Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (#492)

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the album from which ‘So What’ is taken, is perhaps the best selling jazz album of all time.  If you’ve only ever heard one or two jazz songs in your life, chances are good that one of them is ‘So What’ (and the other one is probably ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck).  As of 2019, Kind of Blue had sold over five million copies, making it one of the very few instances in your lifetime of a conspicuous overlap between high art and popular culture.

And make no mistake, when we invoke art in connection with what the Miles Davis Quintet are doing on Kind of Blue…?  We’re talking Art with a capital ‘A’.  Ars gratia artis:  pushing the envelope of what has and can be done, delivering a type of music from embryonic conception into full-blown reality.

A composer and musical theorist named George Russell developed what he called the ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization’ in 1953.  Each of the songs on Kind of Blue (1959) and its predecessor Milestones (1958) are an experiment, more or less, in Russell’s theory of modality:

The term ‘modal jazz’ refers to improvisational music that is organized in a scalar (‘horizontal’) way rather than in a chordal (‘vertical’) manner. By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion. A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be more or less derived from the prevailing mode.” — Peter Spitzer, ‘Modal Jazz

Did you catch all that?  That’s the simple version.

No disrespect to any of the other entrants, but discovering Davis and his Kind of Blue collaborators on this Rolling Stone list — shoe-horned in among modern hip-hoppers, 80’s pop stars, and 70’s soft rock icons — is a little like attending a middle school science fair and finding a working cold fusion engine amidst the volcano, tidal wave, and dinosaur bone exhibits.

Why has Kind of Blue and ‘So What’ endured over the decades as both entry point for neophytes and accepted classic for connoisseurs?

Well, for starters, the members of the Miles Davis Quintet that you’re hearing were literally some of the best musicians on the planet.[1]And if any of them were alive today, they’d still be perhaps the best musicians on the planet.  Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums)…if they were a sports team, they’d all be first ballot Hall of Famers.  Each and every one of them looms large in the history of jazz and American music.

In addition to all that, ‘So What’ is just insanely, other-worldly cool.  As cool as cool gets.  Cool as the other side of the pillow.  So cool that you can’t help but cover yourself with some of its coolness just by proximity to it (seriously, playing it will bolster your self-esteem and increase your prestige in the eyes of your fellow man).  You don’t need to know anything about jazz or music theory to fall under its intricate, atmospheric spell.  It’s music for Real People.™

Michael Strum: “Suffice it to say, Miles Davis was a giant. ‘So What’ is a perfect introduction to his canon, with all its grandeur. The balance, the construction, the consumate technial skill, the obvious love. The track plays on like the scale of the Himalayas; just when your eye thinks you’re done, you see another ridge and valley beyond, ’til you can’t fathom what your eyes are reporting. Such is what Miles Davis gives the ears. One doesn’t have to like peanuts or care about agricultural science to appreciate George Washington Carver; so it is with jazz and Miles Davis. Some genius is so great as to require only the slightest scrap of humanity to see it; we are all better for it.”

Rolling Stone: It’s likely that no song on this list has soundtracked more dinner parties than Kind of Blue’s warm, welcoming first track. But at the time it was a jarring departure, trading bebop chord changes for a more open-ended modal style. According to pianist Bill Evans, the trumpeter worked up his material just hours before recording dates, but the all-star band here sounds like it’s been living with “So What” for years: Saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley turn in solos that have since become as iconic as any in jazz history, and the rhythm section of Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb swings like it’s dancing on air.


1 And if any of them were alive today, they’d still be perhaps the best musicians on the planet.