Who Wore It Best: ‘Round About Midnight Miles Davis vs. Blue Train John Coltrane

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Miles Davis made his name as a bandleader in the first half of the 1950s, defining the genre of hard bop alongside regular players such as Horace Silver, Kenny Clarke, and Percy Heath, luminaries like J. J. Johnson and a young Sonny Rollins, and briefer and more contentious collaborators including Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Yet this was also the period of a deep and painful addiction to heroin, which forced him to take the best part of a year off before he made a return to the recording studio, finally clean, in the spring of 1954.

The following year a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival saw critics heralding the ‘return of Miles Davis’, and he began to put together his first great quintet. With Davis on trumpet, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, the quintet was completed when John Coltrane replaced Sonny Rollins – who had checked himself into the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, at the time the only drug abuse facility in the United States – on tenor sax. 

This was a quintet lacking in experience and exposure, but after meeting with Davis the producer George Avakian had already promised a contract with Columbia Records. Davis still had to fulfill his obligations to Prestige, and he set to work with a session on 16 November 1955 that was released the following April as Miles. Then two marathon sessions – one on 11 May and the other on 26 October 1956 – produced the four albums Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’, classics of hard bop which would be released over the course of the next five years, and Davis’ association with Prestige was complete.

In fact with his final dates for Prestige still to be scheduled, the first recording session undertaken by the fledgeling Miles Davis quintet had been for Columbia: as on 26 October 1955, the five band members set upon Columbia 30th Street Studio to begin what would appear on 6 March 1957 as ‘Round About Midnight. Taking its lead from ‘Round Midnight’, the song composed in 1944 by Thelonious Monk which Davis had played to great acclaim at the Newport festival, the album was full of jazz standards like ‘All of You’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, and ‘Dear Old Stockholm’, and initially – in contrast to the four final Prestige issues – received only a lukewarm response.

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The cover of ‘Round About Midnight is credited to the influential designer S. Neil Fujita, who had arrived at Columbia in 1954 tasked with building a design team capable of competing with Blue Note. Fujita’s painted album covers, on Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet and Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus, brought abstract expressionism to the world of contemporary jazz, but for ‘Round About Midnight he instead edited a photograph of Davis which had been taken by Marvin Koner. Koner would become famous for his narrative photography and for the pictures he took of prominent musicians like Davis and Johnny Cash.

S. Neil Fujita simply flipped and cropped Koner’s photograph of Davis, looking pensive, slightly coy, but steadfast as he fingers lightly his trumpet, holding his face in his palm and peering out from behind shades. Koner had captured the image under the red lights of Cafe Bohemia, adding an enveloping sense of drive and menace not found in typical archival black-and-white. The album cover and Davis’s appearance have become part of his music’s mythology. Decades after the release of ‘Round About Midnight, the jazz critic and founder of Cadence Magazine Bob Rusch wrote:

‘everything about this date, from the black-and-white cover photo, washed in red, of Miles Davis, removed in thought behind dark glasses, to the performances, is classic. Not surprisingly, careful packaging and exquisite artistry have created a legend and, in this case, one of the essential recordings in the history of recorded music.’

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In April 1957, as a result of his work as part of the Miles Davis quintet, Bob Weinstock of Prestige offered John Coltrane a recording contract, for the first time affording him the opportunity to lead a band of his own. He had just been more or less fired by Davis owing – in yet another occurrence of a perennial problem in the 1950s jazz scene – to heroin addiction, although he would reunite with the quintet the following January.

In the meantime Coltrane took to performing live with Thelonious Monk, developing the ‘sheets of sound’ style which saw him playing dense lines full of improvised, high-speed arpeggios and scale patterns, and he began to record for Prestige. A flurry of sessions between April 1957 and December 1958 eventually yielded more than a dozen records under Coltrane’s name, but most of these were released by Prestige in the early-to-mid 1960s, long after Coltrane’s two-year contract had expired. Coltrane’s first album as a bandleader was titled simply Coltrane, and released by Prestige towards the end of 1957.

Despite the wealth of material he was busy putting to tape, Coltrane’s second album was not on Prestige at all, but instead saw him fulfilling a promise to Alfred Lion and Blue Note Records. Blue Train, released in early 1958, was the only album Coltrane ever recorded as a bandleader for Blue Note. The session – fitted in between a residency at the Five Spot as a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet – took place at the Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey on 15 September 1957, and saw Coltrane playing alongside his Davis quintet colleagues Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, with Kenny Drew on piano, Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Curtis Fuller on trombone rounding out the musicians.

With the exception of ‘I’m Old Fashioned’, the other tracks on Blue Train, including the title cut, were all Coltrane originals. Combining the pulse and sway of hard bop with seamless, slow-paced balladry, the album shows a more constrained Coltrane than would emerge a couple of years later on Giant Steps, but Blue Train stands as the artist’s first major work as a bandleader, and features the flourishing instances of what would become known as the Coltrane changes, his tendency to alter common chord progressions by descending in major thirds. The review of Blue Train by Lindsay Planer of AllMusic states:

‘Without reservation, Blue Train can easily be considered in and among the most important and influential entries not only of John Coltrane’s career, but of the entire genre of jazz music as well.’

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Reid Miles designed the Blue Train album cover, around a photograph of the artist taken in Hackensack by Francis Wolff. Wolff had been childhood friends with Alfred Lion, the co-founder and head of Blue Note, and he helped Lion in the running of the label, focusing on the finances while supervising and taking photographs of recording sessions.

The Blue Train cover shares marked similarities with Fujita’s cover for ‘Round About Midnight. Coltrane too appears pensive, although he seems more wistful, more malleable than Davis, eschewing a jacket for a loose-fitting polo shirt, his instrument to his left while the index finger of his right hand lingers across his lower lip. His eyes gaze downwards rather than straight ahead, and his left hand, rather than clutching at his saxophone, reaches behind his head. The cover’s blue wash was ostensibly inspired by Picasso’s Blue Period, although Davis had persevered through a Blue Period of his own in the early 1950s, and the following year, on 17 August 1959, would release his masterpiece of modal jazz Kind of Blue.