Miles Alive

Miles Alive

by Howard Mandel
copyright © 2001 Howard Mandel

Miles Davis is 75 years old, as of May 26, 2001 -- use the present tense, please, because no dead man has such presence in the global culture of this day. Miles -- just to say his name summons his myth, forms, guises and sound. To listen to him is to open a window on music, art, fashion, performance, style, process, attitude and life as he shaped it for us over almost 50 years, and is not about to stop now.

Conventional reports date Miles' demise as a decade ago, September 28, 1991, but he never respected conventions and encourages us not to. Say Miles, and what comes to mind? Nostalgia? No! What's happening now and next, the moment just beyond reach. His ideas may always dwell in the realm of the avant garde, if they are not eternally in the domain of the ideal.

The tangible Miles: Maybe you think of his abraded voice first -- a rare croak, a cracked bark, a coarse whisper, unable to carry melody but authoritative beyond measure. "Teo, play that! Teo, Teo, Teo," he teases his producer after an inspired take of "Gingerbread Boy" on Miles Smiles, circa 1966. "Play that!" -- barely allowing himself pride.

Or maybe first you recall a perfectly poised trumpet turn. Miles' tone, open and dark as a cave, or mellow and hushed as an intimacy. His piercing questions, his frank confessions, his steely resolve, his long threads of melody or sharp fragments of disquiet adding up to original, vivid, precise and evocative statement.

His trumpet was many things: a wake-up call, an interior monolog, a prophecy, dramatic, evocative, bold and elusive, too, a brush making marks against silence. He might underplay to bring an audience in, or rage onstage shrieking like a banshee, ablaze with electricity in the center of a sonic apocalypse. In 1984 I asked Miles what he wanted to be remembered for: "My sound," he hissed without hesitation.

But maybe you recognize Miles and didn't realize he played jazz at all. Maybe you know about his bad habits, his tailored suits and futuristic costumes, his Ferrari, his scuffles with the law, his French actress and American wives, his ambitions and rivalries, or the red he liked to wear, saying "It picks up the brown in my skin."

In the U.S., Miles' image and mystique is so powerful that it's been marketed. He stares out from billboards over the catchwords "Think different," selling Apple computers. There's a television ad for something -- a car, life insurance, it's not important what -- in which people flock to Noah's Ark saving civilization's most prized treasures, an lp of Birth of the Cool prominent among them. A couple years ago Miles was one of those cool guys who look great in khaki pants, as depicted on posters at bus-stops promoting nationally-franchised clothing stores.

Towards the end of his life, he let himself in for this. In the late '80s didn't Miles put on a villianish wide-brim black leather hat, gloves, jeans and boots, give the camera a blink and a sneer, and zoom off on a motorcyle, shilling for some brand of beer? Or was it tequila? A far cry from how he appeared on a priceless live network broadcast from 1960, intently listening to Gil Evans' orchestra before lifting his horn to his lips and blowing on Dave Brubeck's tune for Ellington, "The Duke." Maybe you've seen pictures, and remember Miles' eyes: they never lied or missed anything. They cut like razors through fluff and pretense, demanding the best possible response wherever their glance fell. Miles protected his eyes from the glare of the mundane with wrap-around shades, like a movie star, spaceship commander or masked superhero. Maybe you've seen his drawings and paintings: stick figures in jagged dances, swiftly sketched, gaudily daubed, set daringly upon blank backgrounds, as if to say that figure is all, context is immaterial. Only people bleed.

I am an unabashed Miles fan, having first caught him live in concert at Chicago's Civic Opera House in winter 1969. He had in his band electric keyboardists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, fearsome kid saxophonist Steve Grossman, upright and electric bassist Dave Holland, percussionist Airto Moriera and rock-solid drummer Jack DeJohnette. This lineup, excluding Jarrett and adding Wayne Shorter, is replicated on It's About That Time, a two-cd set recorded live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970, being released now for the first time by Columbia Records, along with The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, which includes unreleased material to Miles' iconoclastic studio masterpiece of the same year.

That night I heard him, Miles wore a close-cut, red snakeskin bull-fighter jacket and spangled wide bell-bottom pants. Maybe he was responding to the impact of Jimi Hendrix, among other torch-bearers of an emerging new soul-rock coalition. One of the surprise images in Ken Burns' video history Jazz is of Miles in the wings at the Newport Jazz Festival 1968, envious as soul-rock provocateur Sly Stone whips a huge young crowd into a frenzy. Shortly thereafter, at the peak of his prestige, Miles plugged his trumpet into an electric socket and went roaring off as far as the wilder audiences of the time -- youngsters enthralled by new instruments, revolutionary political passions and upset social hierarchies -- would follow. What did Sly make Miles think of: Fortune? Fame? Power? Primacy?

Whatever was on his mind, the first time I saw him in concert Miles forced his horn through a buzzy wah-wah pedal, obliterating any of the eggshell fragility or command of hypnotic melody that usually beguiled his audiences, the way a fisherman dangles a silvery, dancing line to attract and entrance prey. The music's mix was chaotic -- like nothing I'd heard at age 20, having followed rhythmn 'n' blues, Chicago blues, psychedelic rock and a snobbish selection of jazz (including all editions of Miles' acoustic combos) for six years by then. At intermission, I sought out my hippest pal and asked what he made of it. Even he could only shrug.

No one knows what to make of genuinely new anything -- but Miles didn't seem to care, he went and did what he wanted, whether it was new or not. "I don't mind talking, when people are listening," he told me in an interview for Down Beat magazine, and he generally made sure to say something that couldn't be ignored. When Miles plugged in, jazz purists felt more violently betrayed than even the folk singers had by their hero Bob Dylan playing electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. After all, Miles had been crowned prince of straightahead jazz, and he bore the title as if born to it.

Son of a properous dental-surgeon from the rural midwest, Miles cavalierly ditched his classes at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when he arrived in New York City in 1944; he had come with the secret intent of finding Charlie Parker, bebop's star. He soon became Parker's roomate, with fellow boppers Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Milt Jackson, John Lewis and J.J. Johnson welcoming him into their fold. He dropped out of school within his first year to join this elite, who preferred the challenges of hard, fast improvisation in tight-knit combos to the fading popularity and tired swing of the big bands, much less the foreign old traditions taught in conservatories.

The boppers played jazz hot yet not heedless; they valued virtuosity, intelligence and at least surface composure. They were mostly self-educated, but had studied the European classics as well as the American vernacular of ballads and theater music, black spirituals, boogie and blues. Miles' associates exuded racial pride but enacted a meritocracy. White musicians including composers Gil Evans and John Carisi, french horn player Gunther Schuller and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan worked with Miles to select and orchestrate the right few instruments for a complex book of through-composed charts, and thus founded the short-lived but long-influential nonet featured on The Birth of the Cool.

Standard Miles bios -- including Jack Chambers' Milestones and Miles The Autobiography, ghost written by poet Quincy Troupe -- focus on his struggle with heroin addiction, his temporary victory over it, his comeback with his "first quartet," its acclaimed performance at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1955, and his subsequent addition to it of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. One of the best matches in all of music history, Miles and Trane were a lyrically balanced pair -- as can be blissfully experienced through Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961, a six-cd set issued in fall 2000. Columbia's unusual attention to Miles' commercial prospects, and his own practical esthetic decisions (such as fitting his concepts to the length of the newly introduced long-playing record album) helped Miles steadily gain eminence as an American tastemaker, an international sophisticate and existential hero. In the era of Eisenhower, Presley, Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, Miles Davis was an icon of suave authenticity, an underground man whose horn made the lonely but brave declaration, "I am, my way."

Miles understood how to flatter himself as well as his audiences, reconceiving George Gershwin's operatic Porgy and Bess and the exotic themes on Sketches of Spain with upscale symphonic settings that cushioned his solos. But Miles was also one of the most perceptive of music talent scouts, generous and motivational with his discoveries. He always hired the right cast to flesh out his notions -- perhaps most famously when he introduced alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Bill Evans in 1959 for Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue has been hailed as the one essential jazz album, perfect in its timeless distillations of subtle moods. Millions of Miles' fans have been seduced by it, and used it as part of their own seductions. It is a masterpiece, but Miles made many masterpieces: early hardbop sessions with cohorts including Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Heath; his series of lps for Prestige including Cookin', Workin', Relaxin' and Steamin'; his four albums in collaboration with Gil Evans (aficionados swear by Miles Ahead ), and the abstract expressionism he developed with his early '60s young lions -- Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams -- on E.S.P., Miles Smiles, and Filles de Kilimanjaro; then his hook up with Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, et al, on Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and On The Corner, and later period productions including Decoy and Tutu and the rest.

Miles Davis: The Last Word, The Warner Bros. Years, a five-cd boxed set scheduled for July release might spark revision of critical thinking about the final phases of his career. Popular opinion is already secure. Miles employed sound processing, tape editing, multi-track overdubbing, loops, samples and other advanced techniques in ways that were prophetic, used today by neo-soul and smooth jazz stylists as well as hip-hop djs (for kicks, check out the ear candy on "High Speed Chase," best track on his final album, Doo-Bop). A limp and pale imitation of one patented aspect of Miles' later trumpet vocabulary has been the career-basis for at least one Hollywood soundtrack player-composer for more than a decade, while Miles' own blasts echo through the backgrounds of dozens of film and television dramas, mysteries and cop shows.

Meanwhile, generations of graduates of Miles' bands rule the jazz roost. Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Shorter, Hancock, Carter, Corea, Jarrett, McLaughlin, Holland, DeJohnette, Zawinul, Al Foster, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller, Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Shirley Horn, Bob Dorough and Kenny Garrett are among the top rank players Miles launched, or advanced. He also reconstrued for his own purposes the ideas of composers including de Falla, Ellington, Monk and Stockhausen, replacing developmental sonata form with cyclical repetitions and dense layerings.

Miles reinterpreted dozens of familiar songs -- "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from the musical Oklahoma, "Someday My Prince Will Come" from Walt Disney's animated film Sleeping Beauty and Cyndi Lauper's winsome pop lament "Time After Time," to name an unlikely three. He refused to perform any of repertoire he'd previously discarded until Quincy Jones convened an overly big band in Paris for a 1990 retrospective, and even then trumpeter Wallace Roney had to take over some of the brass parts. But Miles did weigh in with his version of the eternal, low-down blues, with John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal on the soundtrack for the movie Hot Spot.

Through it all, Miles was of his time, not ahead of it, though we've often waited for the times to catch up with him. He didn't so much change music or the world as recognize the currents of the moment, and structure his statements to bring them to light. If he turned his back to his audience, it wasn't an act of arrogance but rather a way to listen harder to his musicians. He heard what might be possible, and strove to make it so.

Possibility is always glimpsed in the present and realized in the future: this is the reason Miles is so alive now. He's a difficult artist for the forces of commerce to fully embrace, because he didn't make anything, music included, always easy or soothing. Even his most beautiful songs are bittersweet, and even his most exciting pieces are etched in acid. But Miles is the leader to pull us out of the rut of complacency. His works have nerve and nuance that is unlikely to be blunted.

Last April, more than 200 musicians in 26 ensembles gathered at Symphony Space, a thousand-seat Manhattan hall, to play in a 13-hour, nationally broadcast and web-streamed concert marathon called "Wall-to-Wall Miles" (like wall-to-wall carpeting). It was a glorious event, featuring renditions of Miles' music from every stage of his career, with jazzmen and women who'd grown up as his fans inspired to perform at the levels of sensitivity, intensity and daring he embodied. Well-regarded trumpeters, saxophonists, keyboard players, electric guitarists, bassists, drummers, turntable djs, an African kora player and two specially organized big bands trooped onstage. The house was never less than full; tickets were free, and lines stretched around the block of late-comers who hoped to gain admission, though no one inside wanted to leave.

The theater was near the Manhattan apartment where from 1975 to 1980 Miles Davis sat in seclusion, indulging in druggy excess, under the impression that people had stopped listening to him. Those were the glory days of disco, of inflated insubstantiability, of exhaustion after a long ride on a precarious edge. By then the breakthroughs of bebop and the culture of cool had been assimilated, co-opted and rendered irrelevant. Art rock and jazz fusion were awash in bombast. The alternatives Miles had discovered by digging deep into society, sound and himself had not been welcomed, understood or generally accepted. It may still be like that today, but that doesn't invalidate what Miles Davis has to say. Do you want something better? New solutions to old problems? Fresh perspective? Can you bear to hear the truth? Listen to Miles.

Howard Mandel
172 E. 7th St., Apt. 1C
NY NY 10009
(212) 533-9495

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