© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Simon Spillett wrote the following booklet notes in 2014 for the Acrobat box set - Miles Davis Quintet Featuring John Coltrane - All Of You The Last Tour. They add some further details to Ashley Kahn's fabulous notes to the recently issued "authorised" Sony release of recordings from this tour.
Due to the length of the original essay, it has been divided into two parts to make it easier to read and comprehend the wealth of information it contains.
In addition to fronting his own quartet, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).
Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
“After I joined Miles in 1955, I found that he doesn’t talk much and will rarely discuss his music. He’s completely unpredictable; sometimes he’d just walk off stage after just playing a few notes, not even completing one chorus…”
“John’s got his own thing. He’s working it out now. He’s so tied up in his music that even his friends don’t understand what he’s trying to do.”
The Birth of The Miles Davis Quintet: “Just unbelievable…”
“I don’t think we would’ve had Coltrane’s great contributions without Miles’s belief in his potential”, pianist Bill Evans once observed. “Because at the beginning, most people wondered why Miles had Coltrane in the group – he was more or less a withdrawn presence on the bandstand, not fumbling exactly, but just sort of searching. But Miles really knew, somehow, the development that Coltrane had coming.”
A veritable heap of jazz journalism has been written about the “Midas touch” that Miles Davis’ endorsement could have upon a young, underexposed musician. Indeed, like those who graduated from the other two great “finishing schools” in jazz – Duke Ellington’s orchestra and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers dynasty – the musicians who emerged from a stay in Davis’ various bands did so at a far greater level of career prominence than they’d enjoyed when they’d first joined. Throughout his career, the trumpeter displayed an incredible nous for spotting the potential of his fellow players, often affording them the opportunity to formulate and develop their ideas in a magnanimous way that benefitted all concerned. In short, he made them stars in their own right.
The list of those who Davis brushed in this manner is long and hugely impressive: Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter are just some of the saxophonists who could all boast that their careers had been elevated by association with Davis, as could pianists Horace Silver, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Davis also knew a thing or two about bassists and drummers, numbering Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams among his rhythm section “discoveries”. Yet, as stunning as this who’s-who litany of jazz giants is, it could be argued that the trumpeter never made a more sound musical investment than when, in 1955, against virtually all the odds - and even his own initial sense of reluctance - he hired a 29 year old tenor saxophonist named John William Coltrane.
In the early 21st century it’s almost impossible to conceive of a time when Coltrane wasn’t universally acknowledged as an iconic musical figure, but at the time of his recruitment by Davis, few jazz fans had even heard of him, let alone made any sort of heady predictions about his future. With very little in the way of a reputation – and even less on-record representation as a soloist – he was the very embodiment of the phrase wild card entry.
“Why he picked me, I don’t know”, Coltrane remembered later. “Maybe he saw something in my playing that he hoped would grow.” As Bill Evans perceptively noted, this is exactly what Davis saw, although to be fair, perhaps even he wasn’t quite so prescient as to foresee the rise of his young tenor playing sideman to the kind of vaunted saint-like position he’s occupied in the decades since his death in 1967. However, Davis was canny enough to know that he’d forever have a hand in Coltrane’s subsequent career success. Before his tenure with Davis, Coltrane was an unknown. After it, he was all set to soar. Never short of what might be called professional front, Davis was spot on when he said “the group I had with Coltrane made me and him a legend.”
Notoriously egocentric, by the mid-1950s Davis could already lay claim to being something of a legend. His progress from jazz neophyte to pacesetter and influence had been almost absurdly fast: replacing Dizzy Gillespie in his idol Charlie Parker’s quintet in 1946, he had drunk deep from the source of Bebop wisdom, but had quickly earned himself a reputation as a player of deep lyricism, whose solos, whilst capable of ticking all the harmonic boxes of bop, seemed to be in search of a somewhat more measured environment. He found this in 1948, when in the company of other similarly inquisitive minds he helped found a nine-piece group, featuring Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, that sought to create an ensemble antidote to the “running the changes” predictability that had come to define much of what went on under the banner of modern jazz. Playing scores by, among others, Gil Evans, Johnny Carisi, Mulligan and Lewis, the band recorded a series of radical 78rpm discs for the Capitol, later collectively packaged under the mission statement title of The Birth of The Cool. The music was as innovative, timeless and classic as anything is jazz and Davis could have gone far in repeating and upgrading the formula (as several others attempted during the 1950s) yet with characteristic restlessness he abandoned the idea in favour of pioneering a newer, earthy reduction of the bop of Parker and Gillespie, dubbed Hard Bop, in which the gospel and blues roots of jazz were to again come to the fore. Working with like minded players including Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and Art Blakey, he set down the definitive articles of the new faith during the early 1950s, yet again demonstrating his ability to keep ahead of the pack.
By the middle of the decade, having rid himself of the debilitating drug addiction that had at times seen him living virtually destitute and/or pimping out prostitutes, he had emerged like a new pin – looking to reinvent himself yet again, this time with the intention of seeking a wider audience for his music.
The existence of a regular Miles Davis quintet – the trumpeters’ preferred working format – had up to this point been something of a pipe dream. Junkie instability had not only made Davis unreliable it had also blighted the lives of several of his preferred running partners – including saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins – the very kind of men that he knew could amplify and extend his musical vision. Happily though, he’d managed to settle the remainder of his chosen personnel, basing his rhythm section around the dynamic drumming of Philly Joe Jones, a player whose muscularity and drive had made him the heir apparent to founding fathers like Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Alongside Jones he’d added the precocious teenaged bassist Paul Chambers and the piano of Red Garland, a performer able to walk the awkward line between modern jazz purism and the kind of high-end populism of Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. In July 1955, not long after the end of his time in the Heroin-blighted wilderness, Davis made an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, playing an impromptu jam session with Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk, an occasion so momentous that it had seemed to those present almost like a rebirth. Among those witnessing this phoenix-from-the-ashes moment was Columbia Records executive George Avakian, an individual whom Davis had already unsuccessfully pestered for a recording deal. Particularly struck by his rendition of Monk’s ‘Round About Midnight, Avakian instinctively knew that now was the time to finally sign the trumpeter. Hastily negotiating a way in which Davis could terminate his contract with Prestige Records (by the recording of no fewer than four albums worth of material in two days), along with grand plans for the future the producer also offered a challenge. “Your sound is unique”, he told his new signing, “but your bands always sound different. What you need first now is a group that you can hold together”.
Recording would begin in the autumn of 1955, giving Davis barely a few weeks to cure the headache of choosing a front line partner. Given this lucrative contract with a major label – virtually unprecedented for a black modern jazz musician – and the potential of finally lifting his music out of the cash-strapped finances of Prestige, the pressure was enormous. Whoever Davis chose to partner him was about to be given the career-boost of a lifetime, so when Philly Joe Jones made the unlikely suggestion of John Coltrane, the sharp-suited, cool-as-ice trumpeter instantly balked at the idea. Enrolling the gap-toothed, slightly overweight, not always sartorially elegant and largely untested Coltrane into the firmament seemed like adding a fly to the ointment. Indeed, the start of what would become arguably the greatest partnership in modern jazz since that of Parker and Gillespie was very far from auspicious.
Coltrane would never have been Davis’ first choice. Initially the trumpeter had wanted his old friend Sonny Rollins but found that the saxophonist was still reluctant to leave Chicago where he’d spent several months recuperating after kicking his drug habit. He had then decided upon Cannonball Adderley, the prodigal altoist whose arrival in New York that summer had been something of a revelation, but found his plans thwarted by Adderley’s insistence that he return to Florida to honour his school teaching contract (“One for the books – never before in jazz”, George Avakian would observe). Failing to secure his second choice, he then tried John Gilmore, a hard-driving Chicago tenorist who would go on to achieve legendary status through his lengthy tenure in the band of the maverick pianist and composer Sun Ra. Gilmore was already a powerful asset to any group in which he appeared but Davis was unsatisfied. Finally, and with more than a hint of desperation to the appointment, he took Philly Joe Jones advice and hired John Coltrane.
Although Coltrane’s CV already boasted an impressive list of sideman associations – Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic among them – he had yet to create anything more profound than a journeyman reputation in jazz circles. Those than knew Coltrane well – like Philly Joe Jones – could already sense that he was on the brink of blossoming into a major jazz voice, but Davis’ only previous encounter with the saxophonist had been way back in 1950, when he had led a band for a one night stand gig at the Audubon ballroom in New York, during which Coltrane had been, in Davis own words “blown away” by the other tenor on the stand, Sonny Rollins.
“I wasn’t excited”, he later wrote about his new recruit. “But after a few rehearsals…I could hear how Trane had gotten a whole lot better than he was on that night Sonny set his ears and ass on fire.” As the band worked through its initial run of gigs, Davis soon realised that far from being ill-suited to his approach, in Coltrane he’d found a perfect match. “Faster than I could imagine the music we were playing together was just unbelievable”, he told his biographer Quincy Troupe in 1989. “It was just so bad that it used to send chills right through me at night, and it did the same thing to the audiences…”
After what had been – in jazz terms - an extraordinarily protracted apprenticeship, for Coltrane the endorsement of his new leader had finally provided the step up he’d long needed. Davis was also something of an idol for the saxophonist, as he told writer Val Wilmer. Wishing he could play with the economy and self-editing purpose his leader displayed Coltrane remembered, “when I joined him I realized I could never play like that, and I think that’s what made me go the opposite way.”
“The opposite way” can be heard in the contributions that Coltrane made to the albums the Davis quintet made during late 1955 through to the autumn of the following year – ‘Round About Midnight for Columbia and the marathon contract-fulfilling quartet of recordings taped for Prestige issued as Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’ and Cookin’. Whereas Davis’ contributions on the sessions are most often about economy and pacing, those of his tenor playing sideman already show a marked propensity towards excess, with the saxophonist beginning to explore harmony and technical facility in a remarkably personal way. Although the recordings don’t yet truly display the uber-dazzling virtuosity that would mark Coltrane’s playing eighteen or so months later (the saxophonist later claimed to be “ashamed” of his early work with Davis) they already show a player whose approach was like none other. His tone – the characteristic calling card that would eventually set the pattern for generations of future tenorists – was also unique: not as lustrous as Sonny Rollins’ nor as pastel-shaded as that of Stan Getz, his sound was tight, keening and intense, qualities that gave whatever he played an immediate stinging energy. And, as with Davis’ tone, it was a sound you couldn’t forget.
However, like every other departure he’d made in the name of jazz progress, Davis’ new group didn’t automatically meet wholesale critical approval. The sense of contrast between the leader – aloof and urbane – and that of his assertive young sidemen initially caused upset among the critical fraternity. “It [was] impossible to see how the quintet had any possible chance of success”, remembered the writer Joe Goldberg. “The group consisted...of a trumpet player who fluffed half his notes; an out-of-tune tenor player; a cocktail pianist; a drummer who played so loud that no-one else could be heard; and a teenage bassist.” Nevertheless, Davis faith held, especially where Coltrane was concerned. Of all the bands sidemen, the saxophonist was by far the most controversial. Not only did he not sound like any other tenor player (despite working with - and generally being lumped into - the New York school of Hard Bop saxophonists he never truly conformed to their fashionable language) the way in which he approached the art of improvisation was similarly non-conformist. As the critics lined Coltrane up their crosshairs, sniping at him for sounding angry, bellicose and overly ornate, Davis clearly thought otherwise. “You know that Coltrane is the best since Bird”, he told British writer Alun Morgan as early as 1956. Few musicians let alone listeners or critics would have dared put their name on such a bold statement at this juncture in jazz history, but Davis was never a man to hide his feelings. Nor was he especially baffled by Coltrane’s increasing tendency to crowd his solos with every conceivable permutation of the chords beneath them. “I also don’t understand this talk of Coltrane being hard to understand”, he told Nat Hentoff in 1959. “What he does, for example, is to play five notes of a chord and then keep changing it around, trying to see how many different ways it can sound. It’s like explaining things five different ways.”
The impact of this partisan support deeply affected Coltrane, and he made no secret of how much he was learning from his time with Davis, but despite their indisputable musical compatibility, the two men were radically different personalities. Coltrane was deep, serious, solemn even, and seemed perpetually locked into a never-ending search for musical answers (“If a woman was standing right in front of him naked, he wouldn’t have seen her”, remembered Davis. “That’s how much concentration he had when he played”). Turning to his leader for advice yielded mixed results. Although he would later recall that “I used to talk with him [about music] quite often”, Coltrane initially found Davis reluctant to reveal much. “I think the reason we didn’t get along at first was because Trane liked to ask all these motherfucking questions back then about what he should or shouldn’t play…I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music. So my silence and evil looks probably turned him off.”
(Coltrane later confessed that “If I asked [Miles] something about music I never knew how he was going to take it.” In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that the saxophonist was sometimes uneasy about his leaders “star” attitude. In one instance, quoted in Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of A Sound [Faber and Faber, 2007], the saxophonist even went so far as to describe Davis as “a bit of a prick” after learning that he had refused to give a student a local radio interview.)
The relationship also faltered in other ways. At the time he was hired by Davis, Coltrane was hopelessly locked in the mire of Heroin addiction, making him on occasion less than a paragon of professionalism on the stand. “With Trane it was getting pathetic”, Davis told Quincy Troupe. “He’d be playing in clothes that looked like he had slept in them for days, all wrinkled up and dirty and shit. Then, he’d be standing up there [on stage] when he wasn’t nodding off – picking his nose…”
Coltrane’s problems with addiction were by no means unique – his fellow band mate Philly Joe Jones was in just as deep – but for Davis, who had cleaned himself up by going Cold Turkey a few years earlier, employing an obviously junk-laden musician had become a liability. The very epitome of Ivy League cool, and now sporting a lucrative contract to a major label, he found the indulgences of Coltrane – who he would later recall as “a big hog” and “very greedy” – smacked a little too much of the world he had sought to get away from. The parting of the ways came in spring 1957 – accompanied by a typical piece of Davis-associated controversy. Tired of his sideman’s repeated “junkie shit” an incident backstage at New York’s Café Bohemia found Davis slapping Coltrane round the face and punching him in the stomach. Tall and impressively thick-set, Coltrane was more than a physical match for his wiry leader but he didn’t respond, leaving pianist Thelonious Monk to intervene. Not only did Monk calm Davis down, he offered Coltrane a way out: “As much saxophone as you play, you don’t have to take that”, he told the wide-eyed tenorist. “Why don’t you come to work for me?”
The summer of 1957 was one of transformation for John Coltrane. In addition to his residency at The Five Spot with Monk’s quartet - a gig that quickly became the “must hear” event for New York’s jazz cognoscenti - he signed a recording contract with Prestige Records, resulting in the taping of his eponymous debut album for the label in May. Even more crucial though was his own self-exiled triumph over drug addiction, a victory that was accompanied, according to the saxophonist, by a religious vision. Whether one subscribes to the spiritual notions of Coltrane’s reawakening or not, there can be little doubt that from mid-1957 on his work contained greater purpose and more cohesion. The gig with Monk had afforded him his first real opportunity to stretch out musically, with his solos often elongating to fifteen minutes or more, frequently accompanied by his leaders idiosyncratic dancing. The pianist was also, in Coltrane’s own words, “a musical architect of the highest order”. “[He’s] exactly the opposite of Miles. He talks about music all the time…he’ll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you.”
Listening back to the recordings Coltrane made with Monk and others across the summer and autumn of 1957 (including the majestic Blue Train album) one instantly hears the impact of this newly awarded freedom. Not only was Coltrane playing with more drive, technical command and authority than before, his improvisations now sounded like the fully realised models that so much of his earlier work with Davis had suggested, and as he stacked, reordered and explored every possible harmonic implication, often at lightning speed, the impression Coltrane was making was that of a musician finally finding his own voice. Attempting to sum up this new approach in an article in DownBeat magazine, the critic Ira Gitler had coined the term “sheets of sound”, a sound bite that quickly stuck. “He and Sonny [Rollins] are parallel figures now”, Gitler wrote in a liner note to one of the saxophonists albums at this time, “each contributing new ideas to jazz in his own way.” In barely two years since his on-record debut with Davis, Coltrane had gone from being a promising unknown to a major force within the music. No-one could dismiss him now.
Whereas Coltrane had blossomed during his absence from the Miles Davis quintet, his erstwhile leader had fared less well. After Coltrane’s departure, his place had been taken first by Belgian tenorist and flautist Bobby Jaspar – an appointment that seemed positively anticlimactic after the intense drama his predecessor had bought to the band – then by Sonny Rollins, whose own star status made nonsense of any notion of his being a “permanent” replacement. Late in 1957, Davis had at last been able to secure the services of Cannonball Adderley, but he already knew that the band he wanted was no longer a five man outfit – he wanted both Adderley and Coltrane. The latter was amenable and thus, at the very tail end of 1957, the Miles Davis sextet came into existence.
The work that the band set down on-record over the following two years included two acknowledged classic albums – Milestones and Kind Of Blue – records which in effect tell the story of the development of Davis’ approach to jazz during the very late 1950s, as well as looking ahead to the further refinement and subsequent redevelopments of his music in the following decade. Taped in early 1958, Milestones concentrated largely on the blues (indeed, although rarely noted in the albums critiques, part of the records considerable impact is that is so successfully reconfigured the oldest and most fundamental form in jazz), giving Coltrane and Adderley in particular a golden opportunity to showcase their wares. However, in its title track, Davis’ embraced to concept of modal improvisation – something hinted at in earlier recordings like Swing Spring and Dear Old Stockholm and explored more extensively in the soundtrack to the 1957 Louis Malle film Lift To The Scaffold – in which scales rather than chord sequences form the basis for soloing.
Already seeking a way in which he could simultaneously both extend and abandon the idea of harmonic superimposition, the greater freedoms this concept provided were manna from heaven for Coltrane. The following year, with the Bill Evans replacing Red Garland, Davis reconvened the sextet to record Kind of Blue, a record that more fully explored the modal remit and which, in its haunting austere beauty created an ambiance wholly new to jazz. Again Coltrane seized the opportunity like a man possessed, sketching the outlines for much of the territory his music would occupy over the next five years.
The real issue for Davis was how to follow up such a landmark statement. The band on Kind of Blue had in effect been something of a reunion: Bill Evans had already departed from the sextet to form his own trio and had been replaced by Wynton Kelly, a pianist of an entirely different stripe, closer to the bop and blues fashions of the day. Adderley too had been working with his own band and Coltrane – with support from the same agent who booked Davis – was also testing the waters as a leader. Not only that, around the same time that he’d been recording Kind of Blue, the saxophonist was putting the finishing touches on an album for his new label affiliation, Atlantic Records, Giant Steps, a recording that more or less put the cap-stone on many of the super developments of Bebop harmony he’d been working on for the past five years. By the time the record was released in January 1960, Coltrane was effectively out from under Davis’ wing, leaving the trumpeter to plug his absence by hiring - the to some ears less than suited to the job – Jimmy Heath.
“1960 went down in musical history as the year in which John Coltrane began to find himself as one of the incontestables of jazz” wrote C. H. Garrigues in the notes to one of the saxophonists Atlantic albums soon after, as if confirming his subjects ascendancy to the pantheon. For once, this sort of statement wasn’t merely back-of-the-record hyperbole: by the spring of that year, Coltrane already had the embryonic makings of his own quartet and was as taking inroads into New York’s club land as a headliner in his own right. Added to this, the favourable reception given Giant Steps – the first album comprising entirely his own compositions – had also proved that there was very much more to his talents than simply being a regular Davis sideman. This sudden ascendancy couldn’t have been in more stark contrast to the fortunes of his former boss.
Having failed to secure as suitably inspiring replacement for Coltrane (whose own recommendation, Wayne Shorter, came up against Davis’ blunt rebuttal before even being given a chance to prove himself), late in 1959 the trumpeter immersed himself in another large-scale project with arranger Gil Evans, Sketches of Spain. Unlike the sessions for the two previous Davis-Evans albums, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess, this time the process was agonisingly drawn-out and counterproductive, with a whole list of scheduled recording dates cancelled. The project sat on ice for close to four months, before it was finished in a single exhausting day in March 1960. One pressure Davis was under was imminent departure on an extensive European tour, beginning on March 20th.
Although he’d worked several times in Europe since his initial visit to France in 1949, this time he had been invited to bring his own group for a series of concert appearances in no fewer than nine countries. The itinerary may have looked dauntingly relentless, but for Davis the biggest headache wasn’t logistical. Continuing to employ the rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, there nevertheless remained issues with his choice of front-line partner. Following the disappointments of hiring Jimmy Heath, to Davis’ mind, only Coltrane would fit the bill and he was adamant that he make the European trip. But despite still honouring the bands gigs at home (including a trip to California in February), Coltrane was reluctant to travel further afield. “[He] was ready to move out before we left,” Davis recalled later.
“If he had quit right then he would have really hung me up because nobody else knew the songs and this tour was real important. He decided to go with us, but he grumbled and complained and sat by himself all the time we were over there.””
To be continued in Part 2