James Kaplan in conversation with Wright Thompson
discusses his new book
3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool
Published by Penguin Press
The myth of the ’60s depends on the 1950s being the “before times” of conformity, segregation, straightness—The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man. This all carries some truth, but it does nothing to explain how, in 1959, America’s great indigenous art form, jazz, reached the height of its power and popularity, thanks to a number of Black geniuses so legendary they go by one name—Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Coltrane, and, above all, Miles. Nineteen fifty-nine saw Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and more come together to record what is widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time, and certainly the bestselling: Kind of Blue.
3 Shades of Blue is James Kaplan’s magnificent account of the paths of the three giants to the mountaintop of 1959 and beyond. It’s a book about music, and business, and race, and heroin, and the towns that gave jazz its home, from New Orleans and New York to Kansas City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and LA. It’s an astonishing meditation on creativity and the strange hothouses that can produce its full flowering. It’s a book about the great forebears of this golden age, particularly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the disrupters, like Ornette Coleman, who would take the music down truly new paths. And it’s about why the world of jazz most people know is a museum to this never-replicated period.
But above all, 3 Shades of Blue is a book about three very different men—their struggles, their choices, their tragedies, their greatness. Bill Evans had a gruesome downward spiral; John Coltrane took the mystic’s path into a space far away from mainstream concerns. Miles had three or four sea changes in him before the end. The tapestry of their lives is, in Kaplan’s hands, an American odyssey with no direction home. It is also a masterpiece, a book about jazz that is as big as America.
James Kaplan’s essays, stories, reviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and New York. His novels include Pearl’s Progress and Two Guys from Verona, a New York Times Notable Book for 1998. His nonfiction works include The Airport, You Cannot Be Serious (coauthored with John McEnroe), Dean & Me: A Love Story (with Jerry Lewis), Frank: The Voice,and Sinatra: The Chairman. He is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. He lives in Westchester, New York.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and the bestselling author of The Cost of These Dreams and Pappyland. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family.
What has been said about the work of James Kaplan
“Kaplan, the author of the definitive biography of Frank Sinatra, gives us a peek inside group genius at work . . . Throughout this vibrant text, the author captures the time and atmosphere perfectly—the music, the personalities, the fragrant aroma of weed in the air—and he brings us right into the performances . . . A marvelous must-read for jazz fans and anyone interested in this dynamic period of American music.” —Kirkus, (starred review)
“3 Shades of Blue is an instant classic, one that both jazz fanatics and casual fans will love. James Kaplan sweeps us into the dazzling world of Swing Street after World War II, a scene as mythical and magical as Pablo Picasso’s Paris, Timothy Leary’s San Francisco, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord. It is an intimate, enthralling portrait of the titans of 20th-century music—‘friends and geniuses together’—and the revolution they created.” —Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
“James Kaplan proves again that he is not only a penetrating commentator on American music, but also a compelling storyteller. In his new book, Kaplan writes about a decisive moment in modern jazz, and turns it into a genuine page-turner.” —Ted Gioia, author of The History of Jazz
“James Kaplan once more combines his formidable skill as an electrifying storyteller of the history of American music with a true depth of understanding of the art form itself—this time through the eyes of three jazz legends. This book reads like music. Don’t miss it.” —Seth MacFarlane, creator and executive producer, Family Guy and The Orville
This event made possible by support from the City Lights Foundation.