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Miles Davis: Ahead of His Time

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Miles Davis

"I don't look back . . . Never," Miles Davis declared in 1973. "I don't have any place in my head for that stuff I only look ahead." In a career that spanned nearly five decades (with more than 50 studio albums and dozens of live sets and compilations), the brash and irascible trumpeter—who earned the colorful nicknames Prince of Darkness, the Evil Genius of Jazz, and the Picasso of Jazz (via Duke Ellington)—was always blazing trails and wielding his fiercely creative influence in the jazz world and beyond. His career was exemplified by the title of his 1957 release: Miles Ahead.


In Miles: The Autobiography, he says, "I was born May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, a little river town up on the Mississippi River about 25 miles north of East St. Louis...The first time I really paid attention to music was when I used to listen to a radio show called Harlem Rhythms. I was about seven or eight. I remember being fascinated by hearing the records of Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington. Then when I was 9 or 10 I started taking some private music lessons. When I got into music I went all the way into music; I didn't have no time after that for nothing else.”


Davis started playing in jazz clubs in his teens. After a short stint at the Julliard School of Music in 1944, he became a member of Charlie Parker's group and performed on a landmark bebop recordings from in the late '40s. Davis launched his own ensembles starting in 1948, working with fellow forward-thinkers Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and Lee Konitz on what became known as The Birth of the Cool sessions. A bout with drug addiction sidelined him until 1954, but he made up for his lost time over the next dozen years with a series of groundbreaking albums on Columbia Records made with the members of his superb '50s and '60s quintets, featuring saxophonists John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, pianists Red Garland and Herbie Hancock, bassists Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams. Noted jazz writer Gary Giddins wrote that "he defined the era's stance and tone, its irreverence, its style, its daring introversion, its brusque belligerence.”


Davis's enduring masterpiece (and best-selling jazz album of all time), Kind of Blue, was issued in 1959. In his autobiography Miles said, "I didn't write out the music for Kind of Blue, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing. Everything was a first take, which indicates the level everyone was playing on. It was beautiful.”


In Miles, Davis observed that "my gift [was] having the ability to put certain guys together that would create a chemistry and then letting them go; letting them play what they knew, and above it. I didn't know exactly what they would sound like together when I first hooked up guys. But I think it's important to pick intelligent musicians because if they're intelligent and creative then the music can really fly." His structural innovations and harmonic explorations flourished in the '60s, highlighted on the discs Sketches of SpainE.S.P.Sorcerer, and Nefertiti.


In a Silent Way (1969) introduced Davis's "electric period," and is regarded as one of the early and influential fusion records it featured three electric pianists (Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Hancock) and guitarist John McLaughlin. The palette-expanding sonic steps taken on that record led to the magnificence of Bitches Brew. Miles said of the 1970 double disc, "I had seen the way to the future with my music, and I was going for it like I had always done. I was going for it for myself, for what I wanted and needed in my own music. This session was about improvisation, and that's what makes jazz so fabulous. Any time the weather changes it's going to change your whole attitude about something, and so a musician will play differently, especially if everything is not put in front of him. A musician's attitude is the music he plays."


Bitches Brew (which earned Miles his first gold record) garnered a new following for Davis, who shared bills with the Grateful Dead, Laura Nyro, and Santana. He continued to blur the lines between jazz, rock, soul, and funk on the sprawling releases Live-EvilOn the Corner, and Get Up With It, before he took a sabbatical from the music business in 1975. "I quit primarily because of health reasons," he wrote in Miles, "but also because I was spiritually tired of all the bulls**t I had been going through for all those long years. I felt artistically drained, tired. I didn't have anything else to say musically. From 1975 until early 1980 I didn't pick up my horn; for over four years, didn't pick it up once. I would walk by and look at it, then think about trying to play." (The aforementioned albums—from Kind of Blue through Get Up With It—are not available on Hoopla, but can be streamed at YouTube.)


Davis returned to action in 1981 with The Man With the Horn. His work in the '80s incorporated most of the approaches he had taken in the previous decades, blending his classic trumpet stylings with his contemporary forays; Miles worked with a new generation of sidemen (John Scofield, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller, Darryl Jones) and dabbled with covers of pop songs (Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," Michael Jackson's "Human Nature"). Davis recorded and toured extensively before his death on September 28, 1991; his final album, released posthumously in 1992, was Doo-Bop, which found Miles embracing elements of rap and hip-hop.


Miles forged a legacy as an artistic and cultural touchstone. Gary Giddins opined that "more than anyone else [Davis] kept us guessing, debating, pondering. It is undoubtedly true that he recorded his greatest achievements in the '50s and his most popular works in the '70s. Yet it was only in the '60s that he and three other musical entities achieved an oddly suspenseful relationship with the audience that I believe was unprecedented then and remains unequaled since. The transformation of Bob Dylan from folkie to rocker, of the Beatles from rockers to art-rockers, of John Coltrane from hard bopper to New Thing prophet, and of Miles Davis from cool bopper to jazz-rocker-prophet were played out inch by inch on records. And each of the changes transcended the specifics of music to irradiate the culture itself. Of the four, Davis...had the longest career and largest capacity for change." Miles concurred; his most-cited quote is "I have to change. It's like a curse.”


"If I didn't play trumpet, I don't know what I would have done," Davis reflected in 1983. "I couldn't stay in an office. I'd do some kind of research. That W-H-Y is always my first word. I love challenges and new things; they re-energize me."


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