Friday, November 19, 2021

"Miles" - Whitney Balliett

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He has never been much of a technician, and he has been clever enough to keep his style within his abilities.”

“He also softens his attack with his tone. It is full, but it is not a brass tone, a trumpet tone. It is human sound compressed into trumpet sound. Davis has succeeded in making almost visible the emotions — longing, sadness, pity — that move just beneath his complex surface.”

“Davis's eyes, looking into the middle distance, are cold and furious, as if he were tallying the various imponderables that have kept him from becoming the genius he believes himself to be.”

- Whitney Balliet

The Boston Globe stated: “Balliett’s genius for pictorial description (which helps make him a gifted writer of profiles) extends to the music itself. No one writes about what they listen to anywhere near as well.”

Although he played drums during his college days and was a member of a band, Whitney was not a studied musician. He had no formal training in theory and harmony so during the 40+ years he wrote Jazz profiles for The New Yorker magazine he had to fall back on his other gifts when describing the music - his gift for “pictorial description.”

In many ways, this made Whitney’s Jazz writings more accessible to the majority of Jazz fans since they, too, for the most part, lacked procedural training in melody, harmony and rhythm - the building blocks of music.

As a result, "Balliett comes as close as any writer on jazz—perhaps on any musical style — to George Bernard Shaw's intention to write so that a deaf person could understand and appreciate his comments. This volume approaches indispensability." Choice reviewing Balliett’s American Musicians.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to share some briefer pieces from the pen of our ideal - Whitney Balliet - to give you an appreciation for his “ … genius for pictorial description.” This is the fifth in a series of six continuously running featuring Whitney’s sui generis pictorially descriptive approach to writing about Jazz which is marked by what Gary Giddins has labeled “writerly attributes: insight, candor, observation, discernment, delineation, style, diligence and purpose.”

These are all drawn from Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981-1990 [1991]. This is number 5 in a series.

Published in 1989, two years before Miles’ death in 1991, this piece is at once an overview of the highlights of Miles career through a parsing of the Miles autobiography that was published in the same year as Whitney’s profile as well as an analysis of why, despite limited gifts as a technician, Davis went on to become such a smashing success in the Jazz World.

“Miles Davis has led a bedevilled life. 

He was born in 1926 in Alton, Illinois, and raised in East St. Louis. He has an older sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Vernon. His father was a dentist who eventually retired to a two-hundred-acre farm he owned, in Millstadt, Illinois. His mother was beautiful, stylish and idle. He got on well with his father, but found his mother, whom he loved, possessive, peevish, and heavy-handed. 

He took up the trumpet at ten, and by the time he was in high school he had been given his second trumpet and had met his first idol, Clark Terry. He worked in a local band led by Eddie Randle, then, at eighteen, he suddenly accelerated. He had the first of two children by a woman whom he never married; he graduated from high school; he worked for two weeks in Billy Eckstine's legendary bebop band, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey; he moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard; and he began hanging out with Parker and Gillespie and Fats Navarro. A year later, his attractive aura already working, he was on one of the earliest and most famous bebop records ("Billie's Bounce," "Now's the Time"), with Parker, Gillespie, and Max Roach. And he appeared on Fifty-second Street with Parker and Coleman Hawkins. His style, though still hesitant, began to emerge.

In the late forties, inspired by Claude Thornhill's big band, he organized the nonet (among the players Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Kai Winding, John Lewis, Max Roach) that made the celebrated Capitol album "Birth of the Cool." The nonet's laid-back quality and calm, intricate, deep-red arrangements made it the most adventurous small band since the Ellington small bands and some of the Woody Herman Woodchopper sides of 1946. (The typical small bebop bands of the time were not ensemble groups, like the nonet. They used leaping, tongue-tying unison opening-and-closing collective passages, but the often long solos that came between carried the musical weight.) Davis also began taking drugs. He describes what happened in his new autobiography, Miles (Simon & Schuster): "I lost my sense of discipline, lost my sense of control over my life, and started to drift. It wasn't like I didn't know what was happening to me. I did, but I didn't care anymore. I had such confidence in myself that even when I was losing control I really felt I had everything under control. But your mind can play tricks on you. I guess when I started to hang like I did, it surprised a lot of people who thought I had it all together. It also surprised me." (The book, done with a poet and teacher named Quincy Troupe, is petulant, outspoken, defensive, honeyed, error-filled, and impressionistic — and loaded to the gunwales with four-letter words. Davis uses them more as hammer blows than for their literal meanings, and they soon become a dull barrage, which, for whatever reasons, gradually abates as the book goes along.)

Davis takes pains to point out that he was not alone in his addiction. Many of the best young musicians of the late forties — black and white — became heroin addicts, and he needlessly names them. Here, in the late fifties, is Billie Holiday, one of the most famous victims of this devastating plague: "She was looking real bad by this time, worn out, worn down, and haggard around the face and all. Thin. Mouth sagging at both corners. She was scratching a lot." (There are other eloquent patches in the book, but it is difficult to tell whether they are Davis's or Troupe's doing. Listen to this description of the church music Davis heard early in his life: "We'd be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. Anyway, we'd be on the side of the road — whoever I was with, one of my uncles or my cousin James — and I remember somebody would be playing a guitar the way B. B. King plays. And I remember a man and a woman singing and talking about getting down! Shit, that music was something, especially that woman singing. But I think that kind of stuff stayed with me, you know what I mean? That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm.") Davis began stealing and even pimping to support his heroin habit. He was busted on the West Coast. He was busted again when he went home, ostensibly to give up drugs. He quit heroin in 1953, backslid, and quit for good in 1954.

Almost immediately, his professional life turned around. He led two classic recording sessions in 1954. The first consisted simply of two blues, the medium-tempo "Walkin"' and the faster "Blue 'n' Boogie." Each took up one side of a ten-inch LP, and both were played by Davis, Lucky Thompson, f. J. Johnson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke. Davis's mature style—annunciatory, clipped, vibratoless, singing—dominated both numbers and both recordings. The second recording had three originals and one standard tune, and on hand were Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Heath, and Clarke. (Davis, along with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, has always chosen musicians who can both obey and enrich his sometimes abstruse musical designs.) Davis was in a paradoxical mood. Although he loved Monk's playing, he made him lay out behind his solos on three of the numbers. Both recordings were hailed as bellwethers; actually, they marked an enlightened reshaping of the straight-ahead, uncluttered swing of Red Norvo and Count Basie and the trumpeter Joe Thomas. Davis and his men set aside the eccentricities and excesses of bebop (in whose house most of them had been raised) while retaining its broadened harmonic base. A year later, Davis appeared at the second Newport Jazz Festival with a pickup group consisting of Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Monk, Heath, and Connie Kay — all musicians he had worked with. He played three numbers — open-horn versions of "Hackensack" and "Now's the Time," and a muted, inner-ear "'Round Midnight." His from-the-mountain-top, time-stopping open-horn solos made it clear that Davis, who had been struggling for much of the time since he came East, had arrived. Columbia Records agreed, and before the year was out had signed him to a contract he says was worth three hundred thousand dollars a year. (He stayed with Columbia until 1985, when he went to Warner Brothers Records.) Davis's comments in Miles on the Columbia signing are far from the it's-not-my-fault defensiveness of the artist who has had a windfall: "And yes, going with Columbia did mean more money, but what's wrong with getting paid for what you do and getting paid well? I never saw nothing in poverty and hard times and the blues. I never wanted that for myself. I saw what it really was when I was strung out on heroin, and I didn't want to see it again. As long as I could get what I needed from the white world on my own terms, without selling myself out to all of those people who would love to exploit me, then I was going to go for what I know is real."

Davis had entered his great period. He assembled the first of two working bands, and it included, at various times, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Davis, like Mingus, began experimenting with different kinds of improvisation, and he made the album "Kind of Blue," in which he gave his players modal sketches to work their variations on, and set them loose, one take per number. The results are cool, subtle, edgeless music. Davis was also busy in the Columbia studios making three concerto albums — "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess," and "Sketches of Spain" — in which, accompanied by a big band playing Gil Evans' velvet arrangements, he was the only soloist. (Would that Louis Armstrong had had such cosseting when he was at his height, in 1933!) Davis's second famous small working band arrived in the sixties and had Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Its repertory moved between mooning, muted ballads and furious up-tempo numbers, in which Davis, always a middle-register player, ventured into the upper regions and used unaccustomed avalanches of notes.

Davis's life since the early sixties has been hill-and-dale. He has been married to and divorced from the dancer Frances Taylor and the actress Cicely Tyson. He has been plagued by medical problems, among them hip operations, a stroke, two broken ankles, pneumonia, and diabetes. From 1975 to 1980, he dropped out. He gave up playing and retired to his house, on West Seventy-seventh Street. Here, brutally, is what he did: "I just took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point) and fucked all the women I could get into my house. I was also addicted to pills, like Percodan and Seconal, and I was drinking a lot, Heinekens and cognac. ... I didn't go out too often and when I did it was mostly to after-hours places up in Harlem where I just kept on getting high and living from day to day. . . . The house was filthy and real dark and gloomy, like a dungeon." George Butler, of Columbia Records, got Davis back on the track, and he began coming out again in 1981. Since then, he says, he has given up drugs and drinking. He has also given up his house, and now divides his time between Malibu and an apartment on Central Park South.

Although Davis has tinkered endlessly with his music (various types of improvising, odd time signatures, synthesizers, an electric trumpet), his playing, which resides at the still center of all these experiments, has changed little. He has never been much of a technician, and he has been clever enough to keep his style within his abilities. When he came East in the forties, he ignored his limitations, and his solos were sometimes a string of clams. He ignored them again when he had the Shorter-Williams band and began shooting wildly into the upper register, with nerve-racking results. Many people have influenced Davis — Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, Shorty Baker, Fats Navarro, Ahmad Jamal, Bobby Hackett, Gil Evans, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. Perhaps the heaviest hand on his playing was that of an early teacher who told him never to play with a vibrato, that he'd have plenty of time for a vibrato when he grew old and could no longer control his lip. His no-vibrato attack sometimes gives his playing an abrupt, telegraphic air, but he softens this by using a lot of rests and long notes. He also softens his attack with his tone. It is full, but it is not a brass tone, a trumpet tone. It is human sound compressed into trumpet sound. His solos in the Gil Evans "Sketches of Spain" album have a unique pleading, sorrowing quality. There have been many other players who have got a human sound —  Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell — but their tonal qualities have never superseded the basic sound of their instruments. Davis has succeeded in making almost visible the emotions — longing, sadness, pity — that move just beneath his complex surface. But his eerie, buttonholing sound is not as common on his recent, synthesizer-controlled recordings, where electronics and odd time signatures dominate the surroundings, and cause him to sound removed and disjointed. The great Davis still resides in his recordings of thirty years ago.

Davis has become a business. On one of his Warner Brothers Records release, "Amandla," he lists his production coordinators, his tour manager, his business manager, and his personal manager. The cover of the album is a semi-abstract self-portrait. (Like such earlier worthies as Pee Wee Russell and George Wettling, Davis has taken up painting.) Beneath Davis's head are the bell of a trumpet and a globe, with the African continent thereon. Davis's eyes, looking into the middle distance, are cold and furious, as if he were tallying the various imponderables that have kept him from becoming the genius he believes himself to be.”

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