Friday, January 7, 2022

Miles Davis - Kings of Jazz Series - by Michael James - Part 1

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

The Jazz writings of Michael James have graced these pages previously with two rare articles from the Jazz Monthly magazine on Hank Mobley which you can locate by going here and here. We’ve also posted an essay on Wardell Gray from his hard-to-find publication: Michael James, Ten Modern Jazzmen: An Appraisal of the Recorded [London: 1961] which you sample via this link.

Michael’s prose is from a time and training that emphasized “academic” grammar and syntax rather than a looser and more fluid “journalistic” approach.

It’s heavy reading and requires a slow-paced attention; Michael’s writing makes the reader stop and think in order to fully grasp and digest its meaning.

But if you make the effort, the reward is gaining the insights and observations from one who has thought long and hard about the music and its makers and has something very valuable to say about both of them.

He does include an essay on Miles Davis in the aforementioned Ten Modern Jazzmen but a bit of additional research revealed that he also contributed the volume on Miles which was part of the PERPETUA series KINGS OF JAZZ. These were published in a softcover, 5” x 8” format; something akin to a small magazine.

There are no chapter headings and the entire booklet only encompasses 80 or so pages. I thought it might be fun to serialize it for you on the blog

Please keep in mind as you read the following that this booklet/article was written from the perspective of Miles’ career circa 1961. In a sense, it’s more backward looking than forward looking - obviously - since nobody has yet been able to tell the future.

The huge changes that Miles would undergo in the 1960s with the breakup of the classic quintet and sextet as John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley went on to form their own groups, Bill Evans would establish his trio and Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb would leave to form “The Rhythm Section” were all yet to come.

Replacements such as tenor saxophonists Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley and George Coleman would come and go and Miles would even spend some time in Los Angeles performing and recording with pianist Victor Feldman before striking gold with the monumental reinvention of his quintet centered around the Young Turks comprised of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.

I wonder what Michael James would have made of this version of Miles quintet with its sophisticated harmonies, “freer” forms of improvisations and unusual time signatures?

Yet, even these structural changes in personnel and approach to the music would pale by comparison to the Jazz-Rock Fusion, electronic instruments, free Jazz style of improvisation, separate percussionists that were all a part of Miles’ yet-to-come In A Silent Way,  Bitches Brew and beyond period that began in the late 1960s.

By way of background: “This new PERPETUA series, Kings of Jazz, provides authoritative introductions to the individual masters of traditional and modern jazz who have become legends in the field. The series has been designed for the jazz lover, and each volume has been written by an expert on his subject. These books include notes on the musician's life, early career, and influence, as well as a selected discography and a number of photographs. Bob Dawbarn wrote in The Melody Maker-. "This admirable new series fills a great need in the ever-increasing library of jazz literature. At last we are to have intelligent and authoritative jazz books at a price within the reach of every student of the music." Other titles in the Kings of Jazz series include: Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, King Oliver, and Johnny Dodds.”

The back cover annotation goes on to say: “Miles Davis, the subject of this volume, is presently in the mid-stream of a controversial trumpet-playing career that has developed with a single-mindedness untouched by fashion or the lure of monetary gain. While the promise of his future is abundant, his talents have already had an enduring effect on jazz development as a whole. Attracted long before his twentieth birthday by the new form of jazz then being pioneered by his seniors, he matured within the bop idiom to develop a style of improvisation that was clearly his own. He has become an acknowledged leader of contemporary jazz thought, with a body of recorded work to his credit that corroborates the justice of this general view.”

Here’s the text of Michael extended essay on Miles’ career up to 1961:

“Not many musicians could advance claims that their music had durably changed the course of jazz history. If we are to accept the outstanding soloists such as Armstrong, Hawkins, Lester Young and Parker, it might well be said that influence has been more a matter of constant give-and-take than a division of musical practice into a large number of stylistic cliques, each with its acknowledged leader. Not that this never happens, however. Tristano is the obvious example of a man who was able to found an esoteric school within the broader sweep of his generation's style; and Eddie Condon, I suppose, has done something of the same, though in a less systematic way.

Miles Davis's most ardent admirer would hardly assert that his impact on jazz has been as great as that of the four soloists mentioned above. Yet he has contrived to secure for himself an imposing reputation, not with the breathtaking confidence of the giants, but with the purposefulness of the man who knows full well his direction and his object, though perhaps uncertain for a time of the ways and means of getting there. 

Today, at the comparatively young age of thirty-four, Miles Davis is an acknowledged leader of contemporary jazz thought, with a body of recorded work to his credit that corroborates the justice of this general view. And it does so not by its quality alone, for Davis has set down some dismal passages on record, but also by the unerring sense of purpose it reveals, a single-mindedness untouched by fashion or the lure of monetary gain. 

Trumpeters as diverse as Art Farmer and Bill Hardman throw off occasional reflections of his style. Lesser performers on the same instrument dutifully produce carbons of his phrasing. The rebel of yesteryear, once confined to an economic wilderness of his own making, has somehow become the cynosure [center of attention] of the younger generation. The old, familiar, ironic tale, one might say, but with a new twist; Davis, arrived at last, is no pathetic shadow of his former self. The odds, in fact, are that he still has much to give.

The critic's task is not always a pleasant one. The musician who passes from inexperience to maturity, and then on to dreary repetition, is no figment of the novelist's imagination. He exists; and it is the writer's job to sift the good in his work from the bad, with understanding, certainly, but never with cowardice. Many jazzmen have found cause to complain of the unadventurousness of the audience; how it will demand the same tunes, the same arrangements, and sometimes the same solos. To stabilize one's playing in the interests of financial security must be an ever-present temptation to the successful musician, and stability, artificially induced, can have the worst effects. Only in recent years, I think, has Davis come up with records that conform to this stereotype, and their number is so very few that it would be absurd to suggest his talents have now run their course. 

'What's all the fuss? I always play like that,' he sneered after an unusually warm reception at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. Commercial success or not, Davis has shunned concession: this particular event was the first time for years that he had been acclaimed by the jazz audience at large. It heralded an era of good money and steady work, yet made no difference to his basic attitude. By refusing to compromise, he has forged an intensely original style; and, more important, this style of his is obviously the perfect vehicle for what he has to say on his horn. The terms are far from mutually exclusive, I know, but there is a good case for claiming that the form of Davis's work has always been at the service of content: after all, this is only another way of saying that his expression has developed from within. From the first his borrowings were few and far between.

Plagiarism, even in its mildest sense, is anathema to him. Here is the explanation of those nagging instrumental faults which have only recently been expunged from his work: no ready-made techniques would do. Such errors were perhaps the price of the very personal integrity that marked Davis off from the general run of musicians. At all events, they pale into insignificance beside the persuasiveness of the best of his recorded work.

Miles Dewey Davis was born on 25 May 1926, in Alton, Illinois. The following year his father, a fairly well-to-do dentist, moved his practice to East St. Louis, where Miles spent an uneventful childhood together with his elder sister Dorothy, and Vernon, a younger brother. His career got off to a slow and laborious start when his father gave him a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday. He had music lessons at school and also learned from an elementary chord book. In 1941 he began to work locally with Eddie Randolph's Blue Devils and subsequently got to know Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt; later he played with Adam Lambert in Springfield, Illinois. Judging from remarks he has passed in recent years, his budding interest in jazz was far from arousing general enthusiasm in the Davis household. It is generally acknowledged that his mother wished him to go on to study at Fisk University. 'She always used to look as if she'd hit me every time I played my horn,'[1 Esquire, March 1959] Davis said later. 

One is apt to forget that it is not the white American bourgeoisie alone which sometimes tends to look askance on jazz. Yet if his mother had misgivings about the vocation he had chosen, they were fortunately indecisive, and this in spite of the tardy progress he made. When Billy Eckstine's big band played St. Louis some time after its inception in the summer of 1944, the leader remained singularly unimpressed. 'He used to ask to sit in with the band,' Eckstine said. 'I'd let him so as not to hurt his feelings, because then Miles was awful. He sounded terrible, he couldn't play at all.'[Melody Maker, 1 September 1954]. By this time Davis had been studying the trumpet for upwards of five years, so it is readily apparent that the control he eventually gained over the instrument was hard-won indeed. One should remember, however, that he did receive an offer from Tiny Bradshaw, but his mother, insisting he finish his final year of high school, refused to let him go.

By now it must have been obvious to both his parents that his mind was firmly set on a musical career. In due course they yielded to his entreaties

and he left for New York to enroll at the Juilliard Institute. It is easy to tell where his immediate loyalties lay from, the fact that he spent his first week in the city and the whole of his first month's allowance searching for Charlie Parker. Hitherto he had taken Roy Eldridge for a model, but hoth Parker and Gillespie had encouraged him, and his allegiance was very rapidly transferred to these two innovators of the day. Despite his immaturity there was something in the work of the youngster of nineteen that these comparative veterans must have felt was worth fostering. Thelonious Monk, too, took an interest in him, *Monk has really helped me,' he told Nat Hentoff in a recent interview. 'When I came to New York he taught me chords and his tunes.'[ Jazz Review, December 1958]

His first records show that his harmonic awareness was growing fast but also reveal lapses in technique, though these, strangely enough, are by no means so flagrant as on the later Parker quintet sides made for the Dial and Savoy companies. It might be as well to mention in passing that there is some doubt as to whether the November 1945 session under Parker's name was in fact the first on which Davis played. Jorgen Grunnet Jepsen, the Danish discographer, includes him among the personnel of a Herbie Fields group which made four titles for Savoy earlier in the year, though it had previously been thought that Snooky Young was the trumpeter on this date. Others have discounted this suggestion. The records are now unobtainable and until one or another of the musicians concerned enlightens us, the question must remain open. 

By a curious coincidence there has also been disagreement amongst collectors as to whether Gillespie rather than Davis played the trumpet solos on the November session for the same label. This matter was settled by pianist Sadik Hakim (formerly known as Argonne Thornton) who himself was present and shared the keyboard duties with Dizzy Gillespie. He confirmed [Jazz Review, February 1959] that Gillespie played trumpet only on Ko Ko and that Davis was responsible for all the other trumpet solos.

Generally speaking, his choice of notes shows that his harmonic thinking was certainly advanced for the time, but on Billie's Bounce, for example, his clumsy playing reveals his inexperience. Boldly asymmetrical, Parker's phrases nonetheless have a finished sheen to them. Without being anything like so adventurous, those Davis employs often seem to end in a very uncomfortable way; the pianist and drummer are left to fill in the gap as best they can. He also makes widespread use of two-note riffs throughout his choruses, a device which, like the repeated note motif J. J. Johnson was currently using, cleverly disguised his inability to fashion a more complex melodic line. Despite the fluent playing on all three versions of Thriving From a Riff, it is apparent that Davis lacked the instrumental virtuosity of men like Navarro or Shavers, nor is this at all surprising when one thinks how young he was.

All the more credit is due to him, then, for creating two excellent choruses on the fourth version of Now's the Time. In this one instance it is as though he had taken stock of his limitations yet had refused to be discouraged by them. His smooth yet broad tone goes hand in hand with the simple phrasing to evoke a highly distinctive emotional climate. Elsewhere on the session he occasionally echoes Gillespie, but here, despite his use of the high register, it is easy to discern the beginnings of an original style, much as his music was to change and develop in the years to come. One of the chief reasons for this is that the tempo, and the melodic shapes he favours in this case give greater latitude to his tone, which from the days of his apprenticeship onward has always been a vital part of his equipment. Davis has never been interested in a pronounced vibrato. 

His tutor had encouraged him to aim for a smooth, unruffled sound, and his admiration for Freddy Webster's playing set the seal on this aspect of his playing. Yet his eschewal of vibrato, novel as it was, did not mean that his improvisations lacked personality. On the contrary, he had already developed a tone whose character was remarkably affecting in the context of the other features of his work. Many of his contemporaries were to neglect tonal considerations in their desire to emulate Gillespie's achievements in harmonic and melodic fields. Davis, it is clear, fell into no such error, and in this respect his solo on the final version of Now's the Time seems decidedly prophetic.

Not only did Davis work with Parker during this, his first visit to New York, he also played with Coleman Hawkins and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis. Towards the close of 1945 Gillespie and Parker left New York to travel to California where they were booked into Billy Berg's club in Hollywood. Davis returned to St. Louis and soon afterwards joined Benny Carter's band, which was also headed for the Pacific coast. He left the altoist after a few weeks, however, and for the greater part of the year was unemployed, working from time to time with Parker, who had stayed in California when Gillespie and the rest of the band returned to New York. It was during this period that he recorded for Ross Russell's newly formed Dial company. The material for the session, which took place on 28 March 1946, comprised four tunes. Despite the generally suitable context — the band included Parker, Lucky Thompson, and a sympathetic rhythm section, with Roy Porter's drumming outstanding — Davis's playing shows no great melodic advance and not one of his solos bears comparison with the aforementioned Now's the Time

Indeed, when one comes to relate this success to the body of his recorded work from 1946 to 1948, one is forced to conclude that it was something of a flash in the pan; or perhaps it would be more exact to suggest that after having experienced the musical ferment that was taking place in New York during 1945, he was led drastically to revise his basic thinking, to aim for more complicated melodic structures than he had previously envisaged. Doubtless the demands this widening of musical horizons imposed on him in terms of instrumental ability, made it impossible, temporarily at least, for him to produce quite as balanced a performance as that earlier solo.

The fourth take of Ornithology shows that he had already started to branch out along unfamiliar paths. His solo is by no means impressive, but its construction is less conventional than had previously been the case, since he forms his phrases without making them conform strictly to the usual sections of four or eight bars. His tone, too, had altered. On the earlier session it had been fairly broad; now it was smaller and more mellow, and though this change detracted from the power of his playing, it seems clear in retrospect that it was a necessary step along the road towards the very personal sound he was eventually to achieve. By this time he was restricting himself to the lower and middle registers of the trumpet. Could it be, perhaps, that he already felt a more aggressive approach to his instrument would make it all the harder for him to develop the tonal quality he desired?

In the summer of 1946 Davis joined Eckstine, taking over the solo book that had first been Gillespie's and later Fats Navarro's. We have the leader's word for it that by then he was a much-improved musician, and he stayed with the band until it broke up in the early part of 1947. Throughout this period Parker had been in hospital following his collapse at a record session for Ross Russell's Dial label. Soon after he recovered, he returned to New York and formed a quintet with Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, Max Roach and Miles Davis. It was with this quintet that Davis was to spend the next eighteen months. The challenge was a formidable one for so young a musician and it is easy to believe that there were times when he felt inadequate to the task. His solo work on the records made for Dial and Savoy in 1947 and 1948 is characterized by many weaknesses, but looking back there can be no doubt that the experience he gained in Parker's band and the many lessons he learned were to have a crucial effect upon his subsequent career.

Whatever doubts may have been entertained at the time — for this was the period when Stan Kenton's orchestra was at the zenith of its popularity — it is now quite clear that throughout its existence, the Parker quintet's music embodied the most advanced trends in jazz development. The presence of the altoist himself, of course, was the chief reason for this. With his unprecedented departures in the fields of harmony, rhythm, and phrase distribution, he was opening up vistas that a younger generation of musicians were still to find absorbing long after his untimely death in 1955. 

Next to the leader, Max Roach played the most important role. His resourceful imagination and vast technical powers, allied to an insistent swing, enabled him to function as a secondary voice to the horns and piano. Set out in series or isolated with telling succinctness in the form of punctuations, his cross-rhythms were an indispensable part of the quintet's aesthetic. Tommy Potter provided a sound foundation with his keen ear and large tone, whilst in Duke Jordan, as in Al Haig and John Lewis, who also played piano with the group at a later date, Parker had accompanists of rare sympathy and understanding. It is beyond doubt that Davis was the least proficient of the hand's members; at the same time his devotion to the music and the growing emotional power of his playing partly atoned for his shortcomings on a technical level.

It should not be imagined, following upon the previous remarks, that the trumpeter's ability to play his instrument was in any way negligible. Whilst inferior to both Gillespie and Fats Navarro, in this respect he was no mere fumbler, as even the first recording session undertaken by the new quintet shows. Granted there are raw edges to the unison sound, but he negotiates the complex melodic line of Donna Lee to the listener's satisfaction. His solos on takes two to four of this tune are marred by split notes and faulty intonation, but his invention on the first version, somewhat more intricate melodically than on the sides made at the Dial date of the previous year, comes over fairly well. There are other signs of his having developed, too: the persuasive intimacy of his lower register tone on extended notes, which was eventually to become so characteristic a feature of his style, may be heard in embryo notably on the second take of Chasing the Bird. The above are significant aspects of his playing and foreshadow his later maturity, but the most convincing solo he set down on this occasion is to be heard in Cheryl. His three choruses on the complete version of this blues theme are not free from the faults already described, but their overall effect is, I think, a memorable one. The lyrical bent to his temperament was beginning to make itself felt and contrasted effectively with the dramatic starkness of Parker's playing.

Before going on to consider the principal ways in which Davis developed during the time he spent in Parker's quintet, it is well worthwhile investigating the August 1947 recording session, which was the first on which he appeared as leader. On this occasion Parker played tenor saxophone instead of his usual alto, John Lewis replaced Duke Jordan at the piano, and Nelson Boyd took over from Tommy Potter on bass. More important than these personnel changes, however, was the difference in nature of the thematic material used. If we are to judge from the body of its recorded work, Parker's group featured in its repertoire a very high proportion of blues, together with a number of slow ballads, such as My Old Flame and Don't Blame Me, and several original tunes based on the chord sequence of familiar melodies like I Got Rhythm or Honeysuckle Rose. The four sequences on which the musicians improvised at this session were therefore far from typical. Sippin’ at Bells is indeed a blues hut with altered changes, whilst the other three compositions are more sophisticated in character than those Parker generally preferred. He would imply all manner of passing chords in his solos, of course, but the themes he used were rarely so harmonically dense as the ones Davis chose for this session. 

Although the trumpeter performs with great care, he can hardly be said to excel himself. He makes very little use of rests and at the fast tempo of Little Willie Leaps his playing is altogether devoid of swing. Both versions of Milestones contain sober and intelligent trumpet improvisations, but there is no doubt that the prime interest of the session resides in the pointers it gives to his future activities. The relatively contrived material foreshadows the repertory of the orchestra he was to lead just over a year later at the Royal Roost.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that when Davis rejoined Parker in early 1947, he had precious little individuality as a soloist; and that when he left the band some fifteen months or so later, he was fast emerging as a highly distinctive musician and an influence in his own right. Perhaps this is putting it a trifle too blandly, for he had never been a wholly derivative stylist, but few will contest that the experience he gained during this period was of capital importance. Disinterested he may have been by his continual inability, night after night, to measure up to the standards of the other men, but the intense competition and electrically-charged musical climate forced him into new and unconventional ways of thinking, taught him many lessons he could have learned nowhere save in the immediate context of Parker's band.

The most radical change in his playing over this period concerned the melodic line of his improvisations. Much earlier, Gillespie had recommended him to study piano, so that he would gain a better understanding of how to build up a solo from the underlying harmonic framework, and there is every reason to think he had profited from this advice. Yet until the closing months of 1947, as far as we are able to tell, there was scant variety in the time value of the notes he used, nor did he make very much use of rests to throw his phrases into any sort of relief. In many cases, especially at faster tempo, he would content himself with a drab procession of quavers. Now, with Parker's brilliant example constantly before him, he was not only expanding his limited vocabulary but also constructing his solos out of phrases of pleasingly diverse length. The E take of Air Conditioning and both versions of Blue Bird illustrate particularly well the extra interest this lent to his work. In musical surroundings where the asymmetrical melodic line was commonplace, he had every reason to cultivate the virtues of asymmetry.

A slow yet very significant improvement in tonal control, abetted by the growing use of inflexion, is also revealed by records made during the period under review. This development should not necessarily be ascribed to Parker's example, for such methods have a time-honoured place in jazz history, but we should remember that the altoist, true to his Kansas City origins, had always favoured a vocalized sound even if this did not take the form of a fierce vibrato, and it would probably be wrong to discount his influence altogether. When he first came to New York, Davis had been very enthusiastic about Freddy Webster's tone, and Sadik Hakim also tells us that he greatly admired Lester Young. Since then he had evidently aimed for a calm, unruffled sound, smooth in texture and free from vibrato. For much of the time, though, he had merely succeeded in eliciting from his trumpet a tone that was dull rather than forlorn, muddy rather than serene. By late 1947 the purpose underlying his rejection of the more traditional trumpet tone was finally becoming clear. At slow tempo, as, for example, in Embraceable You, he was obtaining an attractive glowing sound that was as expressive in its own way as the vibrant richness of Louis Armstrong's, or the singing clarity of Howard McGhee's.

It is perhaps a trifle misleading to say that there was yet another way in which his style began to mature in these two years, for the quality of resilience that began to mark bis playing did not depend on such intangibles as attack and relaxation of delivery alone; it relied just as much upon the developments in phrase distribution and tone noted above. By speaking of it as though it were an altogether distinct facet, however, one at least emphasizes the new-found flexibility of his music. Although swing, as we understand the term from the playing of Harry Edison or Dizzy Gillespie, had never been nor was ever to be his forte, there is a definite pulsation about certain of his solos that derives both from an improved sense of timing and a continual slackening and tightening of the improvised line in relation to the beat. A similar style of phrasing was favoured by Lester Young in these years: listen to Blues 'n' Bells or June Bug, for example. By means of such a method the soloist introduces a greater variety of melodic shapes without forgoing the direct physical impact of a regular beat. Parker himself, of course, took the process a good deal further; his acute sense of time and magnificent technique enabled him to suggest two or even three rhythms within the compass of a single phrase.”

To be continued in Part 2.

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