Saturday, February 23, 2008


MILES DAVIS 1926-1991

“That period between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s was an era in which the resources of Jazz were being consolidated and refined and the range of its sources broadened. Some of the Jazz of this period reached across class and age lines and unified black audiences. Young people could see this music as “bad” in much the same sense that James Brown used the word, and older black people could see its links to black tradition.”
--John Szwed

To the yang of ‘hard bop’ Davis brought stillness, melodic beauty, and understatement; to the yin of ‘cool’ he brought rich sonority, blues feeling, and an enriched rhythmic capacity that moved beyond swing to funk. By refusing to color-code either his music or his audience, Davis rose at the end of the 1950s to the summit of artistic excellence.”
--Marsha Bayles

“What is there to say about the instrument? It’s my voice—that’s all it is…”
--Miles Davis

On July 17, 1955 at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival Davis was literally invited at the last minute to join a group of prominent Jazz musicians in a staged twenty minute jam session that had been organized by the Festival’s famed music director, impresario, and promoter George Wein as part as an “opening act” for the then highly popular white headliner Dave Brubeck. Scheduled merely as a quick programming lead-in to stage changes between featured performances by the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), the Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras, Lester Young, and Brubeck, nothing special was planned in advance for this short set which, like most jam sessions, was completely improvised by the musicians performing onstage. Davis was then the least well known musician in the assembled group which was made up of Thelonious Monk, individuals from the MJQ, and other individual members of various groups playing in the festival. Wein just happened to be a big fan of Davis and added him because he was “a melodic bebopper” and a player who, in Wein’s view, could reach a larger audience than most other musicians because of the haunting romantic lyricism and melodic richness of his style. Wein’s insight turned out to be prophetic. Despite the fact that most of the mainstream audience on hand had only a vague idea of who Davis was, he was a standout sensation in the jam session and his searing performance was one of the most talked about highlights of the festival. Appearing in an elegant white seersucker sport coat and a small black bow tie, thus already demonstrating the sleek, sharp sartorial style that quickly because his trademark (and led to his eventual appearance on the covers of many fashion magazines in the U.S., Europe, and Asia), Davis captivated the festival throng with haunting, dynamic solos and brilliant ensemble playing on both slow ballads and intensely uptempo quicksilver tunes alike. Taking complete command of the setting with his understated elegance and relaxed yet naturally dramatic stage presence, the handsome and charismatic Davis breezed through two famous and musically daunting compositions by Thelonious Monk (“Hackensack” and “Round Midnight”), and then ended his part of the program by playing an impassioned bluesy solo on a well-known Charlie Parker composition entitled “Now is the Time.” which Davis had originally recorded with Bird in 1945 That cinched it. He was a hit. Miles had returned from almost complete oblivion to becoming a much talked about and heralded star seemingly overnight (of course this personal and professional recognition had been over a decade in the making). After a long, arduous struggle as both an artist and individual that began in his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois when he started to play trumpet at the age of 13 in 1939, Miles Davis had finally “arrived.” For the first time since 1950 he was completely clean and off drugs. No longer addicted Miles now played with a bravura command and creative clarity that he had been fervently searching for well before he had become addicted to heroin. It would be the beginning of many more incredible triumphs and struggles that would catapult the fiery young trumpet player to the very pinnacle of his profession and global fame and wealth over the next ten years.

On hand for that historical summer concert in Newport, RI. was George Avakian a young music producer from the large corporate recording company called Columbia (now Sony). Miles had been after Avakian for over five years trying to get a recording contract with Columbia which was then the largest and most successful music company in the United States, but Avakian had been cautiously waiting for a sign that Davis had conquered his personal problems and was ready to commit fulltime to his music. Clearly Miles was now ready. Avakian’s brother Aram whispered to George during the concert that he should sign Davis now, before he became a big hit and signed with a rival company instead. Miles himself was nonplussed about the critical acclaim he was now receiving, wondered what the fuss was all about and maintained that he was simply playing like he always had. While there was some truth to this assertion it was also clear that Miles highly disciplined demeanor, new responsible attitude, and impeccable playing now indicated his intent on making a new commitment to living a life strictly devoted to his art. Avakian and Columbia representatives met with Davis two days later on July 19, 1955 to sign him to a new contract with the understanding that Davis would first fulfill the remainder of his contract with the Prestige label by doing a series of recordings in the fall of 1955 and the spring and fall of 1956 while at the same time making his first recordings with Columbia that would not be released until after the public appearance of the Prestige sessions. These small label recordings for Prestige would immediately become famously known as the “missing g” sessions (so-called for the dropping of the letter ‘g’ in the titles of these records, (e.g. Walkin’, Workin’, Cookin’, Steamin’, and Relaxin’). Featuring Miles’ first great, legendary Quintet this young aggregation (the oldest member of the group was 33 years old) featured then relative unknowns John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. From the very beginning this group and Miles himself would remake Jazz history and become an innovative and protean musical harbinger of great changes to come in the music as well as the general culture. As with all great musicians the creative basis and structural foundation of this new cultural and aesthetic intervention would be Miles unique, highly individual sound on his chosen instrument, the trumpet.His was a sound that embraced the entire history of Jazz trumpet in its meticulous attention to the demanding technical and physical requirements of the instrument yet also sought a creative and expressive approach that openly allowed for more subtle emotional nuances to emerge from his playing than were common traditionally on trumpet. Miles brought a highly burnished lyricism that was both deeply introspective and fiercely driving all at once. A major characteristic of Davis’s playing was a new and different way of phrasing in which a major emphasis and focus on the relationship of space to tempo and melody (and the intervals between notes) became the hallmark of his style. In the process Davis dramatically redefined and expanded the expressive and creative range of the tonal palette and instrumental timbre of the trumpet. By shifting the traditional emphasis from the heraldic and bravura functions of the instrument to a more diverse and expansive range of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas Miles was able to openly express the anguished conflict, sardonic irony, restless desire for cultural and social change, and questing existential/psychological anxiety of the modern age. This intense attention to the broader expressive possibilities of both musical improvisation and composition also turned the feverish search for new forms and methods that characterized the era into a parallel personal quest for discovering a wider range of emotional and psychological contexts in which to play. The sonic exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of joy, rage, love, and melancholia was a major hallmark of Miles’s style. Central to Miles’s vision and sensibility was an equally exhilarating appreciation for the balanced expressive and intellectual relationship between relaxation and tension in his music. By focusing specifically on the spatial and rhythmic dimensions of melodic invention Miles developed musical methods that called for, and often resulted in, a precise minimalist approach to playing in which each note (or corresponding chord) carried an implied reference to every other note or chord in a particular sequence of musical phrases. Through a technical command of breath control and timbral dynamics induced by his embouchure and unorthodox fingering of valves Miles could maintain or manipulate tonal pitch at the softest or loudest volumes. By creating stark dialectical contrasts in his sound through alternately attacking, slurring, syncopating or manipulating long tones in particular ensemble or orchestral settings ( a technical device Miles often referred to as “contrary motion." Miles was able to convey great feeling and emotion through an economy of phrasing and musical rests. This rapt attention to allowing space or the silence between note intervals to dramatically assert itself as much or more as the notes themselves created great anticipation in his audience as to how these tensions would be resolved (or not). In this respect the insightful observation by the French Jazz critic and music historian Andre Hodeir that Miles’s sound tends toward a discovery of ecstasy is a rather apt description of Davis’s expressive approach. What emerged from Miles’s intensely comprehensive investigation of the creative possibilities of the instrument was a deep and lifelong appreciation for the tonal, sonic, and textural dimensions of playing and composing music. These aesthetic concerns as well as Miles’s innovative creative solutions to the rigorous challenges of improvisational and composed ensemble structures alike in the modern Jazz tradition soon revolutionized all of American music, and made Davis one of the leading and most influential musician-composers in the world during the last half of the 20th century. However Davis’s widespread social, cultural, and political influence didn’t end there—especially in the black community. Davis also quickly became a social and cultural avatar whose highly personal combination of cool reserve, fiery defiance, detached alienation, intellectual independence, and striking stylistic innovation in everything from clothes to speech embodied, and largely defined for many, the ethos of ‘hip’ that pervaded the black Jazz world of the 1950s and early 1960s. But Miles, while remaining very hip, at the same time also lived and worked far beyond the insular world of hipsterism and avant-garde bohemia. He was unique in that his stance was simultaneously existentialist and engaged. As many observers, fans, scholars, friends, and critics have noted Miles became in many ways what the critic Garry Giddins called “the representative black artist.” of his era. John Szwed, Yale University music professor and author of a biography in 2002 of Miles entitled So What: The Life of Miles Davis speaks for a couple generations of writers, fans, artists and musicians when he states that by the late ‘50s, early 1960s:

“Miles was becoming the coin of the realm, cock of the walk, good copy for the tabloids, and inspiration for literary imagination. Allusions to him could turn up anywhere…Tributes to him sprang up in poems by Langston Hughes (“Trumpet Player: 52nd Street”), and Gregory Corso…Young people ostentatiously carried his albums to parties and sought out his clothing in the best men’s stores. In person, his every action was observed and read for meaning…A discourse developed around him, one that bore inordinate weight in matters of race—Miles stories—narratives about his inner drives, his demons, his pain, and his ambition. Invariably, his stories climaxed with a short comment, crushingly delivered in a husky imitation of the man’s voice, capped by some obscenity…He was the man.”

Among many black people Davis’s outspoken, defiant social stance and hip, charismatic aura signified a profound shift in cultural values and attitudes in the national black community that also had a lasting political significance and influence. This was especially true for the emerging adolescent youth and radical young adults of the era whose overt displays of rebellion and defiance of white society’s racism and repression were becoming pervasive with the rise of the Civil Rights, and later Black Power, movements. Miles quickly became a major symbol of this modern revolutionary spirit in African American culture and was seen by many as an important artistic leader in this struggle and its widespread social and political demands for respect, justice, equality, and freedom for African Americans that marked the period. Thus it is not surprising that many of the various musical aesthetic(s) that Davis devised and expressed during the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s consciously sought to advance specifically new ideas about the structural, formal, and expressive dimensions of the modernist tradition in contemporary Jazz music. These changes would openly challenge many of the orthodoxies of this tradition in terms of both form and content while at the same time asserting a radically different set of ideological and aesthetic values about the intellectual and cultural worth, use, and intent of the music that in attitude and style sought to resist or go beyond standard notions of both high art and commercial popular culture. Simultaneously however, Davis sought to consciously establish an even more socially intimate relationship with his black audience (and especially its youthful members) that would embody and hopefully expand Davis’s views on the broad necessity for deeply rooted political and cultural change within the African American community and the U.S. as a whole.

In the quest to critique many of the philosophical assumptions governing conventional modernist discourse in art while still retaining a fundamental aesthetic connection to other important aspects and principles of modernism—especially those having to do with with the continuous necessity of creative change and revision—Davis epitomized the ‘progressive’ African American Jazz musician’s desire to use black vernacular sources, ideas, and values to engage these modernist traditions and principles on his/her own independent social, cultural, and intellectual terms. In such major recordings from the 1957-1967 period as his orchestral masterpieces Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain (made in collaboration with his longtime friend and colleague, the white composor and arranger Gil Evans), and his equally significant and highly influential small group Quintet and Sextet recordings, Milestones, Kind of Blue, Live at the Blackhawk, My Funny Valentine, Four & More, E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Live in Berlin, Live in Tokyo, Live at the Plugged Nickel, and Nefertiti, Davis was at the forefront of those African American artists of the period in all the arts who were feverishly looking for and often finding fresh, new modes of pursuing aesthetic innovation and social change. By dialectically synthesizing and extending ideas, strategies, methods, and structures culled from such disparate sources as 20th century classical music, the blues, R & B, and many different stylistic forms from the Jazz tradition (i.e. Swing, Bebop, ‘Cool’ and ‘Hard Bop’ etc.)—many of which Davis himself had played a pivotal role in developing and popularizing—Miles helped bring about a new creative synthesis of modern and vernacular expressions that greatly changed our perceptions of what American music was and could be.

(This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progress by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture & Changed the World, 1955-1975)