Miles Davis, Style Beyond Style



Thirty years ago, on September 29, 1991, trumpeter Miles Davis died at the age of 65. His death may have been untimely in one sense as, by today’s standards, we do not consider him to have been of an especially advanced age. On the other hand, Davis had not been in good health for several years before his death and had suffered from bouts of illness and poor health throughout his life including ulcers and calcium deposits in his ankles, largely as a result of what may discreetly be called lifestyle choices. In this regard, it is surprising he lived as long as he did. One would hardly expect a jazz musician of Davis’s generation to take good care of himself, although Davis loved boxing, trained often in a gym during a certain period in his life, and wanted to be like the great welterweight and middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson, his hero, the unflappable, stylish, seriously skilled Black man.

Between 1975-1980, Davis was drug-addled with cocaine, in constant pain from serious injuries incurred by a car accident that was not alleviated by surgery, jaded by sexual promiscuity, living in disarray and filth in his luxury Manhattan brownstone, and he did not perform. In fact, he hardly picked up his trumpet and was thought by many to be finished as a musician. This thought occurred to him as well. His marriage to actress Cicely Tyson helped to raise him from the dead. The fact that he returned to performing and lived eleven more years beyond this “dead” period, producing a steady stream of good, competent, if not memorable, instrumental music, was perhaps more than he or his fans had any right to expect.

In 2015, The Guardian selected Davis as the greatest jazz musician of all time, whatever being “the greatest” means. Why qualify it? Why not call him the greatest American musician of the twentieth century? I am not sure what “the greatest” means in this context either, but at least this eliminates the sense that Davis is being Jim Crowed with jazz or somehow being patronized because the music he played, for lack of a being word, was labeled jazz. As Duke Ellington once remarked, there are only two types of music, good and bad.

Davis was certainly the most commercially successful jazz musician who did not play commercialized jazz. Such was his stature that Columbia Records, his label for most of his career, paid him regularly from a special fund between 1975 and 1980 despite the fact he did not record anything of note during that time and certainly not anything where he played the trumpet. Only pianist Vladimir Horowitz had a similar deal.

Davis did something few successful musicians do: He dramatically changed his style four times during his career. Most musicians, once they have found an approach that gains them an audience, will stick with it to the grave. Davis enjoyed success with each change and altered his audience as he changed. In this regard, a good portion of his audience did not grow old with him but rather renewed itself with fresh listeners. He first made his name as a trumpeter (and foil) for bebop saxophone virtuoso Charlie Parker. He was associated with a major jazz innovator but was not an innovator himself at this point, but a sidekick. With the Birth of the Cool sessions of 1949-1950, Davis became a major voice in a jazz style that was something like a countermovement to bop. But he moved on from this phase quickly. When Davis hit his stride in the 1950s, he had a band of bop-oriented players: John Coltrane on saxophone, Philly Jo Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, Red Garland on piano; yet the band was never identified as a bebop band. Davis was in many ways still considered a “cool” player, although he did not perform in that context anymore.

His 1960s band with Wayne Shorter on saxophone (and chief composer), Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, were not players associated with bop or cool. They possessed those elements of style, but they also brought the influences of the avant-garde that was then the new wave of jazz. Davis adapted to this without abandoning elements of bop or cool but with a completely different sound than he had in the 1950s.

Then, with 1970 album, Bitches Brew, Davis adopted an electric, rock sound that was a complete departure from everything that went before, (although In a Silent Way which preceded Bitches Brew in 1969 was a preview of things to come, though, shall we say, prettier). There would be more permutations of the electronic, rock-influenced, wall of sound until 1975, when he stopped playing for five years. This was the period where he was accused by critics such as the late Stanley Crouch of selling out, having a middle-age crisis, wanting a young audience, chasing the filthy lucre, as if, after all, he had not been doing that before, in his own fashion. What artist does not want to make money!?

It is hard to imagine how albums like Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, Big Fun, On the Corner, or Get Up With It could be considered commercial. They hardly fit the format for radio play. The music was often densely textured, loud, and long; compositions were often 20 or 30 minutes long. For people who liked some earlier stage of Davis, some form of acoustic Miles, this music was not even listenable. This new music clearly appealed to a certain set of young people; Davis was playing at rock concerts. There were frequently no discernible solos or even a discernible melody. The music sounded not merely modern but the cutting edge of modern, made up of all the elements that made music on the cutting edge of modern in the 1970s—electric guitars, sitars, various and sundry percussion, electric keyboards, soprano saxophones, modes, vamps. That was its appeal and that was always Davis’s appeal throughout the 25 years he was a major presence in American music. He was the personification of making the new sound newer and, well, cooler.

When he returned in the 1980s, his chops not quite what they were, the music was more pop-oriented, a bit of rock, a bit of smooth jazz, a bit of hip hop. This was a coda, rather like a great athlete hanging on a few more years as an adequate impersonation of himself. He had made his career.

In the 1990s, when I was the director of the African and African American Studies Program, I organized with Miles Davis conferences called “Miles Davis and American Culture: May 3-4, 1997, May 10-11, 1996, and April 6-8, 1995.” (The last was a joint effort with the Missouri History Museum to coincide with its Miles Davis exhibit .) Lots of different people spoke such as former sidemen like Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz, record producers Teo Macero and Orrin Keepnews, writers like Stanley Crouch, Pearl Cleage, Quincy Troupe, and Martha Bayles. And several scholars. The success of the conferences varied, as one measured “success.” Davis’s family, who attended all the conferences, did not like the speakers who criticized Davis as a sellout, a woman beater, a rude, stupid, short, dark man with a big chip on his shoulder. These are personal attacks, they protested. What have they got to do with Davis’s music, his artistry? I told them that perhaps these critiques were unfair and had nothing to do with anything but the writers’ grudges. Perhaps they got the heart of the matter. Who can say? But Davis no longer belongs to his family. He belongs to the world and the family has no say in how the world wishes to treat him, how each new generation decides it wishes to understand him. This little speech had no effect. I was naïve to think it would.

It was my intention to do only one conference. How this morphed into three is a story for another time but despite the headaches, the frustrations, and moments of anguish, I was glad to have done them. But after the third, I was exhausted and vowed never to do another or even to attend another.

There is a statue of Davis in his hometown of Alton, Illinois. Back in May 2016, my youngest daughter and I drove over there, and I took her picture at the statue. She likes Miles Davis’s music a lot, some of the time.