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Beginning in 1955, Miles became the fashion plate of jazz, and that is his most significant contribution of all. Miles has set the tone of jazz for more than thirty years, being partly or entirely responsible for virtually every nuance that has changed the sound of jazz since 1945! No one, not even Armstrong or Parker, has accomplished such a feat.
- Jerry Coker, How to Listen to Jazz
Here’s a point of view about Miles that you don’t often see referenced and a deeper examination of it as represented in this piece might also help explain some of the reasons for Miles’ surliness during and after he achieved success as a Jazz artist.
The following is drawn from Barabara Gardner, The Enigma of Miles Davis [January 7, 1960 downbeat], Jerry Coker, How to Listen to Jazz, and Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis.
MILES DAVIS (1926-1991)
“Miles Davis' career is one of the most fascinating and unique stories in all of jazz history. He has been a well-known jazz figure for many years, but the reasons for his unparalleled success are very different from, say, Armstrong's or Parker's. Miles didn't take the jazz world by storm in a smashing debut, although his career began at age 20 as a member of the Parker Quintet. Many musicians wondered why Bird selected him to be in his illustrious group. The younger set of trumpet players who felt that Bird must have known what he was doing blindly went about imitating young Miles. But very few of them knew the exact nature of Miles' musical gift, and so they imitated him in the most superficial manner, taking to playing with a dead, flat sound, and developing a technique that could be called "studied sloppiness." They draped their fingers languidly over the trumpet valves, so that they weren't using the more controlled tips of the fingers, and they did what they could to look and sound totally relaxed at all times. Indeed, if you weren't listening very carefully, you might have agreed with his imitators in their superficial assessment, whether or not you liked his playing.
Miles did sound unusually relaxed (even when he wasn't), he played without a vibrato, had a relatively dead (but fat and pretty at times) sound, and used quick, short grace notes* before longer notes that created an effect that some might have thought to be sloppiness. [Grace notes are very short notes, usually a semitone below the note to follow, rhythmically placed as close to the next note as possible.] He wasn't considered, by many trumpet players, to have much instrumental ability either. His range was quite small, his sound was unpolished and small, he seemed to have flat intonation, and he didn't show much finger agility. [Keep in mind that Bird played extremely sharp, which inexplicable trail may have caused Miles to sound flatter than he really was.
Miles had to win his audience with a style that was unfamiliar (as he didn't sound like anyone before him), a technique that was questionable to many, and a personality that wasn't exactly out of Dale Carnegie [The author of How To Win Friends and Influence People.] Miles was notorious for turning his back to an audience, walking offstage when he wasn't playing (while the performance continued), and being cool to interviewers.
An audience of the forties didn't have to put up with that, because there were players around like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, with their musical and personal dynamism. But the few musicians and listeners who refused to believe that Bird's selection of Miles was haphazard or mistaken searched for Miles' true musical qualities and found them to be ample, though not in the same areas mentioned thus far. Through Miles, they discovered purity, economy, originality, and lyricism in music. But that was only the beginning. He became an astute judge of talent, fostering the musical growth of many young players, relatively unknown at the time, who became giants while playing in Miles' groups. Such a list would include John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, George Coleman, Airto Moreira, Paul Chambers, Wayne Shorter, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Bennie Maupin!
Those who were not convinced of Davis' musical strengths in 1945, when he was playing with Parker, became convinced eventually, nonetheless. They were convened by recordings like the semi-big band of 1949-1950 (Birth of the Cool) or Walkin’ (1954), or Round Midnight (1957), or one of the third stream [combing Jazz with Classical music] albums with Gil Evans, like Sketches of Spain (1960). Sooner or later, he won them over.
Perhaps the turning point in Miles’ career, one that paved the way for him to win the respect that led to the Columbia Records contract which resulted in his subsequent fame and fortune occurred primarily as a result of his appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival.
Jack Chambers describes the background and the even itself this way in his seminal biography Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis:
The public image of Miles Davis was refracted, like an object catching the sun in a clouded pool. He was regarded as inconsistent and undependable, but the addiction that had made him that way was now cured, His records showed him struggling technically and playing indifferently, but he had recently recorded music that was both technically proficient and passionately stated. He was considered by even the well-informed fans as a figure from jazz's recent past, but he was actively working at a new aesthetic and surrounding himself with important new sidemen. The gap between the public image and the reality narrowed almost overnight.
The setting, improbable though it must have seemed, was Newport, Rhode Island, a small New England city that John Hammond, himself a Vanderbilt, calls "one of the snob communities of this fair land." The occasion was the first annual Newport Jazz Festival, which was inaugurated there in the first week of July 1955. (There had been a two-day trial run the previous summer that never gets counted in the official history of the event.) The impetus for bringing jazz musicians to fashionable Newport for a week-long series of matinee and evening concerts came from Elaine and Louis Lorillard, patrons of the arts who had been involved for years with a summer program of concerts by the New York Philharmonic in Newport. They were interested in extending the community's involvement by adding a series of jazz concerts. As their producer for the jazz festival they chose George Wein, a piano player from Boston who showed unmistakeable entrepreneurial instincts in mounting concerts in Boston, managing and eventually buying jazz clubs there, and producing records for his own small label, called Storyville, which was also the name of his best-known club. Wein organized the Newport Jazz Festival in the first years simply by presenting the best known big and small jazz bands as headliners and filling in the gaps with either lesser-known bands or with all-star groups playing jam sessions.
In 1955, the headliners included the big bands of Count Basie and Woody Herman and the small bands of Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. The all-star-group lined up to play at the closing concert, between Basie and Brubeck, were made up of Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay. Shortly before the festival began, too late to list him in the program for the closing concert, Miles Davis was added. Perhaps someone noticed that the group for that evening lacked a brass instrument; perhaps Davis, who needed both the work and the exposure, appealed to Wein or one of his acquaintances on the festival board to include him; or perhaps someone who knew about the clash between Monk and Davis the previous Christmas eve thought that their presence together might create a newsworthy situation. Davis arrived to take his turn with the all stars and when he was finished he was suddenly one of the most talked-about and sought-out jazz musicians in the country.
The protocol for the jam session that evening followed the familiar format. The rhythm section started off, and then the horns were added to the rhythm players one by one, until all of them were on the stage. Monk opened with Heath and Kay supporting him on Hackensack, and then Mulligan joined them, and then Sims, and finally Davis. "Within the ranks of the professional critics, there was not too much notice taken when he joined the group on stage," Bill Coss, the editor of Metronome magazine, remembers. "Professional listeners are blase’, especially when an artist is as unpredictable as Miles; unpredictable, that is, in terms of the relationship between what he can do and what he will do." The group continued with Now's the Time, dedicated to Parker's memory, but it was Davis's muted solo on Round about Midnight that brought the audience to its feet. "On this night at Newport," Coss continues, "Miles was superb, brilliantly absorbing, as if he were both the moth and the probing, savage light on which an immolation was to take place. Perhaps that's making it too dramatic, but it's my purely subjective feeling about the few minutes during which he played. And over-dramatic or not, whatever Miles did was provoking enough to send one major record label executive scurrying about in search of him after the performance was over. And dramatic enough to include Miles in all the columns written about the Festival, as one of the few soloists who lived up to critical expectations." Those expectations had been deflated by the discrepancy between his recent work and the level at which he was working when the critics last took notice. As Andre Hodeir put it: "Miles Davis's 'comeback' at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival was hailed as a major event precisely because the halo of glory attached to his name a few years earlier had managed to survive a period of temporary neglect." Davis felt the same about it, but he put it more succinctly. "What's all the fuss?" he asked. "I always play that way."
Davis's career began to blossom again after Newport. Not all of his sudden activity resulted from his Newport coup. He was already scheduled to record with Charles Mingus soon after Newport. He was also busy organizing his own quintet for a debut engagement at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village; the Bohemia date was being treated as a trial run, and if the audiences turned out in large enough numbers Davis was ready to book the quintet into jazz clubs in other cities in the fall. All the Newport publicity did was sharpen the public's respect for Davis's current music, practically guaranteeing the turnout of press and fans for at least his opening night at the Bohemia. After that, it would be up to him to keep them coming back.”
In fact Miles did improve over the years, both as a trumpet player and an improviser. His sound became large, fat, and expressive. His range expanded enormously and he utilized it more of the time for variety and impact. His control of the horn developed to the point that in Saeta (Sketches of Spain) Miles exhibits his ability to slide evenly from one pitch to another without a mechanical break in sound, to color the qualities of individual notes of the phrase in very expressive ways, to have sustained notes sail upward (doit) or downward(fall-off) at the very end, and to create a sort of sobbing sound that alludes to the Spanish singer on the balcony above a solemn, religious parade, singing of the agonies of the Crucifixion. [Saeta is an unaccompanied Andalusian song of lamentation or penitence sung during the religious procession of Good Friday. This spontaneous outburst of religious feeling probably had its roots in the recitation of psalms under the influence of liturgical music.]
His technique, in terms of speed and agility, also became more pronounced. There were increases in melodic form, shaping of phrases, rhythmic diversity, conviction, angularity, and even some humor in his improvisations. He also changed or modified his style several times. Trumpet players who would imitate Miles have to remain flexible and abreast of his most recent output, because Miles is never standing still.
He has become the fashion plate of jazz, and that is his most significant contribution of all. Miles has set the tone of jazz for more than thirty years, being partly or entirely responsible for virtually every nuance that has changed the sound of jazz since 1945! No one, not even Armstrong or Parker, has accomplished such a feat.
Consider the changes he has brought about. They include instrumentation (accessory percussion, bass clarinet, electric keyboards, synthesizer, electronic gadgetry, and the use of multiple keyboards), new players (already listed), style (the merging of jazz with rock, be-bop, free-form, third stream), and countless other innovations (use of coloristic devices, side-slipping, outside playing, longer solos and selections, and the reversal of horn and rhythm section function, as in Nefertiti). Miles has almost single-handedly kept jazz in a state of continuous change and evolution from 1945 to the present.
Because Miles has a complex, ever-changing style, it was necessary, while describing him, to integrate our appreciative criteria (sound, technique, time, etc.) into that description. The only criterion not covered was his use of tonal materials. It was mentioned that he used economy, side-slipping, outside playing, and the like, which gives some indications, but little was said about his note choices, which are vital to his musical thrust. Even in 1945, Miles was already hearing with a uniquely discriminating ear. There was a certain purity about it (and still is) that told the listener that Miles wasn't going to play anything in a redundant, insincere, wasteful manner. Every note had to pass inspection in the mind, in the ear, and in his musical taste buds. If he heard nothing, momentarily, he played nothing, waiting for a better idea. He could not be hurried or forced to play anything that did not measure to up his standards.
If one had the opportunity to study very carefully a progression on which Miles was to improvise subsequently, and if that person were to circle the very best notes available in each chord or scale, crossing out all notes which would have little effect, the version played by Miles would probably include only those better notes, except that he would probably hear a few that weren't circled or crossed out.
Another distinction, with regard to Davis' note choices, is that he doesn't bother to harmonically justify a note that is already known to be richly effective, even if it is remote from the basic sound of the given chord. To explain, suppose a player decides to play a raised-9 against a certain chord. Most players would precede or embellish such a remote, colorful note with a few other tones (like 3 and 7, for example) that would clarify, aurally, the relationship of the raised-9 to the more fundamental notes of the chord. But Miles is likely, under the same circumstances, simply to play the raised-9 by itself or juxtapose it with a fundamental note that is perhaps a semitone away (like the 3rd of the chord, which when placed in the same octave as the raised-9th, would be a semitone higher), or even introduce one or two other remote, colorful notes along with the raised-9, not bothering to justify those, either! In other words, Miles will play it, but he won't explain it. That's the listener's problem.”
Perhaps the ten-year gap from his ascendancy as a 20-year aspirant at the side of Charlie Parker until his coming out as a more complete and competent player at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival would later become a source of resentment for Miles because he was disparaged by some for not arriving on the scene in a fully formed manner such as Pops, Duke or Bird.
Sometimes it just takes what it takes to achieve greatness and perhaps Miles’ struggles during the 10 year period from 1945-1955 helped make him the dominating player, band leader and musical trend setter he eventually became.
Who can say for certain?
But if Miles was lost during the ten year period in question, he was definitely making good time - you dig?
With a vast catalogue and a style that’s ever changing, no single selection, no single selection can truly represent, I am particularly fond of Saeta from the Sketches of Spain Columbia album arranged by Gil Evans for the haunting and poignant sound that Miles gets from his horn. When you hear Miles on this tune, you understand what Gil meant when he said: “Miles changed the sound of the trumpet.”