Miles Davis

A New and Completely Frank Consideration of the 'Miles Davis Phenomenon'

ARTICLE QUOTE: "On 'If I Were a Bell' the muted trumpet solo by Miles is actually technically quite shocking for a man of his improvisational experience, with probably a majority of the notes which he plays 'jammed'..."

Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 September 28, 1991) was one of the most outstanding and original jazz musicians of the 20th century. A trumpeter, bandleader and composer, Davis was at the forefront of almost every major development in jazz from World War II to the 1990s. He played on some early bebop records, formed a one time musical association with the legendary Charle Parker, and recorded the first 'cool jazz' records (although it has to be admitted that 'cool jazz' can be defined in several ways - not all of which would place Miles as original innovator). Davis was at least partially responsible for the development of modal jazz, and jazz fusion arose from his work with other musicians in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. But his recordings, along with several dynamic live performances of his music, were probably pivotal in the wider acceptance of jazz as music with lasting artistic value. So as popularizer as well as an innovator, Davis became famous for his low-key (emotionally speaking), melancholic style and his laconic, and at times highly difficult and contentious personality. As an increasingly well-paid and fashionably-dressed jazz musician, Davis also later became a symbol of the commercial potentiality of his particular brand of cool jazz, especially with his eventual progression into so-called 'jazz fusion' and the attractions of that new genre to younger fans of rock and 'rhythm and blues.'

Miles Davis

Miles Davis was without doubt a notable jazz innovator.

Davis was late in a line of jazz trumpeters that started with Buddy Bolden and progressed through Roy Eldridge, Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie. Miles has been compared to Duke Ellington as a musical innovator: but while both were reasonably proficient players on their own instruments, neither were considered technically outstanding players. Ellington's main strength, of course, was as a jazz composer, while Miles Davis had a talent for drawing together talented musicians in small groups and allowing them space to develop. Many of the major figures in post-war jazz played in one of Davis's groups at some point in their career. Of course, Miles had also played with Charlie Parker at the start of his career. Later recordings such as 'Miles Ahead' and 'Milestones' made Davis famous and made his cool and unfiery trumpet style instantly recognisable - and frequently copied!

The interesting thing about Miles' playing is the way he appears to be quite a fiery and fluent soloist in his earlier recordings, but then he purposely undergoes a style change, developing his distinctive 'blue' and melancholy sound. Serious questions have been raised about his trumpet playing technique and there is no doubt that he was occasionally tonally deficient and his accuracy could be very poor; moreover, probably no other jazz trumpeter has had so much recording work released which reveal so many of these technical lapses. Certainly, Miles was no Dizzy, yet it continues to puzzle many that he could play such technically outstanding solos in his earlier work. The suspicion is very strong that, as he acquired more fame and moved more and more into his own style, and, indeed, into his own lifestyle, he neglected a trumpeter's 'bread and butter' practise routines. As an example of the technically highly proficient trumpet playing Miles was certainly capable of producing, one just has to listen to his playing on the 1956 recording, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet - by the way, last time I checked, you could stream the whole 30 minute album Here. Miles is joined by John Coltrane on this set and the jazz is well worth a listen. This 1956 session is interesting because the earlier fiery and fluent Miles (evident on several tracks here) would soon be totally lost to his 'blue' and melancholy style. Miles Ahead followed in 1957 and Milestones in 1958 and these two very famous recordings finally fully established the 'melancholy Miles' style. Even on the 1956 'Cookin' session the cool and melancholy Miles is evident on 'My Funny Valentine' and 'When Lights Are Low' but much of his playing on this session is wonderfully fiery and fluent displaying the proficiency of technique which some would later accuse him of lacking.

Below: Catch a few minutes of Miles with John Coltrane in 1958...

To hear some of Miles at his very worst, one simply needs to listen to certain tracks from his 1961 'Blackhawk session' recorded in San Francisco. On 'If I Were a Bell' the muted trumpet solo by Miles is actually technically quite shocking for a man of his improvisational experience, with probably a majority of the notes which he plays 'jammed.' One can only excuse this by saying that he must have been feeling very tired at the time, or that he was possibly trying out a new mouthpiece. This huge 'Blackhawk' set is now available, I understand, as a 'super cd' (not playable on some cd players). But, frankly, too many of the tracks on this album find Miles at his most indifferent.

Much, much later Miles moved on again, getting involved in 'fusion' and, with this final move, many formerly faithful fans abandoned him. For many, whatever one might call it, this very late involvement was certainly not jazz in any meaningful way. Yet his foray into 'fusion' certainly started getting Miles a whole new, younger, generation of fans; these new fans loved rock and soul but would never have listened to modern jazz in its original Dizzy/Parker/Miles/Navarro format.

Without doubt, Miles Davis never pleased all of his fans all of the time, yet he must always be considered to be one of the great icons and true innovators of modern jazz. It is also true to say that the name 'Miles Davis' is now up there with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker as names quickly recognised by the general non-jazz loving public as icons of jazz.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.

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