Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Milestones - The Music and Times of Miles Davis by Jack Chambers

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

MILES DAVIS : Milestones, [Columbia C L 1193]

“Side 1: Dr. Jekyl, while not especially melodic, gives the group an excellent opportunity to "stretch out." The eights and fours between Miles and Philly Joe Jones are fiery and invigorating. Paul Chambers, in spite of the fast tempo, takes a soulful solo. The exchange of choruses between Coltrane and Cannonball is the high point of the track, and the rhythm section is very stable throughout.

Sid's Ahead is, in reality, the old, and now classic, Walkin'. During his solo, Coltrane is very clever and creative in his handling of the substitute chords. Miles strolls (without piano) beautifully. He is a true musical conversationalist. Cannonball is quite "funky " at times, and Chambers exemplifies his ability to create solo lines in the manner of a trumpeter or saxophonist.

The third track, Two Bass Hit, opens with everyone on fire—particularly Philly , whose punctuation and attack are as sharp as a knife. Coltrane enters into his solo moaning, screaming, squeezing, and seemingly projecting his very soul through the bell of his horn. I feel that this man is definitely blazing a new musical trail. Philly and Red Garland back the soloists like a brass section, an effect which always creates excitement.

Side 2: The theme of Milestones is unusual, but surprisingly pleasant particularly the bridge where Miles answers the other horns, achieving an echo effect. Philly' s use of sticks on the fourth beat of every bar is quite tasteful. Cannonball cleverly interweaves melodies around the changes. Miles is as graceful as a swan, and Coltrane is, as usual, full of surprises.

Red Garland, who is undoubtedly one of today's great pianists, is spotlighted in Billy Boy with Philly and Paul. The arrangement is tightly knit and well played. Red employs his block chord technique on this track and plays a beautiful single line, as well. Philly and Paul do a wonderful job, both soloing and in the section.

Straight No Chaser is a revival of a Thelonious Monk composition of a few years ago—the spasmodic harmony makes it quite interesting. Cannonball is excellent on this track. I may be wrong, but he seems to have been influenced somewhat by Coltrane. Miles paints a beautiful picture, as surely as with an artist's brush He has a sound psychological approach in that he never plays too much. He leaves me, always"wanting to hear more. I have heard no one, lately, who creates like Coltrane. On this track, he is almost savage in his apparent desire to play his horn thoroughly. Red plays a single line solo with his left hand accompanying off the beat. He closes the solo with a beautiful harmonization of Miles ' original solo on Now's The Time. Here, Philly goes into a subtle 1-2-3-4 beat on the snare drum behind Red's solo, setting it off perfectly. This is the best track of the album. In closing, I'd like to say — keep one eye on the world and the other on John Coltrane.”

Benny Golson, The Jazz Review, January 1959

One of the reasons that I set up this blog was to have a place to celebrate my heroes and to share them with you.

I was very fortunate to have an early career playing in Jazz groups of every configuration imaginable and I enjoyed it all immensely.

Musically, I made money in commercials and studio work and while that income helped put me through college, the setting for it also helped me realize that the world did not need another, starving Jazz musician, which is what I would have become without the studio work.

But although I subsequently made my way in the world without music, I kept in touch with many of my “old Jazz friends” by buying and listening to their records, reading their books and magazine articles, and attending their club and concert appearances.

Along the way, I also made “new” Jazz friends, many of whom are Jazz writers and critics who have expanded my knowledge and awareness of the music and its makers.

One such new friend is the author, Jack Chambers.

I first “met” Jack on a stormy Sunday afternoon in San Francisco when undeterred by “The great El NiƱo of 1997-98” [headline from The San Francisco Chronicle], I hopped into my car and headed for the now defunct Borders Bookstore on the corner of Post and Geary Streets.

Over the course of that weekend, I had come to the realization that I did not know very much about Miles Davis’ pre-Columbia Records years, so I headed into town in search of a book that would give me more information about Miles’ earlier discography.

By some miracle, Borders always stocked an ample supply of books about Jazz and lo and behold there was Jack’s book Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis which provided me with all the information I needed about Miles’ recordings.

I was fortunate enough to get a combined edition, but Jack’s book was originally published in two volumes as explained in the following excerpt from his Introduction:

“My book is organized in two volumes, which subdivide Davis's long and extraordinarily productive career into its main phases. Milestones I traces the emergence of the teenaged Davis from East St. Louis, Illinois, into post-war New York City, where he joined the ranks of the bebop revolutionaries, worked out his individual style, and took his place in the forefront of jazz music by late 1959. Davis's activities during this period are covered in two main movements: the first, under the heading "Boplicity," details his apprenticeship, first in his hometown and later under the aegis of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, culminating in his first masterwork with the short-lived experimental nonet of 1948; the second, titled "Miles Ahead," concerns his creative recess during his years of heroin addiction and his dramatic return to form in the 1950s, culminating in the years of the first great quintet and the sextet. Milestones II takes up his music and his times from 1960, also in two main movements; it begins, in "Prince of Darkness," with his formal reorganization of bebop in the second great quintet and continues in "Pangaea" with his restless search for further formal expansions, leading to fusions with free form, rock, and other music.”

While I initially sought out Jack’s Miles book to help fill the gaps in my knowledge about Miles’ earlier recording career before he signed with Columbia in 1955, what convinced me to buy it was the following annotation about my favorite Columbia recording by the Miles Davis Sextet.

I literally wore this record out practicing to it so I thought I was familiar with it, yet what struck me was how much Jack’s observations and insights enhanced my appreciation of the music on Milestones.

See what you think; I’m willing to wager that you’ll see the recording differently after you’ve read Jack’s assessment of it.

“Miles Davis Sextet
Miles Davis, tpt; Julian Adderley, as; John Coltrane, ts; Red Garland, pno; Paul Chambers, b; Philly Joe Jones, dms. New York, 2 April 1958 Two Bass Hit; Billy Boy (rhythm trio only); Straight No Chaser; Milestones (all on Columbia CL 1193)
Same personnel but omit Garland on Sid's Ahead; Davis plays piano and trumpet; same place; 3 April 1958
Dr. Jekyll [Dr. ]ackle] Sid's Ahead [Walkin']
(both issued as above)
Dr. Jekyll is a misspelling (pace Robert Louis Stevenson) of Jackie McLean's title, Dr. Jackle.

With the expanded instrumentation from the quintet to the sextet, Davis makes strategic use of the instrumental combinations. Red Garland's role as a solo voice almost disappears, except for the trio track, Billy Boy, the American folk song that Ahmad Jamal rearranged into a swinging vehicle for piano players. Garland's version was only one of dozens being played at the time, which later prompted Jamal to complain, "I was stupid enough not to copyright the arrangement, and then Oscar Peterson did it, Red Garland did it, Ramsey Lewis did it, everybody did it, and I didn't get paid for it." Garland's only other solo turn is on Straight No Chaser, and everywhere else the space conventionally taken by the piano player is given to Paul Chambers on bass, who solos on every track except Two Bass Hit and Milestones.

The unusual emphasis on bass rather than piano as a solo voice rankled Garland, who walked out of the studio during the warm-up for Sid's Ahead, leaving Davis to double on piano and trumpet on the recorded version of this track. But the emphasis not only reflects Davis's displeasure with Garland; it also, more positively, reflects his delight in his bassist's development. Soon after these recordings were made, Davis told Nat Hentoff, "Paul Chambers ... has started to play a new way whereby he can solo and accompany himself at the same time - by using space well." How that polydexterity might translate into performance is hard to guess, but Chambers was given ample opportunity to show his wares both arco and pizzicato.

The solo orders take some unconventional turns, too. Adderley is the first soloist on Milestones and Straight No Chaser, followed by Davis and then by Coltrane, an order that exploits the stylistic contrasts among the three horns magnificently and also preserves the dynamics of the superseded quintet by allowing Coltrane to charge in behind Davis. On Sid's Ahead and Two Bass Hit, Coltrane opens the solo round, with Davis again interposed between the two reedmen on the former but not soloing at all on the latter. On Dr. Jackie, Davis solos first, exercising the traditional privilege of the leader in jazz bands, but the round of solos turns out to be another innovation, as Davis shares his final three twelve-bar choruses with Philly Joe Jones, and then Adderley and Coltrane trade choruses in their turn.

Probably a more challenging problem for Davis than alloting solo space for the expanded band was working out the ensembles. Only Dr. Jackle seems cluttered in the ensembles, and that impression probably comes not from the lines played by the horns so much as the quick tempo at which they are asked to play it, which prevents them from giving full value to each note. Otherwise the arrangements are very effective, even on the complex Two Bass Hit, where each horn takes charge of a counter-theme in a glorious small-band adaptation of John Lewis's composition. Equally noteworthy are Adderley's lead on the ensemble of Straight No Chaser, with the other horns playing tight dissonances under him, and the startling fanfare of Milestones from which Davis's translucent tone rises at the bridge.

But despite all the attention to solo orders and ensembles that went into these recordings, they succeed only because of the improvisations that sustain the moods of the ensembles and cohere both individually and collectively. Benny Golson, who reviewed this album for Jazz Review, remarks that in Two Bass Hit "Coltrane enters into his solo moaning, screaming, squeezing, and seemingly projecting his very soul through the bell of the horn," and he adds: "I feel that this man is definitely blazing a new musical trail." Perhaps the best evidence of that new trail, in retrospect, occurs on Straight No Chaser, where Coltrane stacks up chords in breathless runs of eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes, a solo that makes a textbook demonstration of the "three-on-one" approach he discussed in his Down Beat article.

Golson and most other reviewers noted that Adderley's playing here shows Coltrane's influence, but that influence is more apparent than real at the point where most listeners think they hear it. In Dr. Jackie, the seams between the alternating choruses by the two players are almost indistinguishable, and there is momentary confusion on a first listening as to where Adderley leaves off and Coltrane begins, and vice versa. But the confusion does not seem to be caused by similarity of phrasing so much as by similarity of tone, as Adderley's full, rich tone on the alto almost seems to be aping Coltrane's tenor in the transitions. Coltrane's influence comes across more clearly on Adderley's solo on Sid's Ahead, a series of sweeping glissandi worthy of Coltrane at his best. The two reedmen are balanced by Davis's sure, spare trumpet, characterized by Golson as "a sound psychological approach in that he never plays too much." Golson adds, "He leaves me, always, wanting to hear more."

The power of the sextet is thus clearly demonstrated in their first recordings. Apart from Dr. Jackie's flawed ensembles, each composition crystallizes various aspects of that power as a self-contained miniature. The intricate, ingenious arrangement of Two Bass Hit, which is worthy of Gil Evans, was almost certainly put together with only a few gestures by way of instruction for the reallocation of parts. For Ian Carr, the British trumpet player, it is Straight No Chaser that wins the accolades. "With Miles Davis, everything counts," Carr told Lee Underwood. "Everything must count, and every note must be accountable. If there's no reason for its being there, then it shouldn't be there. And he swings. For me, he swings more than any other trumpet player, more than almost anybody - just listen to his solo on Straight No Chaser on the Milestones album. No other trumpet player swings like that." Benny Golson points out, among the more arcane delights of this music, that Red Garland ends his solo on Straight No Chaser with "a beautiful harmonization of Miles's original solo on Now's the Time." He states flatly that Straight No Chaser is "the best track on the album."

At least as many people would choose Milestones as the best track. This new composition by Davis, which recycles the title he first used in 1947-it was obviously too good a title to simply abandon - but otherwise bears no resemblance whatever to the earlier composition, contains a remarkable unity. Michel Legrand remarks, "I love the way they approach this melody-everything is for the melody; the chords are very simple, like a carpet on which all the music is based. In other words, the whole thing is not based on complexity, but on simplicity and purity." (It is juvenile, of course, to speak of any work of art as 'perfect,' but it is somehow irresistible to come right out and say - at least parenthetically - that Milestones seems to be a perfect jazz performance. Its components are a simple, memorable, highly original melody, followed by three individualistic explorations of the theme, each one as memorable as the theme itself, by Adderley, Davis, and Coltrane, all buoyed by the brash but sensitive rhythm section, and then the simple, unforgettable melody again. There is nothing more, it seems to me, that one might hope for or ask for in a jazz performance.)

Amazingly, Milestones, which appears to be simple, highly accessible, and above all swinging, also represents a structural innovation of great consequence not only for the music of Miles Davis but also for jazz in general. It is Davis's first completely successful composition based on scales rather than a repeated chord structure. James Lincoln Collier, in his history of jazz, describes its structure this way: "The ability to place his notes in unexpected places is Davis's strongest virtue. It colors his work everywhere. His masterwork in this respect is his Milestones ... It is made up of the simplest sort of eight-bar melody - little more than the segment of a scale, in fact - which is repeated and then followed by a bridge made out of a related eight-bar theme, also repeated. After the bridge, the theme is played once more. The point of it all lies in the bridge, where the rhythm goes into partial suspension. Miles stretches this passage out with notes falling farther and farther behind their proper places. Indeed, in the reprise of the theme at the end of the record he stretches the bridge so far out that he cannot fit it all in and has to cut it short." Collier adds: "It is built not on chord changes but on modes... For Davis, who was already making a point of simplicity, they were a perfect vehicle. He was not the first to see what could be done with them, but he was the one who brought the idea to fruition. Milestones uses one mode on the main theme, then switches to a second mode for the bridge."

Collier correctly points out that Davis was not the first jazz player to promote a modal foundation for jazz compositions - that distinction probably belongs to George Russell. During one of Russell's enforced absences from jazz activity due to tuberculosis, he formalized his thinking in a dissertation called The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization, first published in 1953 and required reading ever since for jazz scholars, but well before that Russell had tried to use modes in his writing. The first composition in jazz to use a modal organization is probably Russell's introduction to the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra's Cubano Be. "Diz had written a sketch which was mostly Cubano Be," Russell says. "His sketch was what later turned out to be the section of the piece called Cubano Be except that I wrote a long introduction to that which was at the time modal. I mean it wasn't based on any chords, which was an innovation in jazz because the modal period didn't really begin to happen until Miles popularized it in 1959. So that piece was written in 1947, and the whole concept of my introduction was modal, and then Dizzy's theme came in and we performed it,"

Davis's contribution was not in discovering the innovation but in making it work. He was fully aware of the breakthrough he was making in Milestones, as its title indicates, and he described its advantages to Nat Hentoff at the time. "When you go this way," he said, "you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done -with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."

This was the innovation that Coltrane described when he spoke of Davis's "new stage of jazz development" and of his compositions with "free-flowing lines and chordal direction." Hentoff draws the conclusion from his discussion with Davis that "Davis thus predicts the development of both Coltrane and, to a lesser degree, the more extreme, more melodic, Ornette Coleman."

For the ordinary jazz listener, Davis's modal breakthrough is meaningful not for its formal musical properties or for its historical importance but for the gain in expression it allows the musicians, which in the hands of individuals of the caliber of Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley is heard and felt powerfully.

In Milestones and in the other modal compositions that follow it in Davis's repertoire, there is no feeling of self-conscious experimentation and no implication that these musicians are revising the structural foundations of their art. In this regard, Davis contrasts strikingly with the proponents of third stream music and even with the humbler innovators in his old nonet, and also with the avant-garde or free form musicians soon to follow, all of whom spent more than a little energy talking about the uniqueness of their contributions rather than making their music.”


  1. Thanks, Steve, for the shout-out. MILESTONES has always ben appreciated by musicians, not the easiest audience to please. The original two-volume hardcover was published in 1983 and 1985, and it has been continuously in print ever since. The DaCapo paperback that you bought has a new Introduction (1998) that completes Miles's life story but is otherwise the original two volumes mashed together with the index of vol. 1 in the middle of the book. I would have been happy to reorganize it but the publisher didn't want it. And the music it discusses and contextualizes, as you so astutely point out, is timeless.

    1. An immensely important book about one of the most significant Jazz artists in the history of the music. The Jazz World is indebted to you, Jack.


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