Can anyone be said to have done so? Or was it just a movement that emerged from the various people playing at the time? I believe that Kind of Blue was the first album to popularize it but can Miles actually be said to have invented modal Jazz? Surely other contemporary musicians were doing similar things.

Wikipedia is not very clear on this. It states

Originating in the late 1950s and 1960s, modal jazz is epitomized by Miles Davis's "Milestones" (1958), Kind of Blue (1959), and John Coltrane's classic quartet from 1960–64.

And then goes on to say

Mercer Ellington has stated that Juan Tizol invented the melody to "Caravan" in 1936 as a result of his days studying music in Puerto Rico, where they couldn't afford much sheet music so the teacher would turn the music upside down after they had learned to play it right-side up.

So, if Caravan is indeed the first modal jazz piece, should Juan Tizol be credited with inventing it? Or should it be Russel? Or everyone who was playing at the time or what?

  • Wikipeda sums it up nice
    – Dom
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 22:18
  • @Dom that's just it, it doesn't really. I did read it before posting (though I should have made that clearer in my question, I have edited to make this clearer). All the wikipedia page says is that in the 50s, musicians began experimenting on it "spurred by [...] George Russell", yet it also mentions Caravan as a 1936 recording. So, if Caravan is indeed the first modal jazz piece, should Juan Tizol be credited with inventing it? Or should it be Russel? Or everyone who was playing at the time or what?
    – terdon
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 17:19
  • 2
    It is rare that movements in music get attributed to a single player. Usually there is a group of musicians that further some concepts, and then in hindsight it is made into a genre, or sub genre. I can't think of any other genre or sub genre that is attributed to a single musician, so I doubt a clear cut answer exists. Commented May 26, 2014 at 17:48
  • My understanding is that Davis was the first to strictly compose modally in jazz, and he certainly helped popularize it via making albums of almost entirely modal music. That being said I'd imagine that Davis was himself influenced by early modal composition, such as Caravan, so really the emergence is a result of years of musicians doing the same thing and eventually that thing turned into what we know as modal jazz.
    – RICK
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 19:47

2 Answers 2


All modal jazz means is that the harmony is deliberately static so that the players can stretch out against it as well as with it in a more elastic fashion. It's not really something you could even say was "invented". While "Kind of Blue", put it on the map, there are boat loads of tunes preceding that album that are modal in at least sections. "Dark Eyes" is another early example that is very modal. The practice preceded the term and the movement.

  • That said, most people would consider "So What" to be the first entirely modal side recorded. I have no idea if it actually is, but it's considered to be. ;-) Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 16:26
  • Also, lots of Gypsy jazz could be considered modal. Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 16:28

There's no specific name as to who exactly invented modal jazz but the elements of modal play have always been there in jazz. Jazz borrows a lot of influences from different traditions including classical music and it is from this classical music that history shows the extensive use of modes around the 19th century - but make no mistake, "modal theory" has always been there, even the legendary Saint Yared from the ancient Ethiopian church in Africa utilized his "own" modes.

Coming back to jazz, a modal approach can be heard in many recordings from the 1940s like Benny Goodman's "Sing, sing, sing". Elements of modal jazz can also be heard in earlier jazz solos when musicians wanted to create linear/horizontal melody lines as opposed to vertical lines. I would like to believe that "modal jazz" is a word that was coined and popularized by critics to describe the type of jazz that the musicians of the 1950s were mostly playing; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderley, etc not that modal jazz was invented by any single person.

We should also be cognizant of the fact that most of the music originated from the human voice (singing, humming, clapping, tapping, etc) long before musical instruments were created, hence modes have always been there since the days of the caveman and the cavewoman.

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