Thursday, October 14, 2010


I was totally into Rock and Roll the first 18 years of my life. In the early 1970s I started listening to the band Weather Report. The two main musicians in WR were Wayne Shorter and Joseph Zawinul. I discovered that both had played with Miles Davis. I started listening to Miles' electronic albums of that period including In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and Jack Johnson. Through further research I started investigating Miles' earlier music which went all the way back to the 1940s when he played with Charlie Parker. This led me into a tunneling back through Jazz history and collecting Jazz records and cds. From 1974 through 1978, I almost exclusively listened to Jazz. Today, I have over 40 Miles Davis recordings and and few hundred Jazz cds. 

Miles Davis was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century. He was at the forefront of several major developements in Jazz, including Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and Jazz Fusion. Many great players rose to prominence as members of his groups including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joseph Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.

Miles came to New York from St. Louis in 1944 to study at the Julliard School. He immediately started looking for his idol Charlie Parker, and was involved in nightly jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's in Harlem. Other participants included Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, and J.J. Johnson. He dropped out of Juilliard feeling the classes centered too much on classical European music, although he acknowledged his experience there gave him a good grounding in music theory that he would make use of in his career.

After playing at several of the 52nd Street clubs, MIles became a member of Charlie Parker's group after Dizzy Gillespie departed. He participated in several recordings with Parker, and on one cut Now's The Time he takes a melodic solo, whose un-Bop-like quality was a precursor to Cool Jazz. In 1948, his relationship ended with Parker over money problems and Parker's erratic behavior because of drug abuse.

In 1948, Miles grew close to the composer and arranger Gil Evans. A lot of young musicians would meet at his house including Max Roach, John Lewis, and Gerry Mulligan. They put together a nonet, and Miles took control of the project, working on compositions that emphasized a relaxed, melodic approach to the improvisations. Capitol Records gave them sessions in 1949 and 1950 that produced the recording Birth of the Cool, although it took a few years for its importance to become recognized.

In the early 1950s, Davis started having problems with heroin himself and finally kicked it in 1954 by going home to his father's house in St. Louis. During this period he made many recordings that often included Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. In 1952 and 1953 he made recordings for Blue Note that produced a wonderful versions of Take Off, Weirdo, Tempus Fugit, and Well You Needn't. The musicians on these recordings included Horace Silver, J.J. Johnson, Percy Heath, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, and Kenny Clarke.

He made several important recordings on Prestige as well, including Dig, Blue Haze, Bag's Groove, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, and Walkin'. With these records Davis went into Hard Bop that used slower tempos and a less radical approach to harmony and melody than Bebop, and used popular tunes as a starting point for the improvisations. Miles started using the Harmon mute at this time and his phrasing became spacious, melodic, and relaxed, especially on ballads.

Next came the first recordings of the first classic quintet that included John Coltrane on sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. For Prestige they recorded Workin', Cookin', Steamin', and Relaxin' and his first recording for Columbia, 'Round About Midnight. They played Bebop, standards, and traditional tunes with Davis playing long, legato, and melodic lines that contrasted with Coltrane's high-energy solos.

In 1958, Davis added Cannonball Adderly on alto sax as well, and they produced the album Milestones that has an amazing piece on it called Sid's Ahead.

Also during this period Davis continued his relationship with Gil Evans and produced several albums with orchestra, including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and my favorite, the beautiful Sketches of Spain.

In March and April 1956, Davis recorded what is widely considered his magnum opus and one of the most influential and popular Jazz albums of all time - Kind Of Blue. The line up included the pianist Bill Evans who along with Davis was interested in the Modal Jazz of George Russell. They prepared harmonic frameworks for the compositions that gave space for the improvisations. Both Coltrane and Adderly take amazing solos on Kind of Blue. The line-up also included Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, as well as Wynton Kelly on piano on the tune Freddy Freeloader. The other four classics on this album are So What, All Blues, Blue In Green, and Flamenco Sketches.

In the early 60s, other albums that were made included Sometime My Prince Will Come and Seven Steps to Heaven along with several excellent live albums including Live at Carnagie Hall, and the two albums recorded at Lincoln Center - My Funny Valentine and Four and More.

In 1965, the second great quintet came together featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. They did a live performance at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, where they played many of Miles' standards but broke away from the original framework of the songs and played them at a break-neck tempo. This recording wasn't released until many years later. During this period the group released several studio albums including ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Shorter and Hancock were now writing some of the compositions and the band was known for its" freebop" or "time no changes" approach to improvisation. They abandoned the more conventional chord-change based approach of Bebop for a Modal approach.

Other records included Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro that introduced electric bass, electric piano, and electric guitar and pointed to a more rock influenced music that was soon to come. At this point Chick Corea and Dave Holland came into the band.

Miles Davis constantly changed and he had become aware of the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. He expanded his band with more players and incorporated funk and acid rock into the jazz, which led to a new music called Jazz Fusion. He added Joseph Zawinul and the guitarist John McLaughlin and produced the stunningly beautiful In A Silent Way, followed by the intense and groundbreaking Bitches Brew. This music was controversial and shocking for jazz purists and some critics accused Davis of selling out. I find this period of his music amazing and innovative. There are still great solos, but now they are taking place within long form grooves of layered shifting funk. He had also become aware of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen which led to this new music that was heavy, dark, intense, and space-like.

Other recordings from this period include Jack Johnson where McLaughlin shines, On The Corner, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea, and The Cellar Door Sessions, that included great work by the McLaughlin on guitar and Keith Jarrett on keyboards. There are also some unique and intensely emotional sax solos by Gary Bartz on these recordings.

In 1975, I hitchhiked with a friend of mine from Tulsa to St. Louis to see Miles Davis in concert. The group was the same as the ones on Agharta and Pangaea - Miles on Trumpet and Keyboards, Sonny Fortune on sax, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitars, Michael Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, and Mtume on percussion. They played one long endless groove with Miles often bending over to play his trumpet into a mike about 2 feet off the ground. It was a dark, intense, emotional experience I will never forget.

A few months later Miles Davis left the music scene and withdrew into his apartment on Riverside Drive. He was tired, unhealthy, and his mental state was precarious. He lived like a hermit for the next 6 years.

In 1981, he re-emerged and started recording again, working with younger upcoming players. For me, this final period is not as interesting, but did produce some nice work including the albums Aura and Tutu. 

Miles Davis died in 1991. He created a body of work that was constantly evolving, building, and reacting to what he had done before. He created music in 6 different decades. Miles Davis was one of the most innovative, influential, and respected figures in both the history of music and jazz. 

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