By March 31, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

With apologies to Miles Davis (part 1).


(left) Billy Eckstine’s band, about 1945; (right) Miles, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, 1949.

Miles Davis is a name that still carries some weight outside jazz circles, and for folks of a certain age, he represents styles and raisons d’etre that transcend the limited cultural impact of improvised music. For those who actually remember Miles the man, or even just his music, the connection is even stronger. Like Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and only a handful of others, Miles was able to become for the general public a standard-bearer for both jazz and African-American style and culture. Much as a leading hip hop artist now becomes known to general audiences who might otherwise have no interest in black, urban music, Miles was looked to as an arbiter for fashion, language, behavior and general hipness in ways that had almost nothing to do with his place in the jazz pantheon. Life magazine photo essays, CBS prime-time documentaries and all manner of major record label promotion kept him in the spotlight in a way almost no other jazz artist could rival.

Simple skepticism would seem to dictate that no jazz artist could possibly be worth that much adulation and attention, regardless of his influence or individual talent. While avoiding any sort of quantified judgement, we will attempt to briefly tackle the issue of Miles’ place in the history of jazz. First, one should know that Miles Davis possessed one of the great egos of our, or any other, time. Possessing a gravelly voice of the type that required one to lean in and pay full attention in order to hear him, only to be growled at both literally and figuratively, Miles used his intellect, wit and perpetual anger to skewer almost anything he felt harmful, unfair or unworthy. To call him a prick does mean bastards a disservice, but to call him mean-spirited misses the point. He was that sort of enigma, and was as maddening to his closest friends and associates as he was to those with whom he had more casual dealings.

Part of his mystique is that he was anointed by the jazz press as a sort of overlord of all that was hip, modern and cool about jazz in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s. The contradiction for skeptics is that the reality damn-near lived up to the hype. Miles was a very promising child trumpet prodigy when he left St. Louis at the age of 18 with Billy Eckstine’s ground-breaking bebop big band. He enrolled at Julliard in early 1945, but neglected his studies there in favor of learning at the feet of everyone’s idol in that period, Charlie Parker. Parker’s partner in creation, Dizzy Gillespie, imparted some minor bits of trumpet advice, but it was Parker who would shape the young Miles’ musical personality. By 1948, Miles had become Parker’s trumpeter, performing admirably with Bird on a series of recordings for the Dial and Savoy labels. In 1949, Davis issued a seminal series of recordings that were subsequently packaged, and are now referred to, as “The Birth of the Cool”.

“Cool”, at least as it specifically referred to a style of playing jazz in the late 1940’s, meant “fast and light, with no vibrato” in the words of one musician, and generally emphasized a contrary approach to the hot, frenetic, up-tempo complexity of bebop. Miles, who was certainly fully immersed in bebop at that point, had always had a sweet edge to his tone that he attributed to a fondness for the playing of trumpeter Freddie Webster. By 1949, Miles had fallen under the influence of some young, gifted innovators. Oddly, given Miles’ social and musical history up to that point, these new collaborators were almost all white musicians. (continued in part 2)

Posted in: Iconoclasts, Jazz

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