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Jazz Corner: Miles Davis The Enigmatic Genius

We look back on the career of the American jazz trumpeter

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Sunil Sampat May 29, 2019

American jazz musician and composer Miles Davis. Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

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If there is a superstar in jazz, meaning someone who has the status of an American sports idol, it has to be Miles Dewey Davis, jazz trumpet player, band leader and innovator.

Some time in the Eighties there was a dinner organized at the White House in Washington. The U.S. President had invited top American musicians, artists and sportsmen to dine with him and a few senators. Miles Davis was one of the invitees and was seated at dinner next to the wife of one of the senators who was not much into jazz. To break the ice she asked Miles, “And sir, what is it that brings you here tonight?” Miles stared at her for a few moments and replied, “Who me? I just changed jazz about six times.” It is a good bet that, that was the end of their dialogue for the evening!

Miles did innovate and wore many hats as a jazz musician; for the record, Miles falls into several jazz categories – bop, cool, hard bop, avant-garde, fusion, groove and jazz fusion, not all jazz perhaps but endorsing his statement to the senator’s wife in D.C.

But seriously, Miles Davis was instrumental in “changing jazz” a few times in his long, successful career as a jazz musician. It was certainly a long career stretching all the way from the mid 1940s to 1990.  It is an interesting exercise to look at the directions taken by the career of Miles Davis.

Son of a relatively wealthy dentist in St.Louis, Missouri, Miles played trumpet in the school band. In 1944, aged 18, Miles went to New York, ostensibly to study music at the Julliard Music School but in reality to be near the scene on 52nd Street where his heroes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were playing. He was invited to play with them but it was clear that he was short of their caliber. When Dizzy left Parker in around 1945, Miles took his place in the band. At that time, Miles did not match up to the standard of Parker’s group but soldiered on. He asked Dizzy Gillespie why he couldn’t play like him. Said Dizzy, “you can’t play the high notes because you can’t hear them!”

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Gradually, in the quest of a new sound for himself, a more laid back, introspective sound, he emerged with a brilliant album, Birth of the Cool, incorporating in the band Gil Evans, John Lewis and a hitherto unknown Gerry Mulligan. He also played in bands with J.J.Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson and others in the new sound in jazz, hard bop. However, Miles got deeply into the heroin habit for a few years and was a non player till around 1954 when he was able to kick the “habit” after a supreme effort. That was a lucky break for all jazz fans as well!

His performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival was a huge turning point. He then assembled his first classic quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Their four albums, Workin’, Cookin’, Steamin’ and Relaxin’ are evergreen. He later altered his band to include Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb. This second classic Miles band, now a sextet has to its credit the all time great album, Kind of Blue, Milestones and others.

Miles also recorded some quite brilliant albums with Gil Evans and the orchestra. Thus, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Live at Carnegie Hall and a few more were produced to the delight of jazz fans everywhere. They are also very successful.

After Coltrane, Adderley and Bill Evans left Miles to form their own bands, the genius that was Miles unearthed more super talents in Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, George Coleman, Victor Feldman, Jack de Johnette among others and recorded more spectacular albums like, Someday My Prince Will ComeSeven Steps to Heaven, In Person Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk and many others.

The decade from 1955 to 1965 was the peak of Miles’ jazz output. It included not only brilliant, flawless recordings but also featured a stack of musicians who arguably walk into the Who’s Who list of jazz.

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However, Miles was restless again by now and wanted something different! The era of electronic instruments was beginning and Miles went headlong into the possibilities of new ‘sound.’  Thus the electric moog synthesizer, electric bass, guitar and other newly created instruments went into the album, Bitches Brew, In a Silent Eay and Filles de Kilaminjaro.

It was felt by critics and cynics alike that Miles was experimenting not just with new jazz possibilities but with the new types of sounds that electronica was providing. This sound had a brand new following and perhaps brought new listeners into jazz, although alienating many of his old followers.  His later albums, We Want Miles, Man with the Horn and a few others deviated further from any conventional jazz sound — the exception being the unerring sound of Miles’ trumpet.

Miles Davis died in 1991 but his legacy to the jazz world is enormous. I had the good fortune to catch up with saxophonist Bennie Maupin in Mumbai last year at the NCPA Jazz Festival, where he performed. Maupin was part of Miles’ album Bitches Brew. I asked Maupin about his experience working with Miles. He smiled and said, “Miles had this tough guy image with most people. But to work with, he was very kind and respectful of talent. I had full freedom to play as I thought best.” Maybe that was the secret of Miles’ accumulation of talent — all world beaters. His appreciation of their talent and the space he provided for their expression.

However, this narrative cannot be complete without recalling an exchange between Miles and John Coltrane — who had the tendency to take very long saxophone solos. Miles asked him to try and keep them short to which Coltrane replied, “Once I start, I don’t know how to end the solo.” Typically, Miles Davis replied, “Just take the horn out of your mouth, man!”

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