Miles Davis: Early, Late, Real, Yours

We are talking tonight about Miles Davis: Early Miles… Late Miles… Real Miles… Your Miles. With musicians and others who knew him, it would be easy to do an hour just of impressions of Miles’ rasping voice and lightning wit. Charlie Davidson of the Andover Shop in Cambridge, who tailored Miles’ and the band’s Ivy League clothes in the ’50s and ’60s, is a storehouse of casual Milesiana, like this from Charlie: “One day I asked him: ‘Miles, do you really like Frank Sinatra?’ ‘Do I like him?’ he said. “If he had one tit I’d marry him!'”

The hook of our conversation tonight, as if we needed one, is the 50th anniversary summer of Miles’ breakthrough performance of “Round Midnight” with Monk at the second Newport Jazz Festival. (“Monk plays the wrong changes,” Miles complained to the Newport impresario George Wein. “Miles, what do you want?” Wein shot back. “He wrote the song!”) The other critical anniversary is of the Isle of Wight concert of 1970, now on a brilliant DVD by Murray Lerner, when the recently electrified Miles performed for 600,000 Europeans on a bill with Jimi Hendrix and The Who, with yet another new band of his own on stage, including Jack DeJohnette on drums and both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards.

With protean Miles (as in the Greek myth of the waterborne Proteus who could change his shape at will) the spectacle of self-reinvention goes well beyond the mere matter of late-60’s electrification. Miles came onto the scene chasing Charlie Parker in the late ’40’s. If he’d lived, not died, in 1991, he might have made his last recordings with Prince! In between, through cool jazz, the ineffable highs with Coltrane and the modal revolution, the ’70s fusions with rock, Sly, Santana and Hendrix, and the “chromatic funk” of his comeback in the ’80s, Miles was the biggest star — and star-maker — in the story of jazz. And the subject still of the most heated arguments.

The hope tonight is not to be definitive or even adversarial, but passionate about the essential Miles, who seems so much alive in music to this day.

George Wein

Founder, Newport Jazz Festival

Author, with Nate Chinen and Bill Cosby, of Myself Among Others: A Life in Music

[in the studio with Chris]

Marcus Miller

Bassist, a kind of music director of Miles’ last “period,” 1980 to 1991

George Cole

Author, Last Miles: the Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991

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  • KenLac

    Ahhh… I’m going to share the realization about “Kind of Blue” that I never got around to when Chris was doing his sub gig at ‘TKK. (The show was about that album specifically.)

    My first experience with listening to jazz (as opposed to just bumping in to it occasionally) was through the public library as a late-teen — great age: you’re curious about everything and almost the entire cultural map is marked “uncharted.” I grabbed a few albums by some names I had heard of, and one of them was “Kind of Blue” — the cover mysterious, compelling. On to the turntable — Bill Evans and Paul Chambers do an intro duet of almost-suspended chords. Then the swing begins. A simple, unforgettable two note statement on top of a gentle-but-determined swing. And the sound is perfect.

    “Kind of Blue” is the gateway drug of jazz. It’s sophisticated, but also accessible. If you are destined to get hooked on jazz, you are going to love this record, and it is going to open up the main gate and get you in the foyer where all the other doors are. The stuff behind those doors is going to be a great big mixed bag, some terrific, some terrible, but the memory of that first pleasure at the gate is going to keep you looking and looking and looking.

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  • sjc

    Chris,

    I’m so disappointed that I won’t be able to hear the show, or contribute, in real-time.

    As a former jazz host who came to jazz through Miles and others — I will be sure to download the program when I get home. There are lots of “ah ha” moments when listening to Miles but from the classic nonet recordings in 1948 and 1949, both live at the Royal Roost and in-studio — Kind of Blue all the way through Bitches Brew — The man and his music forever changed the way I listen to music.

    How many times have all of us handed out a copy of Kind of Blue to non-jazzers? I just bought a couple more for the next person who says “Hey what is this?” “I never knew this was jazz.”

    Looking forward to the show and check out the wgbh.org/jazz web site. There are several articles written by the hosts about Mr. Davis.

    Be cool!

    sjc

  • sjc

    Reflections On Miles Davis

    By Stephen J. Charbonneau

    Miles Davis, to me, was the pathway and the door into Jazz. He’s the link I use when introducing someone to Jazz. His musical voice is instantly recognizable, melodic, lyrical, dark and haunting, colorful and unique. There was no one before Miles and only one other Jazz artist that has captured my ears and my mind the way Miles Dewey Davis has. (The other artist is Bill Evans.)

    Separating the man from the music, his attitudes and actions from his musical genius, is something I find necessary. Musicians are no different then today’s superstar athletes. Their actions on and off the field are not barometers of each other. No one is without flaws and some of us have more demons then others. The same things that make artists like Miles so special are the same actions that leave the casual fan or distanced masses shaking their heads in disbelief, questioning the motives, or judging why Miles, for a time, played with his back to the audience.

    Miles Davis had courage, strength, determination, insecurities, fear, and anger. He was blessed with God-given abilities and the where-with-all to decide, seek and find his own voice, his calling: Jazz!

    Growing up I was not a Miles follower or even a fan. Miles Davis was approximately the same age as my Dad and some of my uncles. If they liked his music then I figured it must not be cool. It certainly couldn’t be hip or very current. After all what could they know about something that was relevant to me? They couldn’t relate to the Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Buffalo Springfield, or troubadours like Dylan. Funny how when you’re young anything that adults like can’t be anything you’d be interested in.

    As I became interested in music outside the popular culture, Miles was a bridge. I love his simplicity and the space he provides for interplay. I didn’t have to struggle to catch the chord changes or imagine that there really was a melody. The music of Miles eased me in and captured my heart. No one plays a ballad like Miles. Few, in jazz, can match his intuition and creativity, his constant search for the next thing. May Miles Davis live forever through his music!

  • jwp

    I, too, reserve a special place in my musical appreciation for Miles Davis. And “Kind of Blue” was indeed my introduction to jazz. My tastes in jazz have expanded in many directions since then. Lately, I’ve been taken with Charles Mingus. Both Miles and Mingus were smart composers, and understood all sorts of tonal theory that I still don’t understand intellectually but appreciate when I hear it. But whereas Mingus tended to write these gorgeous, full, raucous pieces with so much going on that you know when you first hear it you’re going to need to listen to it several more times before you start to get a complete idea of all that’s happening, Miles takes the same complex concept and manages to make it sound simple. You know when you pick up the Sgt. Pepper album cover that you’re going to spend a good deal of time identifying all the people and jokes; Miles is more like looking at “Dark Side of the Moon” every month for years and all of a sudden seeing another interpretation of the light going through the prism.

    For all his composing smarts, playing virtuosity, and improvisation skill, the thing about Miles Davis that most impresses me is that he understood that you don’t have to play every note perfectly. You don’t even have to play every note. It’s like a musical optical illusion; once you’ve sketched it out, the mind knows how to fill in any missing notes. In this way, Miles could hit just the right pace for the mood of his music, and not start to sound rushed by trying to fit in all the notes. Listening to his music, you’re left with this powerful, engaging music so stripped of distracting elements that you can immediately connect emotionally with it.

    That’s why “Kind of Blue” in particular is such a common introduction to jazz. It’s like when a noisy crowd get quiet and starts leaning in to hear someone who has laryngitis. It’s not intimidating at first. It seems so simple and naked that it draws you in. You can appreciate other aspects of it later.

  • Abby

    I have a technical/ copyright question. Will you be able to play any Miles, since this will be available as a podcast?

  • Katherine

    Abby, Brendan’s the expert on this stuff, but it looks like we’ll be playing some short clips under “fair use”…

  • rundfunk

    I think much of Miles’ 70s output will be more influential than the output from the 80s. That music was so huge, so black, so deep that folks will be mining it for years to come.

    To dismiss it, as some do, as rhythmic vamping would be akin to saying that West African drumming is the same. There is a complexity, a deep understanding of a human connection to that rhythm. Miles was leading those bands in exploring those rhythms and creating those textures as carefully as any other point in his career.

  • John S

    I was lucky enough to see Miles Davis at Great Woods in Mass. not long before he passed. My brother was working with the stage crew and called me up a couple of hours before the show stating that they forgot to release the promotional tickets and that he had purchased one for me. I rushed to the pavilion, met my brother at a side entrance for the ticket and then walked in the main gate. Much to my amazement I was the only person sitting in the first three rows! When Miles came out he looked down and saw only me in the front, I pointed up at Miles and nodded in a nonchalant way and he did the same motions in return. I could hear people behind me saying “he knows Miles!” and “he must have paid for the first three rows!”. I just grinned from ear to ear while my brother laughed from the catwalk where he was working the main spot lights. After the first set various members of the press were asking me if it was ok if they sat near me for photos and such, still smiling I said “sure, no problem”. This was definitely a concert to remember, sitting front row center with full acknowledgment from one of my all time favorite artists.

  • loki

    Recently, I saw Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” Miles’s music created the atmosphere-love and suspence.