By the early 1950s, jazz, one of Black Americans' greatest gifts to music, had reached an inflection point. Big bands and swing music had faded. Played with a faster tempo, bebop was more harmonically and melodically adventurous, less danceable, with few hummable tunes. Over time — despite some tour de force solos — jazz, discordant and self-indulgent, became music mostly for musicians.

In "3 Shades of Blue," journalist James Kaplan — author, among other books, of "Frank: The Voice," and "Sinatra: The Chairman" — takes a deep dive into these developments. His book is structured around a collective biography of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, who in 1959 recorded "Kind of Blue," which defied expectations to become the most popular jazz album of all time. Along the way, Kaplan provides informative, illuminating sketches of mid-twentieth century jazz legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman.

Elegant and elegiac, "3 Shades of Blue" tells stories of ambition and anxiety, collaborations and clashes, musical innovation and racial discrimination, as well as "the great doomed brotherhood" of jazz drug addicts and their untimely deaths.

Throughout the book, Kaplan takes on the daunting challenge of using the written word to capture the sounds of music. With a modal approach to composition, unconcerned with thrust or resolution, "Blue and Green," the shortest track on "Kind of Blue," "ambles slowly, hypnotically," he suggests, sad and pensive, "more mood piece than tune." "All Blues" is by turns warm and serene, joyous in proclaiming Black pride, adding a note of ambiguity with pianist Evans' "bright spray of fourths," "neither minor nor major.".

Initially, Kaplan reports, jazz insiders did not know what to make of "Kind of Blue." Nonetheless, the album gathered momentum, and sales rose over the decades. Davis' great gift, Herbie Hancock subsequently declared, involved giving audiences the avant-garde and "the history of jazz that led up to it."

That said, except for Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," whose chaotic, cacophonous music seemed to express the fire and passion of the Black Panthers, millions of young record buyers abandoned jazz for rock 'n' roll in the 1960s and '70s. With a few exceptions, Davis' new albums sold only in the tens of thousands. The decline continued, as "free jazz" took the genre even further away from dance.

Davis died in 1991, "a very old (and very young) 65." By then Coltrane and Evans were long gone. In 2011, in an intentionally provocative essay, trumpeter and commentator Nicholas Payton maintained that having separated itself from popular music, and worrying too much about itself to be cool, "jazz died in 1959.″

If true, Kaplan writes, jazz has been "a very lively corpse," with appearances in nightclubs and festivals, and steady — if relatively small — sales. "3 Shades of Blue," moreover, ends with Kaplan's wish, expressed in an exchange with Davis, two years before he died. As they shook hands, Kaplan recalls that Davis stared at him and asked, "You comin' back?"

Glenn C. Altschuler is an emeritus professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool

By: James Kaplan.

Publisher: Penguin, 496 pp. $35.