a literary review
Kind of Blue: Oakland, 1995
I first heard Kind of Blue, late at night, somewhere in Oakland, California. This was in 1995, and the LP was one you heard a lot in those days, at low-rent art spaces and cavernous warehouses where artists held parties to sell their work. I’m fairly certain my introduction to Mile Davis’ groundbreaking album came by way of a cigar-smoking, melancholy former Communist whose living room was lined with shelves of LPs, hundreds of them, space for which was being encroached upon by a rapidly growing collection of compact discs.
CDs were still a novelty then and the innovation proved irresistible, even to diehard LP collectors like my disconsolate friend. He was dedicated to vinyl, but continued to purchase CDs by the dozens, even as he lamented the audio quality as clearly inferior. Still, he reserved a special place for LPs like Kind of Blue. It was never played early in the evening, only late, when the fog settled on the eucalyptus trees and conversations tended to wane. I recall the precision, the reediness of Davis’ style, one that, I’m ashamed to say, I was only vaguely familiar with at the time. Miles Davis was known to me mostly as the mysterious sunglass-wearing trumpeter from the classic Bitches Brew, the electrified, boundary-breaking album that was too assertive for a jazz neophyte like myself. But Kind of Blue was a language I understood, a holdover from my father’s love of Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey, and Rosemary Clooney, all of which provided me the musical vocabulary to keep up.
First released on August 17, 1959, and recorded at Columbia’s 30th St. Studio in NYC, Kind of Blue featured a group of now-legendary players: John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The result, five tracks, forty-five minutes of Davis’ pioneering modal jazz, has since become the bestselling jazz album of all time and an acknowledged masterpiece.
The “blue” in Kind of Blue refers to the blue note, the jazz term for a note played slightly off pitch. I know this now, but back then, the blue of the title seemed to stand for a forlorn mood, a duende, or dark counterpoise, as Garcia Lorca called it. “All that has dark sound has duende, that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.” Kind of Blue expressed a kind of duende, just as the LP’s melancholy owner did, in his longing for something he could never name.
I think of Oakland too, when I hear Kind of Blue—not the city is it today, of high rents and hip restaurants and voracious development, but as it was in 1995, still fighting its post-WWII decline—a downtown of vacant office buildings, faded neon signs, and wide unpeopled blocks ablaze in Bay light. Mariah Carey’s Fantasy was at the top of the charts, Burning Man tickets sold for $35, and San Francisco was the at the vanguard of the video production industry. Yet Oakland was still struggling—from an unjust reputation as world’s most dangerous city, the collapse of the 880 freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. But for those who lived there, Oakland wasn’t tragic. We were glad people stayed away. A city where you can still find a parking place, we said, and it was true. Oakland’s problems kept outsiders away.
That same year, I worked at a nonprofit gallery, one of many arts and cultural organizations supported through City funding, but the equal driver of Oakland’s arts and culture was community activism. Three decades after the Vietnam War, antiwar protesters in Berkeley had shifted to local organizing, and were central to the grassroots effort to develop ongoing cultural programs and economic assistance—for youth, the elderly and the homeless. There were ambitious plans for nonprofit development and arts-based economic projects. One, the Uptown Entertainment District, would develop a neglected stretch of Broadway, the City’s main thoroughfare, with vibrant small businesses and cultural programming. Oakland’s artistic heritage would be revitalized with the blues, jazz and funk that came out of districts like Seventh Street and The Bottoms. There would be cafes and studios for painters, sculptors, and photographers.
But something different ended up happening in Oakland. Twenty years later, the locals organizers once aimed to serve are now an ever-shrinking few, the result of skyrocketing housing costs and a profound shift in the city’s demographics, income levels and cost of living—spillover from SF’s tech migration. Soon, Oakland’s Jack London Square will be home to Sunset Magazine, with retail space modeled on SF’s high-end Ferry Building. What would have been the Uptown Entertainment District is now simply Uptown, where the streets are lined with pubs and bistros and First Friday events fill the sidewalks. The turnaround has brought jobs, but the artists are leaving, the city’s racial and economic diversity are on the wane and its historic identity slipping away
It’s difficult, seeing change in a place you know well. When I think of how Oakland used to be, I can hear Kind of Blue. There is melancholy, but also a brightness, an unmatched wit and élan. After the LP’s release, the stellar group assembled by Davis broke up, and he went on to explore other musical ideas, leaving what is now considered a single, perfect experiment. The album represented an act of musical daring, consummately executed, and for Davis, an idea within a progression, one that had to be left behind in order to make way for the new.
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Lauren Alwan is a prose editor at the museum of americana. She was born in New York and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley outside Los Angeles. She now lives in the East Bay of San Francisco in a banana belt along the Hayward Fault. Her fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, and in the Sycamore Review as a finalist for the Wabash Prize in Fiction. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination and a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her essays and reviews have been featured at The Rumpus, The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and LitStack, where she is currently a staff contributor.