Clip: Miles Davis kept forcing jazz in new directions
Miles Davis kept forcing jazz in new directions, but his stark,
lyrical trumpet sound was a constant, and it still seduces
Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006
I've got a stack of Miles Davis discs on my desk a foot tall, a
fraction of the records the restless genius made during a 45-year run
in which he continually reshaped jazz, a word he hated. There's not a
dog in the pile.
"Miles never made a bad record,'' the great pianist Cedar Walton told
a mutual friend while listening to "Amandla,'' the most pleasing of
the trumpeter's late-period electric records, cut two years before he
died in 1991 at 65.
He would have turned 80 this year and almost certainly wouldn't be
listening to all that Miles Davis music that still gets inside you no
matter how often you play those classic records: "Walkin','' " 'Round
About Midnight,'' "Miles Ahead,'' "Porgy & Bess,'' "Kind of Blue,''
"E.S.P.,'' "Filles de Kilimanjaro,'' "In a Silent Way.'' Davis was
famous for not looking back or repeating himself. He plunged into
whatever music grabbed him at the moment, made it his, then moved on,
leaving legions to chew on what he'd done.
Davis cut his teeth in the mid-1940s playing bebop with the creators
of that frenetic new music, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy
Gillespie. He developed an understated trumpet style that focused on
feeling and nuance (he cited Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole and Orson Welles'
voice as influences). Davis helped bring forth so-called "cool'' jazz
in the late '40s, leading the subtle nonet whose 78 rpm recordings
were issued years later on the album "Birth of the Cool.'' (A band led
by trombonist Wayne Wallace and trumpeter John Worley will re-create
that music tonight in a sold-out show at the Stanford Jazz Festival.)
Davis set new standards for creative small-band jazz in the 1950s with
his classic quintet featuring saxophone giant John Coltrane and the
air-tight rhythm section of pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe
Jones and bassist Paul Chambers. He stretched the possibilities of
group improvisation even further a decade later with his second great
quintet, featuring young musicians who challenged and inspired Davis
and went on to take contemporary music in new directions: pianist
Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams and
bassist Ron Carter.
A few years later, Davis fell under the funky sway of James Brown,
Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. He tapped the best young players to help
make the wired-up new music he wanted to hear -- among them pianists
Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Keith Jarrett, guitarist John McLaughlin,
bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and other "children of
Miles,'' as Zawinul calls them, who pushed the music forward. He
expanded his palette with sitar and Stockhausen, African and Brazilian
percussion, synthesizers and drum loops. At the time of his death,
Davis was high on Prince and tuned into rap.
"I love challenges and new things,'' Davis wrote in "Miles,'' his
blunt, engaging and funny 1989 autobiography. "When I hear jazz
musicians today playing all those same licks we used to play so long
ago, I feel sad for them. I mean, it's like going to bed with a real
old person who even smells real old. Now, I'm not putting down old
people because I'm getting older myself. But to be honest, that's what
it reminds me of. ... I have to always be on the cutting edge of
things because that's just the way I am and have always been.''
A master minimalist who distilled emotion with a few rich notes, Davis
was a supreme melodist whose tart, lyrical trumpet could summon many
moods, make you cry or lift you up. He brought together brilliant
musicians and shaped their individual voices into a sound that said
Miles, whether he was playing hard bop, modal or free improvisation,
spacey jazz-rock fusion or street-corner funk. It was the feeling he
passed through that curving tube of brass that drew you in, the pained
tenderness of those muted ballads, the bite and joy of his loping
solos and popping fast ones.
"He didn't play the trumpet like a trumpet, he played it like a
voice,'' said the great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who never
worked with Davis but knew him and shared concert bills. "His playing
was the opposite of his personality,'' Hutcherson added, referring to
Davis' mercurial manner and quick-tempered acerbity. "He played these
really beautiful, sweet, sensitive lines.''
Hutcherson recalls playing a concert somewhere in Europe with the late
saxophonist Harold Land in the '60s, preceding Davis' quintet.
Hutcherson was wearing a colorful vest he'd bought in Tunisia. When he
came offstage, Davis said in his famous rasp, "Hey, Bobby, I want that
vest. And the band sounds good, sounds different.'' That was a high
"Miles always liked to know you were working on something different,''
Hutcherson said. "He didn't mind you making mistakes, as long as you
were trying something new. When you play melodic statements that are
honest -- and those are usually the first that come out of your head
-- they're fresh. That's how Miles liked it.''
Davis was a music-mad kid from East St. Louis, Ill., where his father
was a prominent African American dentist and landowner who "didn't
take no s -- off nobody,'' as Davis put it in his book. His mother was
a glamorous woman "who always dressed to kill'' in diamonds and mink,
and passed her love of clothes onto the skinny little kid who would
become an international fashion plate as well as a symbol of proud
defiance and cool. He was married at various times to dancer Frances
Davis, actress Cicely Tyson and singer Betty Mabry, had three kids
with a previous common-law wife, a fourth with another lover and had
many liaisons, including one with French singer-actress Juliette
Miles Dewey Davis III fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong,
Duke Ellington and other top bands while listening to the daily radio
show "Harlem Rhythms.'' Another prime influence came one night when he
was about 7, walking down a country road near his grandfather's
Arkansas fish farm. Music came wafting through the trees from an
"I remember somebody playing a guitar the way B.B. King plays it,''
Davis wrote. "And I remember a man and a woman singing and talking
about getting down! S -- , the music was something, especially that
woman singing. I think that stuff stayed with me, you know what I
mean? That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk
kind of thing, that Southern, Midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I
think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas
back roads after dark when the owls came out hooting. So when I
started taking music lessons I might have already had some idea what I
wanted my music to sound like.''
A decade later, Davis, who was playing professionally in his teens,
heard another sound that sealed his fate.
"The greatest feeling I ever had in my life -- with my clothes on --
was when I heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, back in 1944,''
Davis wrote. The dynamic duo that turned jazz inside out was then
playing in Billy Eckstine's band with the dazzling young singer Sarah
Vaughan. Davis had his horn with him that night and ended up onstage
subbing for a sick trumpeter. He was blown away by the power of the
band and the explosive solos of Parker and Gillespie. He decided right
there he had to move to New York to be near them.
Davis studied for a time at the prestigious Juilliard School, where he
pored over scores by Stravinsky and Berg. But he spent most of his
time listening and jamming at Minton's up in Harlem, the cradle of
bebop, and in the clubs along 52nd Street. He recalled a music history
teacher at Julliard telling her class that "the reason black people
played the blues was because they were poor and had to pick cotton. So
they were sad, and that's where the blues came from," Davis wrote.
"My hand went up in a flash and I stood up and said, 'I'm from East
St. Louis and my father is rich, he's a dentist and I play the blues.
My father didn't pick no cotton and I didn't wake up this morning sad
and start playing the blues. There's a lot more to it than that.'
Well, the bitch turned green and didn't say nothing after that.''
Davis spoke out against ignorance and racism, and judged people by
their talent and character, not their color. He took a lot of flack
from black musicians when he used white players such as alto
saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Bill Evans in his bands. He
responded by saying that if a guy played as well as Konitz, "I would
hire him every time, and I wouldn't give a damn if he was green with
red breath. I'm hiring a mother -- to play, not for what color he
Konitz played on the collaborative "Birth of the Cool'' sessions, on
which some of the tunes were arranged by the baritone saxophonist
Gerry Mulligan, others by Gil Evans, the brilliant jazz impressionist
who'd written charts for Claude Thornhill's orchestra. That band's
moody Ellingtonian music, with its floating clouds of color, inspired
the Davis nonet. In the late '50s, Evans and Davis created three
orchestral jazz records that still sound beautiful: "Miles Ahead,''
"Porgy and Bess'' and "Sketches of Spain.'' The "Porgy'' track
"Prayer'' brings Debussy and Muddy Waters to mind. The trumpet's
plaintive cry pierces through shifting waves of sound.
Davis had gone back to the blues several years earlier, when he
reacted against the airy cool school by creating "Walkin','' a
grooving medium-tempo blues that brought jazz back down to earth and
triggered the gritty hard bop movement. That 1954 record, made after
Davis had shaken his heroin habit, features the funky pianist Horace
Silver, who, along with drummer Art Blakey, carried on the hard bop
tradition. Davis formed his classic quintet with Coltrane the next
year, and the group made a series of stirring records for Prestige
before moving to the bigger Columbia label.
That's where the Davis sextet with Evans, Coltrane and alto
saxophonist Cannonball Adderley made "Kind of Blue,'' the epochal 1959
recording that draws you into music of sublime simplicity. The album
still sells about 150,000 copies a year. It's the entryway to jazz for
"I play 'Kind of Blue' every day -- it's my orange juice. It still
sounds like it was made yesterday,'' Quincy Jones, the famed arranger
and producer told Ashley Kahn, author of "Kind of Blue: "The Making of
the Miles Davis Masterpiece.''
A lot of older fans who loved "Kind of Blue'' loathed the rock-jazz
fusion that Davis began exploring in the late '60s, when he started
using electric instruments and dancing backbeat grooves. He hired
open-eared young players like Corea, Zawinul and McLaughlin, brought
them into the studio and set them jamming. The tapes from those
experimental sessions were cut and pasted by Davis and producer Teo
Macero to create albums like the mysteriously beautiful "In a Silent
Way'' and the rocking and sometimes riotous electric landscape of
"Bitches Brew,'' the big-selling 1970 album that opened the door to
the big rock audience.
Around that time, Davis drove Dick Conte, the noted Bay Area disc
jockey and pianist, in his Lamborghini to the Sausalito house where
Davis was staying and played cassettes of his new music (some of it
ended up on the 1971 "Live Evil'' album.). He listened and grinned.
"Those kids are gonna sit back with their joints and love this s --
,'' Davis rasped.
"It was like he was planning a coup of some kind,'' said Conte, who
loved that music, still finds "Bitches Brew'' interesting and spins
classic Miles on his Sunday night KKSF show.
A series of medical problems and a car crash that broke both ankles
forced Davis to quit playing from 1975 to '81. Over the next decade,
he put together a series of fusion bands and made a batch of records
of varying interest, bringing musicians such as saxophonist Branford
Marsalis, guitarists John Scofield and Barry Finnerty and the
multi-talented Marcus Miller into the fold. As always, Davis ignored
the critics -- Stanley Crouch called him "the most brilliant sellout
in jazz history'' and "the most remarkable licker of moneyed boots in
the music business, willing now to pimp himself as he once pimped
women when he was a drug addict'' -- and played what he wanted.
"I'm always looking for a new tonality somewhere, somehow,'' he told
me during a 1984 interview. "New tones, new sounds. That's what I'm
I can still picture him at the Oakland Paramount a year before he
died, backed by a killer band that whispered and screamed. Davis
cat-walking the stage in a gold lame jacket, blowing pungent blues and
hushed ballads that were pure Miles.
Miles Davis made a couple of hundred records during his extraordinary
career as a trumpeter, composer and bandleader. Here's a sampling:
"Birth of the Cool,'' Capitol. A gentle beauty made up of pieces Davis
recorded in 1949-'50 with Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and
others in the nonet that included French horn and tuba.
"Walkin','' Prestige. A blues-rich swinger that heralded the arrival
of hard bop.
"The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions.'' A new four-CD box
compiling the classic stuff Davis recorded in the mid-'50s with his
first great quintet, with the rising tenor saxophone star John
Coltrane and the locked-in rhythm section of pianist Red Garland,
drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers. The repertoire
includes cooking numbers like "Well, You Needn't'' and "Airegin'' and
deep ballad performances of "You're My Everything'' and "My Funny
"Milestones,'' (Sony) Legacy. A bracing 1958 sextet recording
featuring alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley on the front line with
Davis and Coltrane. The title tune by Davis set the stage for the
modal improvisation that would come to the fore on "Kind of Blue.''
"Kind of Blue,'' Legacy. The masterpiece. Credit pianist Bill Evans
for much of the magic.
"Miles Ahead," Legacy. The first of the great orchestral
collaborations between Davis and arranger Gil Evans.
"E.S.P.,'' Legacy. The first of several superb studio recordings by
Davis' extraordinary 1960s quintet. The intriguing originals include
Davis' "Agitation'' and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter's lovely
"In a Silent Way,'' Legacy. Shimmering electric atmospheres and
sinuously dancing grooves laid down by guitarist John McLaughlin,
Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Joe Zawinul on
organ, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Williams.
"The Essential Miles Davis,'' Legacy. An excellent two-CD set spanning
the range of his work, from 1945's "Now the Time'' with Charlie Parker
to 1986's "Portia'' with Marcus Miller, "So What,'' "Someday My Prince
Will Come,'' "Nefertiti'' and "Little Church,'' an ethereally
beautiful ballad by the great Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal, who
whistles in harmony with Davis' electronically shaded trumpet.
Where you can hear it
Go to feature.legacyrecordings.com/miles and you'll see a variety of
sound clip formats for some Davis CDs. Click on any of them and the
music should start.