Show #210: Miles Davis’s Classic “On Green Dolphin Street”

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Miles Davis never stood still. Similar to Coltrane and Picasso, Davis’s artistic evolution stemmed from a restless pursuit of new ideas and a desire to always keep his music fresh. He once said he’d rather work with a new group of inferior musicians compared to better players in past groups simply so as not to sound the same. Such was Davis’s sensibility and modus operandi.

And thus, we can feature Miles Davis’s three different recordings of the standard “On Green Dolphin Street” without fear of boredom or repetition.

“On Green Dolphin Street”: What a strange name for a song. It was a theme song for a film, but who wrote it? Does anybody even remember the film?

Green Dolphin Street is a 1947 film starring Lana Turner, Van Heflin, and Donna Reed about two English sisters who fall in love with the same man and the confusion that follows. It’s complicated, and you can check Wikipedia for the plot details if you want.

The song’s composer, Bronislaw Kaper, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1902 and started musical training at six. He moved to Berlin to write music for films, then to Paris as the Nazis came to power. Offered a seven-year contract by Louis B. Mayer at MGM in 1935, he moved to Hollywood. Kaper also scored the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935), Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946), Green Mansions starring Anthony Perkins and Audrey Hepburn (1959), and Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando (1962).

Green Dolphin Street is likely the most obscure and least-known of all the films Kaper scored. Miles Davis made Kaper’s title track for the film famous with his 1958 studio version, which we hear first. It was recorded at Columbia’s legendary 30th street studios, a temple of sound now sadly reduced to a parking lot. I love this recording, but it was unfortunately eclipsed by Davis’s huge hit the next year—Kind of Blue. This version is to my mind musical perfection, with great solos and the special touch of Bill Evans. The track first appeared on a Columbia LP called Jazz Track, backed with music Davis did for Louis Malle’s first film, l’Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) (1957), starring Jeanne Moreau.

The second version of “On Green Dolphin Street” was recorded live on March 22, 1960 at a concert in Stockholm, Sweden. Coltrane had already told Davis he was leaving the band after this European tour, and indeed left as soon as the tour ended. It’s a different band, with Wynton Kelly at the piano and no Cannonball Adderley. Coltrane’s solo is a tour-de-force; one can discern ‘Trane’s continued evolution even only two years after the 1958 studio recording. The sound, by the way, is in glorious mono.

The third and final version we hear was recorded five-and-a-half years later, at a Chicago club called The Plugged Nickel. Miles Davis liked being in Chicago around Christmas, and enjoyed playing in this small club. It featured a new quintet that Davis led from 1965–68: Wayne Shorter on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Together they turn the song inside out, playing slightly off, in-key and off-key. Miles never wanted to play a song the same way twice, and this song provides good evidence of that. I particularly like Wayne Shorter’s abstract solo, playing with and against the harmonic changes. It’s pure genius. This album first came out on two LP’s from Sony Japan, later as a Japanese import box set, and finally on Sony USA with an added CD. I’m playing the Japanese box version, the so-called production masters.

To call Miles Davis an innovator would be an understatement. In his 1989 book Miles: The Autobiography, author Quincy Troupe tells a story of when Davis’s wife Cicely Tyson was invited to a 1986 White House function hosted by then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz. A prominent D.C. socialite asked Davis why he was at the event in a somewhat condescending way. Davis replied, “Well, I changed music five or six times,” then looked at the woman coldly and asked, “Now tell me what have you done of any importance other than being white…so tell me what your claim to fame is?” Message here? Don’t mess with Miles.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 5/12/17

  1. 1. Miles Davis / “On Green Dolphin Street” / Kind of Blue Legacy Edition / Columbia
  2. 2. Miles Davis & John Coltrane / “On Green Dolphin Street” / Live in Stockholm 1960 / Dragon
  3. 3. Miles Davis / “On Green Dolphin Street” / Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 / Sony Legacy