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The Enigmatic Miles Davis

In the hundred plus years of jazz history, there have been several very great musicians who have left a deep, significant impact on the progress and direction the music has taken. Just one jazz musician has become a super star, attaining in the process the status akin to an American sports superstar. That person is […]

Sunil Sampat Aug 25, 2009
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In the hundred plus years of jazz history, there have been several very great musicians who have left a deep, significant impact on the progress and direction the music has taken. Just one jazz musician has become a super star, attaining in the process the status akin to an American sports superstar. That person is Miles Davis, a jazz icon.

Miles was once seated next to a senator’s wife at a felicitation of various artists at the White House. The lady, obviously not familiar with jazz asked Miles what he had done. “I changed music six times, ma’am,” was the quick response.

Miles certainly changed the way jazz was played a few times in his lifetime in a career spanning from the mid 1940s to the 1990s. Miles, the son of an affluent African American dentist in St Louis, travelled to New York to study music at Juilliard College. Miles’ father sent him with words of wisdom, “Learn the music, Miles but don’t be a mockingbird. Play yourself. Play Miles!” He found the New York jazz scene mesmerising with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others creating the very exciting sound called Bebop. He tried to join in with these stalwarts but found his trumpet play not measuring up to the standards set by them. He once asked Dizzy Gillespie, “Why can’t I play like you, Diz?” and got the reply, “You can’t play those high notes, you just can’t hear them!” When Dizzy left Charlie Parker’s band, Miles was inducted in his place and made a few recordings with the band. He had neither the speed nor the range required for Bebop and thus branched out to play on his own terms.

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Playing slow, introspective melodic trumpet, Miles recorded the watershed album, Birth of the Cool with Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone. This was the birth of Miles’ modal style of playing, a style which defined his huge impact on jazz. He would extend a musical line or lines through its range of melodic possibilities and create wistful jazz passages. His four albums, Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’ and Steamin’ are among the finest jazz albums ever and included John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. His association with Coltrane continued for several years and in the creation of such masterpiece recordings as Kind of Blue and Milestones and the albums they recorded with Gil Evans, notably Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess and Live at Carnegie Hall plus some live recordings. Miles was certainly not the greatest trumpet player ever but always worked with great sidemen in his band.

In the late 1960s, Miles made a 180 degree quantum shift in his music. Miles went electronic, seeking a “new” sound. Abandoning his modal approach, Miles played in a manner many felt was attempting to reach younger, new audiences listening to rock.

This departure, while earning him new listenership resulted in many of his earlier fans turning away in disappointment. His own melodic sound was now replaced by linear, continuous trumpet notes surrounded by keyboards, clavinets and other non-acoustic instrument sounds. But then, Miles was born a Gemini, characterised by twins or two personalities. As somebody once remarked, “Miles can either move you or drive you to tears!”

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After sides are taken and choices made, one thing will remain clear: Miles Davis made an indelible impact on jazz. Just listen and enjoy.

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