Sunday, May 25, 2008

Miles Davis: An Appreciation

Miles Davis and Bitches Brew gatefold

Writing about Miles Davis is daunting, if not downright intimidating. For one thing, the legendary trumpet player probably has been written about and analyzed more than any musician-composer this side of Beethoven. There is even an entire book on just one of his over 100 albums.

For another thing, a word like "legendary" does not begin to capture the enormous influence that Miles exerted on the genre, the many -- and I mean many -- young musicians he mentored who became stars in their own right, and his vast body of his work and extraordinary improvisational powers.

For yet another thing, while Miles was by no means the most technically proficient trumpet player he was in the forefront of virtually every major development in jazz for four decades and forged the link between jazz and a lot of other music I love – including funk, fusion and rock. People like me who live and breathe music owe him an enormous debt.

I do not know that Mr. Davis would forgive me for calling him by his first name. He definitely wouldn't appreciate that "owed a debt thing" because he was beholden to no one. Sometimes not even himself.

But perhaps – just perhaps -- I have earned the privilege of referring to him as "Miles" through the thousands of hours that I have listened to his albums over 40 or so years, the articles and books that I have read about him, and the one time that I saw him live – a truly awful show in Philadelphia during one of the periodic snits when he would keep his back to the audience for an entire performance.

Miles Dewey Davis III was born 82 years ago today into a relatively well-to-do family. His father was a dentist and his mother a decent blues pianist, something that she hid from her young son even as she and her husband encouraged him to learn to play a musical instrument.

Miles' mother favored the piano but his father bought him a trumpet at age 13 because, he would later claim, he knew she hated the sound.

His first teacher, local East St. Louis, Illinois trumpeter Elwood Buchanan, stressed the importance of playing without vibrato, and Miles quickly developed a clear tone that would be his signature sound. Years later, this prompted him to remark:

"I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much Baseline bass. Just right in the middle. If I can’t get that sound I can’t play anything."

Among Miles' early influences were Clark Terry, a friend and trumpeter. He would have dropped out of school and joined Tiny Bradshaw’s band had his mother not insisted that he finish his final year of high school.

In 1944, Miles caught his first big break when he filled in as third trumpet for Buddy Anderson in the trailblazing Billy Eckstine big band behind Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Later that year, he moved to New York City, ostensibly to study under scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music, but he instead sought out Parker. His first recordings were made in 1945 with blues singer Rubberlegg Williams and tenor saxophonist Herbie Fields. He became a member of Parker's unofficial quintet, appearing on many of Parker's seminal bebop recordings for the Savoy and Dial labels.


Miles' style on trumpet had become distinctive by 1948 and he began to blossom at the relatively tender age of 22 as a solo artist and in a nonent featuring Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. He also developed a serious heroin habit that would tarnish his reputation and dog him for years.

The group released seven singles on Capitol over the next two years, some featuring arrangements by arranger-composer-band leader Gil Evans, with whom he would have a long collaboration.

Between 1950 and 1955, Miles mainly recorded as a leader for Prestige and Blue Note in a variety of small group settings with sidemen including Sonny Rollins, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Charles Mingus. Whew!

With the encouragement of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, he returned to his parents' home over the winter of 1953-1954 and locked himself in a guest room for 12 days until the drug was fully out of his system.

In 1954, Miles recorded a series of important recordings for Prestige that were released as Bags' Groove, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants and Walkin', as well as later titles.

He started using a Harmon mute to darken and subdue the timbre of his trumpet, and seldom played without it for the rest of his career.

In July 1955, Miles played a legendary solo on Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight at the Newport Jazz Festival, a performance that thrust him back into the spotlight. This led record producer George Avakian to sign him to Columbia and the formation of the first incarnation of his great quintet.

This band featured John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. It turned bebop convention literally on its ear through melodic lines like those heard on the quintet's own Round Midnight album (1955-56) and in turn led him to his early explorations of modal jazz.

Heroin reentered the picture and the quintet disbanded in early 1957, then reformed and recorded Milestones (a precursor to the classic Kind of Blue) as a sextet in 1958 with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto sax.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Miles recorded a series of albums with Evans, often playing flugelhorn as well as trumpet. These included Miles Ahead (1957), which used innovative editing to join the tracks together, turning each side of the album into seamless pieces of music.

In 1958, Miles and Evans recorded one of Davis' own and my favorites, Porgy and Bess, a loving rearrangement of pieces from the great George Gershwin opera of the same name.

Sketches of Spain (1960) and Miles at Carnegie Hall (1961), which was recorded with a full orchestra under Evans' direction, followed.


In March and April of 1959, Miles reentered the studio with his sextet and the important addition of pianist Bill Evans to record Kind of Blue, one of the most influential jazz recordings ever and today that rarest of creatures – a triple platinum jazz album.

(The recording sessions and album are dissected with loving care by Eric Nisenson in Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece).

The entirety of Kind of Blue was composed as a series of modal sketches around Evans' improvisational style. Each performer was given a set of scales sometimes written only hours earlier that defined the parameters of their improvisations, and recall Miles' famous quip:

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."

The result was Miles' magnum opus and one of my favorite jazz albums. (See the list in the post below for the others.)

There is not an off note on Kind of Blue, which in its original vinyl incarnation included on Side One "So What," "Freddie Freeloader" and "Blue In Green," and on Side Two "All Blues" and "Flamenco Sketches."

In 1963, Miles put together a new group that included tenor saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock. They recorded Seven Steps to Heaven and In Europe that year and My Funny Valentine and Four and More in February 1964. All featured a repertoire of bebop and standards with the up-tempo numbers delivered at breakneck speed as Miles continued to expand his palette as a dizzying succession of fine young musicians pushed him to new heights.

Later in 1964, Miles convinced saxophonist Wayne Shorter to quit Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and become the quintet's principal composer. By the time of E.S.P. (1965), Miles' lineup consisted of Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams and is known as "the second great quintet."

Miles turned 40 and there followed a series of powerful and largely modal-based albums with a playing style dubbed "freebop" that included some fusion and rock themes – as well as the tentative introduction of electric bass, piano and guitar. These included Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968) and another of my favorites, Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968).

This group, with occasional substitutions, began playing live concerts in continuous sets with each tune flowing into the next and only the melody indicating any sort of demarcation; Miles' bands would continue to perform in this way -- including the forgettable night that I saw him -- until his retirement in 1975.

By 1969, Miles was fully into the electric mode and his music influenced by acid rock and funk artists including Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone.

When In a Silent Way was recorded in February 1969, Miles had augmented his quintet with keyboard players Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer-percussionists Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira.

I was living in jazz-crazy Tokyo when Bitches Brew was released in 1970. Not unlike people recalling where they were when a great historic event occurred, I vividly remember the day I took the subway to Sony's megastore in the Ginza and returned home with the luxuriantly thick vinyl album with the two disks cosseted in quality glassine sleeves. (U.S. pressings and sleeves were thin and cheap by comparison.)

I had not heard enough of Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way, two important precursor albums, to be prepared for Bitches Brew, which some critics do not even consider to be jazz.

That argument is for purists, which I am not, but the album's debt to rock is unmistakable and was shocking on first listen and some time thereafter before my head caught up to my ears (as sometimes happens to me) and I gave myself over to the groove.

In the end, Bitches Brew is something of a mess, albeit a brilliant one, and I still find myself wishing that compositions like "Pharaoh’s Dance" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" had semblances of beginning and ends, not just cacophonous middles.

In 1972, Davis entered his penultimate creative period after being introduced to the music of electronic music composer and innovator Karlheinz Stockhausen, the result being a series of compositions that critics referred to as "space music," and sometimes not in a complimentary way.


By the mid-1970s, Miles' worsening health problems included a bad heart, blood and kidney problems, throat difficulties, a stomach ulcer and a bad hip -- all exacerbated by his cocktail of choice -- cocaine and painkillers. He was showing up late for gigs and missing others and clearly was suffering from a spiritual malaise.

After getting a long delayed ball-and-socket hip implant in December 1975, Miles considered new projects. But he was not to pick up the trumpet again until 1980 and the intervening years were marked by darkness and seclusion.

When he emerged from his funk in 1980 and picked up the trumpet again it was because of a longtime friend, actress Cicely Tyson, who helped him overcome his addictions and helped renew his enthusiasm for music. (He married Tyson in 1981; they divorced in 1988.)

Miles also needed money, and he embarked on a series of appearances to mixed and sometimes awful reviews while continuing to grapple with health problems. He toured and recorded intermittently for the next decade, often with Bill Evans and bass player Marcus Miller.

Ian Carr writes in Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography that his comeback years:

"[W]ere like a gigantic, recurring lap of honor round the concert halls and festivals of the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, and occasionally taking in the Middle East, South America and Australia, but they were also much more than that. He gradually eased himself into new ways of recording and music-making that were, yet again, unique to him."

Tutu, recorded in 1986 as Miles was turning 60, is perhaps his most notable album of the era, which included an appearance on Saturday Night Live and a cameo as a street musician in Bill Murray's Scrooged.

He died of a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure on September 28, 1991, at age 65.


Miles delighted in confounding his critics and would rub their faces in his prideful blackness.

He asserted in Miles: The Autobiography that his career was all about making music for young African-American audiences, a noble goal and one that it is difficult to say he didn't accomplish although it is probable that the vast majority of his listeners – live and on disk – have been white. No matter.

Miles' autobiography is a bit of a tough slog because his feelings of racial injustice keep getting in the way of intriguing glimpses into the insatiable curiosity and black-hot fire that I believe were at the core of his genius. Again, no matter.

Such feelings were certainly well within his rights because having a comfortable upbringing and an acclaimed and financially rewarding career in no way immunized him from the sting of racism. (In 1959, he was beaten to a pulp and arrested by New York City police while minding his own business during a break outside the famous Birdland nightclub, probably because he was hanging with a white woman.)

The autobio dwells more on rewriting his history to suit his own purposes than his music. That also certainly was within his rights, but like great musicians in general, Mr. Miles Dewey Davis was at his best when blowing his horn and not when rapping about himself.

So we'll let Jack DeJohnette have the last word:

" . . . In the later years he got looser somehow and more generous with people, giving encouragement to younger musicians. And he was more communicative with his audience. . . . But I guess the best thing Miles taught us, not only in music but in life, was that we should learn to accept change, to embrace change rather than fear change."

* * * * *
This is the 16th in a series of appreciations of the people who have moved and inspired me over the years. It is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Davis.

Previous appreciations have included Duane Allman, Hoagie Carmichael, John Coltrane, Aaron Copland, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, St├ęphane Grappelli, David Hackworth, Learned Hand, Jack Kerouac, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro, Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.


Anonymous said...

Another album you might like is "Amandla" from 1989. It belongs as much if not more to bassist (and other stuff) and co-producer Marcus Miller. George Duke, Kenny Garrett, Don Alias, Joey de Francesco and others are also on it. It's funk with a lot of "slap and pop bass."

Lots of fun served loud with several beers.

Shaun Mullen said...


I was remiss in not mentioning George Duke. I drank many a beer soaking up his collaborations with Frank Zappa, Jean Luc-Ponty and of course Miles. And more recently with Jill Scott.

Anonymous said...

Ashley Kahn wrote a greay book on the making of Kind of Blue.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to say that your piece on Miles Davis is stunning. So is the sheer number of jazz masters and mistresses you listed among his collaborators, and it reinforces the marvel that is American jazz.

There’s never been anything like it anywhere. Nor, I suspect, will there ever be.