practical joke on Evans (he faked an initiation ritual into the band). Coltrane and Evans come across as rather passive by comparison; a pair of inherently shy individuals who were deeply focused on practicing, developing a voice, dealing with their families, and slowly climbing the ladder into the jazz Big Time. Davis comes across as someone who was always, from the very beginning, waiting for the Big Time to catch up to him.

Miles Davis performing in 1972. Photo: Michael Ullman.

Most people come to Coltrane backwards. They start with him at his mid/late career masterpiece A Love Supreme, or maybe his mid-career swingers like Blue Train, My Favorite Things, or Giant Steps. Few remember what Coltrane spent much of his life doing — playing in R&B bands, literally “walking the bar” in juke joints, filling in with big bands, and picking up touring gigs (a prize opportunity was with Ellington’s alto player Johnny Hodges). Kaplan covers this period of Coltrane’s life well, tracing his development as both a young man and a musician. It wasn’t until Coltrane landed in Davis’ band, plus a brief but extraordinarily productive interval in Thelonious Monk’s quartet, that he found his own distinctive sound and style. Davis gave him the freedom to experiment and stretch out; Monk schooled him in theory. Once Coltrane returned to Davis’ band, just in time for Kind of Blue, he was a master jazz musician in every sense.

For readers who like Coltrane but who just can’t process his late-career work, from Ascension (1966) onward, Kaplan’s book is recommended reading. He does an excellent job of showing the rise of Ornette Coleman (a kind of joker, if not quite the antagonist, in this semi-novel), explaining the appeal of Free Jazz to musicians like Coltrane. He is insightful on Coltrane’s mental state, especially in his post-Kind of Blue leadership, and he does not portray him as a modern-day saint. Kaplan’s Coltrane is an ordinary, flawed human being, someone who isn’t always sure where he’s going and if it’s always a good idea. It is a portrait of someone whose spiritual movement upward was always in conflict with his physical body pushing him back downward.

Kaplan mentions the First Great Quintet’s 1960 tour of Europe as a practical matter regarding their comings and goings. What he omits is depicting how the quintet was on fire, building rapidly and scintillatingly on the lessons learned making Kind of Blue, and how Davis and Coltrane were both playing at career peaks. In just those few months on tour, Coltrane emerged fully formed; by the end he was more than ready to become a leader. Still, there are many nice touches in Kaplan’s overview of Coltrane’s brief life, and fans will find much that both canonizes and humanizes the man. For example, after Elvin Jones’ first gig with the band, Coltrane was so impressed that he immediately took him out for a big plate of ribs.

Pianist Bill Evans in 1964. Photo: Jan Persson

Bill Evans was a piece of work. I had no idea. If you’re familiar with his gorgeously sensitive piano playing but not his biography, Kaplan’s book will have several unpleasant surprises. Perhaps Evans was such a great ballad player (arguably the best in jazz history) because he was unhappy for almost his entire life. He escaped a crowded family and a neglectful father through absorption in classical music and constant practicing. By the time he made it to New York jazz circles, he was well aware of his nerdy appearance and white-boy image, not that any of the Black musicians and audiences were going to let him forget it. He lived immersed in insecurity, even after he found peers like Russell and Davis who took him seriously as a musician. Those who think of Davis mostly as a badass in a Ferrari might be surprised that he and Evans would spend hours together in the Juilliard library pouring over symphony scores.

Evans grew the least of the KOB3. While Miles was making On the Corner and Coltrane was making Expression, Evans had taken to recycling stylistic habits. Drummer Paul Motian left the famous trio mostly because he was bored. But Evans heroically persisted in his vision, resisting the powerful tides of Free Jazz and Fusion that had taken Coltrane and Davis out to sea. When the ’70s came around, Evans’ biggest changes were to update his look and get a 22-year-old girlfriend.

But the story of Evans is inseparable from the story of the fourth character in this book — the villain — as omnipresent as the very air the KOB3 breathe. Even when it’s not there, it’s there, either in the missteps the KOB3 are struggling to repair, or lurking in the bloodstream waiting to destroy anything that might look like happiness: heroin, LSD, cocaine, and alcohol. For example, Evans recorded prolifically in 1962, including the famous duets and quintets with Jim Hall. But this wasn’t because of an outpouring of inspiration from a restless artistic imagination — it was because the loan sharks who were supplying Evans’ heroin habit were threatening to break his fingers if he didn’t pay up. They don’t include that on the album liner notes.

The strongest part of Kaplan’s book is his extended demystification of the drug culture in jazz. The old cliché is still with us that a chemical addiction is a necessity to be someone with a life hard enough to inform the depth and brilliance of playing great jazz (see Brad Mehldau’s recent Formation: Building a Personal Canon, Part 1). Kaplan quotes Dexter Gordon, “We were the revolutionaries. We did what was new and hip with no forethought of consequences. Heroin just became part of the scene.” According to Sonny Rollins, “Using drugs was, in a strange way, a negation of the money ethic. Guys were saying, ‘I don’t care about this, I don’t care how I dress or how I look, all I care about is music.’”

John Coltrane at Stanford University, January 1966.
Photo: Andy Nozaka.

Hey, you want to play like Bird? You’ll need to do heroin like him. Hey, you want to beat your wife in a rage of paranoid delusion like Miles? Want to pick your nose and eat your boogers on stage like Coltrane? Want to stack newspapers to the ceiling in your kitchen, rot out your teeth, have chunks of flesh missing from your legs, and have your junkie girlfriend take all your money and lose it in Atlantic City then put on one of your outfits and throw herself in front of a train like Bill Evans? You’ll need to do heroin like them.

Kaplan is relentless and damn effective. He includes devastating lists of an entire generation of jazz musicians, the major founders of bop (except, thank Heaven, for Dizzy Gillespie), and how young they were when they died. He intersperses them in the text with no transition. The strategy might be to quietly remind you, while you’re thinking of something else, of an insistent undercurrent — the drugs, the suffering, the incalculable sacrifice of artistic potential, and the lost years of magnificent music we were denied. Coltrane died at 40. Try not to think about that.

This is an odd book, not quite three biographies, not quite a study of Kind of Blue, not quite a history of modern jazz. It’s all of those things in turn, but not to the extent that will satisfy readers looking for something comprehensive. Its dedication to unvarnished truth undermines any assumption that Kind of Blue was as central to the careers of the KOB3 as it is to every jazz lover’s record collection. What you will take away from this book is the ancient story of great art and its artists — that works of heartbreaking and awe-inspiring beauty are often created by deeply flawed individuals, not because of, but in spite of, their devouring personal demons.

Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. You can find an archive of his essays and reviews at


  1. S Osterholt on March 27, 2024 at 3:13 pm

    Compliments to Allen Michie on a very proper, well written review of 3 Shades. I had just finished reading the book and the review is a timely recap that genuinely helped me harmonize the rather scattered book. Enough so that I am going back to do some re-reading of a few sections. Based on Allen’s commentary those sections will be better understood and appreciated.

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