With apologies to Miles Davis (part 3).


Miles Davis in the studio recording the 1959 album “Kind of Blue”. From left: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles, Bill Evans.

(continued from part 2) By the early ’50’s, and with the “Birth of the Cool” in his rear view mirror, Miles Davis descended into a five-year battle with heroin that not only dramatically reduced his recorded output, it almost killed him. Although what he did record was generally of high quality, it was mostly as a sideman on other peoples’ projects, and it wasn’t until a self-imposed exile to Detroit that he was able to come to some grips with his addiction. Incidentally, that may be the last time anyone moved to Detroit to clean up their act, but enough about us.

While Miles was something of a peripheral figure during this period, his playing did evolve, and his trumpet style moved from a complex, bop-oriented melodic approach to one more influenced by the blues and simpler themes. Unlike historians who remember him somehow consolidating and perfecting his “cool” sound in this period, we feel that listening to anything he recorded in this era will give one a sense of how different he was from cool trumpeters such as Chet Baker, Art Farmer and others. His chief influences became the pianists Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Kelly (who would later join Davis’ band), and Miles began to develop what was essentially a third stream, well before that term was applied to the classically-oriented jazz of Gunther Schuller and others.

This third stream of Davis’ was an alternative to cool, of course, but it was also an alternative to the “hard bop” of Art Blakey, Horace Silver and others who introduced gospel themes and a blues sensibility to the fast tempos and complexity of bebop. Davis, in typical fashion for him, picked bits and pieces from several styles to develop his own in the early ’50’s. We mentioned the influence of Jamal, and it did have a significant impact on him, as did the bluesy side of the hard boppers. Less obvious, but important in Miles’ development, were the lessons gleaned from listening to trumpeter Clifford Brown’s great quintet that was together from 1954 until Brown’s tragic death in 1956. While the writing of pianist Richie Powell and the fiery, Fats Navarro-inspired playing of the leader were of little influence on Miles, drummer Max Roach and saxophonist Sonny Rollins had both worked extensively with him, and Brown’s band established the general format and ground rules that Miles would follow until he left jazz for fusion in the very late 1960’s.

Inspired at least by the possibilities of this simple quintet format, Davis in 1955 formed what would be the first of his great small groups. Featuring the then little-known John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, this band began to turn heads almost immediately. Miles’ playing had matured, become more economical and had taken on a relaxed but dark quality, and it was now anything but “cool”. With the addition of alto player Cannonball Adderley a couple of years later, Miles’ band became the most talked-about in jazz. Coltrane, especially, began to stretch the limits of harmonic improvisation with his increasingly complex solos, and for a while at least, served as the perfect foil for Miles’ relatively simple approach. In late 1958, the band added the harmonic envelope-pushing of pianist Bill Evans, who introduced modal ideas that would color Davis’ playing and his bands’ ensemble sound for the next ten years. (continued in part 4)

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