So What

I’ve read that Quincy Jones carries around copies of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue in his briefcase, and that he hands them out to kids whenever he meets them. Q-Tip compares Kind Of Blue to the Bible — you’re just expected to have a copy around the house. If you’ve never heard jazz before, Kind Of Blue is a great place to start. If you’re an obsessive jazz nerd like me, it never gets old. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, the heart of the album is its first track, “So What.”

Gil Evans wrote the abstract intro section, partially inspired by “Voiles” by Debussy. The tune proper begins at 0:34. If you want to learn how to improvise jazz, you should definitely learn Miles’ solo. A guy named Steve Khan posted this nice transcription of it, but you’re better off figuring it by ear. Learn to sing it first, and then work it out on your instrument. Miles’ solo isn’t too challenging technically, and it can teach you a ton about melody, phrasing and build.

Here’s a live television performance of “So What.”

“So What” is famous for being one of the first modal jazz tunes. This just means that it doesn’t have a lot of chord changes compared to the usual harmonic density of bebop. Because “So What” is relatively easy to play, it’s a standard piece for beginners and high school jazz bands. The main part uses the D dorian scale, the mode you get when you play the C major scale from D to D. This scale is especially easy on the piano — just play the white keys. To play the bridge, you slide up a half step to E flat dorian.

The So What riff

So What

The melody of “So What” is a call in the bass followed by a response from the piano and horns. The response part of the melody is known as the So What riff. It’s a pair of minor seventh chords, one a whole step above the root, the other on the root, played in the particular rhythm shown above. Miles Davis didn’t invent the riff. It’s a jazz accompaniment cliche, widely used by pianists, guitarists and horn section arrangers. Miles just had the wisdom to pluck it from the memepool and place it front and center in a tune. The riff is built on the So What chord: a stack of fourths with a third on top. The fourths make the chord sound ambiguous and open-ended. It’s a hip sound, and in fact you can use the So What chord for a variety of harmonic purposes, not just minor sevenths. It’s an especially useful voicing for guitarists, since it’s really easy to play and sounds good in so many different situations.

“So What” and “Impressions”

Casual music fans use the term “sampling” to mean any kind of musical quotation, interpolation or reference, not just digital manipulation of audio recordings. I think they’re correct to conflate all these different practices, since they all stem from the same desire to repurpose existing ideas in new context. In the broader sense of the term, “So What” has been sampled extensively. Most famously, John Coltrane, the tenor sax player on the original recording of “So What,” used its chord changes for his own classic tune, “Impressions.”

“Impressions” is more of a mashup, really, since its melody is sampled from Morton Gould’s composition “Pavane” — listen at 1:28.

Coltrane probably learned this composition from Ahmad Jamal, who recorded a popular  arrangement of it in 1955. Miles Davis was a big Ahmad Jamal fan too, and is said to have drawn inspiration from this passage’s harmonic setting for “So What.” Lewis Porter says that Coltrane got the B section for “Impressions” from Ravel’s “Pavane pour une Infante Défunte.” This piece was also the basis for a 1930s standard, “The Lamp Is Low.”

How’s this for a sample chain? McCoy Tyner was Coltrane’s pianist on “Impressions.” Later McCoy recorded his own version of “Impressions.” A piece of the bass solo from this recording was sampled by Black Sheep in their classic track “The Choice Is Yours.” The memes do get around, don’t they?

Coltrane and his bandmates got a lot of mileage out of the So What riff, both in their writing and improvisation. Hear the riff at work in “Song of the Underground Railroad.”

The So What riff in funk, soul and R&B

Pee Wee Ellis, the trombonist and arranger for James Brown, says that he unconsciously copied “So What” when he wrote the horn part for “Cold Sweat.” It’s fitting, then, that “Cold Sweat” has itself been sampled many times.

The inspiration flows both ways. Miles loved James Brown and imitated him explicitly during his funk period. For example, Miles instructed Tony Williams to play the “Cold Sweat” beat on “Frelon Brun.”

And now, here’s where it gets really convoluted. One of the many songs sampling “Cold Sweat” is “Welcome To The Terrordome” by Public Enemy. The track also includes a sample of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A-Loose.” Miles actually sampled that same beat himself, on his late-period tune “Blow.”

The So What riff also shows up in the horn line from “Let a Woman Be a Woman And A Man Be A Man” by Dyke and the Blazers. This is another tune that’s been sampled extensively, most prominently in “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy, as heard in tons of TV commercials.

The Heavy’s usage of the Dyke and the Blazers sample has been the subject of intense litigation, which I think is funny, because Dyke and the Blazers copied their tune almost note-for-note from James Brown. The irony of the situation merits a full blog post of its own.

More recently, Erykah Badu repurposed “So What” for her live version of “Rimshot.”

Teena Marie makes similar use of “So What” in her tune “Harlem Blues.”

For all of the influence “So What” has had, I’m surprised to find that there are hardly any hip-hop tracks that sample it directly. Maybe it’s too sacred even for hip-hop producers. If you can think of a good example, hit the comments. Meanwhile, here’s a diagram of all the songs mentioned above.

Miles Davis "So What" sample map

If you want to hear my mashup of many of the tracks discussed in this post, drop me a line.

Other Miles Davis samples

Busta Rhymes‘ “Everything Remains Raw” gets its moody chord progression from the ending of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” It’s not on YouTube, sadly, but it’s worth chasing down, it’s a beauty. OutKast uses Miles’ trumpet scream from “Sivad” on “Ain’t No Thang.” See a map of many more Miles Davis samples. And read all about how Miles remixed himself on the album In A Silent Way.

Doing this kind of genealogical tracing of music has convinced me that ultimately, there is no originality. There’s just the splicing together and hybridizing of memes. Some people find this realization dismaying. I find it exciting. I enjoy tracing the lineage of the music I care about. Hope you’re enjoying it too.


5 thoughts on “So What

  1. Pingback: Breaking the Fourth Wall: A Brief Guide to Quartal Harmony - Zeros and Ones

  2. Amazing! I knew Miles’ “So What” was inspired by “New Rhumba” and “Pavane,” which then led to “Impressions” and “Song Of The Underground Railroad,” but didn’t know about some of the roots (Debussy, Morton Gould) and “Cold Sweat” (which seems so obvious now).  Great post. 

    Thank you!

  3. Discovered Kind of Blue last year and it has totally inspired me to listen to more jazz. I saw a high school band perform So What live at a Borders in Santa Monica during the holidays, and it was wonderful…

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Ethan Hein's Blog › So What --

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