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Clip: Miles Davis kept forcing jazz in new directions

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  • Carl Z.
    Miles Davis kept forcing jazz in new directions, but his stark, lyrical
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 15, 2006

      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
      unseen church.

      "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
      many people.

      "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
      searching for.''

      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.
      Selected discography

      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
      ballad "Iris.''

      "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.
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