Saturday, September 20, 2008

Miles Ahead: An Essay on the Music of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis was an incredible musician. Okay, now we're finished with the understatement of the day. I'm reading Ashley Kahn's book "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," and I'm amazed by the success Miles had in so many different styles of jazz. He certainly wasn't content to rest on his laurels. As soon as he had success in one field of jazz, he was on to a different challenge. He was on the cutting edge of jazz for 20 years, pioneering several important jazz movements.

Miles started out playing with Charlie Parker in the late 1940's. Parker was one of bebop's biggest stars at the time, and Miles was some kid just out of East St. Louis. But Parker took Miles under his wing. But just as Miles was making his ascendancy in the world of bebop, he changed styles. He made the album, "The Birth of the Cool" in 1949-50 that ushered in a quieter, more subdued style of jazz called "cool jazz" or "West Coast jazz." Miles was heavily influenced by classical music, and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions are the antithesis of the frenzied bebop soloing. One of the featured members of the "Birth of the Cool" band was Gerry Mulligan, who formed a group with the trumpeter Chet Baker that achieved great success in the early 1950's. But Miles didn't make any more records like "Birth of the Cool," at least not until his sessions with Gil Evans. (Who arranged some of the "Cool" sides.) Once Miles got his act together again, and kicked his heroin addiction, the records he made in 1954-55 pointed the way towards hard bop, which was in some ways a reaction to the prevailing West Coast "cool" style that Miles himself had helped usher in. He lead all-star sessions for Prestige records that produced classics like "Bag's Groove." The lineup on "Bag's Groove" is a who's who of 50's jazz: Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. Wow.

In 1955, Miles set about putting together a steady group he could lead. He found one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history; pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. And he took a chance on a journeyman tenor sax man from Philadelphia: John Coltrane. Miles and Trane's partnership would change the course of jazz history. This band was known as Miles's first "Classic Quintet," and the recordings they made together set the standard for hard bop playing. And then Miles fired Coltrane because of his heroin addiction. (Trane got clean in 1957, played with Monk for 6 months, and then Miles re-hired him.) Miles also made the decision to record an album with a large ensemble arranged by Gil Evans, it would be called "Miles Ahead." The albums Miles made with Gil Evans aren't my favorites, but the people who like them really like them, and they are considered the best albums of their kind. Miles was changing things up yet again.

On his 1958 album "Milestones," Miles added alto sax player Cannonball Adderley to the group, and started the path towards modal jazz, which led to "Kind of Blue." I can't claim to totally understand all the differences between modal jazz and non-modal jazz, but I think it boils down to this: in modal jazz, you improvise with or against the scales, not the chords, as in most styles of jazz. In a modal song, you might only have two chords, so you can't improvise with or against the chord changes. This was the opposite of bebop, where the chord changes were everything. It was a totally different way of improvising. (This really sounds like I know what I'm talking about, doesn't it?) Anyway, from what Kahn says in his book, that's how I understand it.

The gold standard for modal jazz was Miles's 1959 album "Kind of Blue." It's regularly cited as the greatest jazz album ever, and even shows up in rock magazine polls of great albums. If you haven't heard it, go out and buy a copy. Right now. When you've finished listening to it, please return to this blog entry and keep reading. I'll wait for you...done? Wow, wasn't it great? Again, Miles put together an amazing band full of musicians who would continue to make great jazz as solo artists. The "Kind of Blue" group was: Miles, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. Wow. Within a year, Cannonball and Coltrane had both formed their own groups, as had Bill Evans. (Evans technically left Miles's group in late 1958, but returned for the "Kind of Blue" recording.)

But rather than keep plowing the modal fields until nothing was left, Miles kept changing his sound. He never made another album that sounded like "Kind of Blue." In 1963, Wynton Kelly left, taking Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb with him to form their own trio. Miles had to form a new band, from the ground up. Eventually, in 1964, the new lineup became Wayne Shorter on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. This group became known as Miles's second "Classic Quintet." Miles's playing became harsher during this period, as some of that ballad softness seemed to slip away. By 1968-69, Miles was experimenting with more open song structures, electric pianos, and grooves influenced by James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. It was the start of fusion, heralded by Miles's albums "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches' Brew." I have to confess, I don't like fusion. I don't really get it. But I can understand that it was an important movement in jazz, and once again, Miles was on the front line, leading the charge.

Miles's music post-1969 doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me, and from what I've read, it doesn't sound like he broke a lot of new ground after fusion. But that really doesn't matter, because in twenty years at the forefront of nearly every major movement in jazz, Miles had broken enough boundaries for many lifetimes. Honestly, most artists, in any genre, don't get to say they started or heavily influenced as many different styles as Miles did.

So those are some of my thoughts on Miles Davis, one of my favorite jazz musicians. I'm just intrigued by the way he kept searching, kept moving. He could have tried to make 10 albums just like "Kind of Blue," but he didn't, which I admire. Miles did not do things the easy way, and he definitely did them his way.


Uncle E said...

What an insightful piece! Kind Of Blue is beyond critisism, in my humble opinion, and Miles, though an ornery bugger, was no doubt a genius. Birth Of The Cool, Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way and Sketches Of Spain are some of the best jazz albums ever recorded.
Fine, fine post, Mark!

Mark said...

Thanks so much E! Your kind words are much appreciated!

I agree that Kind of Blue is beyond any criticism, it's just one of those perfect records.

And yes, Miles was certainly an ornery bugger! From everything I've read, he sounds very much like the typical "difficult artist," whose brilliance excuses a lot of bad behavior. Miles's autobiography is a great source of Miles anecdotes, like the time he was riding in an elevator, high as a kite on whatever, a woman gets on the elevator, and Miles says, "Get the fuck out of my car, bitch!" Ah, good times with Miles...

I'm also amused by Miles's usage of the word "motherfucker" in his autobiography, it really becomes an all-purpose word for him. He says of Wynton Kelly, "Wynton was a beautiful cat, and he could play the piano like a motherfucker." Of his record "Walkin'" Miles says, "That record was a motherfucker, man." Oh, Miles, what a character he was...