3 Shades Of Blue: Miles, Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans And The Lost Empire Of Cool

James Kaplan doesn't tell us what cool is or when it was lost, but he writes engagingly about the three men who came together on Kind Of Blue


The last thing the jazz world needs now is another book about Kind Of Blue. Or indeed any more articles and reviews about it, either. Ashley Kahn wrote the definitive book about the making of Miles Davis’s masterpiece back in 2000 and it needs no replacement. So let the music stand as it is, and let us all move on.

But then, this book is not really about Kind Of Blue at all, which only makes its brief appearance after 280 pages and is then only fleetingly discussed. Rather, this is a book about the musical journey undertaken after 1945 by three remarkable musicians, three musicians who developed their musical skills in different ways, came together for a single album in early 1959, the annus mirabilis of jazz music as the author calls it, and then continued their varied and startlingly different careers apart.

The author James Kaplan is an New York essayist and reviewer for the likes of Vanity Fair and Esquire, whose books have included a two-volume life of Frank Sinatra and profiles of Irving Berlin and John McEnroe, among others. He admits to knowing little about Miles Davis when he first interviewed him in 1989, and to liking jazz without knowing much about it. But he writes like a dream, and in this case has a good story to tell, with a fine eye for the telling detail.

Miles inevitably dominates this story, but while his story is the best known, Kaplan reveals some fascinating insights into Coltrane – in particular his relationship to Thelonious Monk – and the ambiguity and refinement of Bill Evans, all of which make fascinating reading. Inevitably drugs and alcohol dominate, but here Kaplan is very astute, quoting Sonny Rollins, who argued that heroin was “our fight against discrimination, our way of fighting American culture”. Charlie Parker is the key witness for those who say heroin helps one live life to the limits, but his take on Coltrane is better, for Coltrane’s habit came from a place of sorrow and loss, not happiness. As it did with the childlike Bill Evans, whose junkie days make particularly harrowing reading.

In many ways this is a book about nostalgia, a looking back at “the lost empire of cool”, as the subtitle has it. Kaplan does not properly develop this theme, for he never really defines what he means by cool and when exactly its empire was lost. But he does believe that Kind Of Blue was a decisive moment in jazz history, and that, since then, the rest has been so much noise. Indeed, in talking about Miles, Coltrane and Evans post-Kind Of Blue, I suspect his heart is not really in it. But no matter, for as an overview of musical magnificence, this book cannot be bettered.

3 Shades Of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans And The Lost Empire Of Cool by James Kaplan. 2024, 484 pp h/b, 50+ b/w photos. US: Penguin Press, US $32, ISBN 978-0-525-56100-2. UK: Canongate Books, £25, ISBN 978-1-80530-200-1