Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. With a deluxe edition of 43 CDs being released by Sony/Legacy in the elaborate The Genius Of Miles set, this installment looks at trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the towering figures of jazz.
Miles Davis 101
Even for the musical obsessive, detailing Miles Davis’ impact on jazz is a daunting task. He left behind a legacy so vast in scope that it’s inspired dozens of books, and throughout his entire recording career—which spanned six decades—he influenced, or flat-out invented, almost every aspect of jazz music. With such vast influence, and such a gargantuan body of work (Davis recorded more than 130 live and studio albums), it’s hard to even know where to begin. But Birth Of The Cool, a collection of sessions by his nine-piece band in 1949 and 1950, is as good a place as any. It represents Davis’ first major excursion as a bandleader, stepping out on his own with a smooth, frosty trumpet tone and a keen eye for assembling the right talent for the right project. The sound this nonet developed later became known as “cool jazz” for its intricate arrangements, subdued tempos, and clean emotional vibe. Though Davis, irked by the attention it brought other musicians from the white press, disowned the style, it wouldn’t exist without him, and Birth Of The Cool is its founding document.
Returning to New York after a stay in Paris, Davis—while developing a drug habit and growing resentful of how cool jazz had gotten away from him—struck out in a new direction. Developing the graceful open spaces of his own trumpet playing (now enhanced by the liberal use of the Harmon mute, which would become his instrumental signature), he worked with a rotating cast of crackerjack musicians to embrace the rhythmic, propulsive style of hard bop before most jazzmen had even heard of it. One of the best examples is Bags’ Groove, drawn mostly from a session on Christmas Eve of 1954 with an incredible band featuring, among others, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Milt Jackson, and Thelonious Monk. It’s a flawless set with an all-star lineup of players who would define the entire era, and evidence of Davis’ restless nature. Even as he was delivering classic albums, he was always on the lookout for the next big thing.
The next big thing, for Davis, came after a triumphant performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. Looking forward by looking back, he started to incorporate classic tunes from the Great American Songbook into his repertoire, while attacking them with his own unique approach and putting together a band that would utterly transform them. Davis was never one of jazz’s great virtuosos, but he was a masterful arranger and an unimpeachable judge of talent, so with the Miles Davis Quintet—Davis, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, and the legendary John Coltrane on sax—he underplayed, delivering stretched-out, melodic balladry while Coltrane provided the instrumental fireworks. This band put out one great album after another, but its peak came with 1958’s Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, a collection of classics that shows the group as a force to be reckoned with. The rhythm section burbles along like a well-oiled machine, while Davis and Coltrane, approaching every song from different angles, make each track sound like something entirely new despite the familiarity of the material.
If there is anything like an undisputed masterpiece in the contentious history of jazz, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is it. By 1959, Davis was already growing unsatisfied with the direction of hard bop; its endless soloing built around chord changes seemed to him to be an artistic dead end. He began to experiment with modality—using chromatic changes and improvisation around scales—and, seeing the potential for yet another new direction for the music he loved, assembled a band to create an entire album around the idea. The band, a once-in-a-lifetime combination of Davis, Coltrane, Chambers, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb, worked from a mournful, moody blues model, but fed it into a modal structure, creating songs of such astonishing grace, beauty, and perfection that it’s staggering to contemplate that it was completed in two sessions with no rehearsal and almost no preparation. More than just an amazing jazz album, it’s a titanic artistic achievement that single-handedly justifies the entire form.
Davis, the son of an upper-middle-class Illinois family, utterly transformed the world of jazz, but he was also classically trained: It was musical instruction at Juilliard that brought him to New York in the first place. Yet he was far from a jazz purist; his entire career would be marked by a tendency to mix in other forms of music and see what would happen. This wouldn’t always endear him to critics, but Miles Davis was never guilty of pandering to the tastes of anyone. One of the first and greatest manifestations of his eclecticism is Sketches Of Spain, a 1960 album released after a long and fruitful period of collaboration with composer Gil Evans. As influenced by classical music and Spanish folk as by jazz, it contains a lengthy interpretation of Joaquín Rodrigo’s adagio from the Concierto De Aranjuez. It led some observers to question whether Davis had left jazz behind altogether, but the gorgeous, rich playing (centered by Davis himself on a muted flugelhorn) really indicated that he was taking it with him into new and rewarding directions.
By the ’60s, events were transpiring that would leave many jazz performers behind. The rise of rock ’n’ roll, the growth and development of soul music and R&B, the gauntlet thrown down by free jazz, and the loss of a handful of the medium’s greatest performers left many traditionalists rudderless and uncertain. But Miles Davis was never one to be left behind. Always part of the advance guard and having already pioneered bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, and post-bop modality, he met the ’60s head-on. He first assembled a second quintet—his last all-acoustic outfit—by poaching the great saxophonist Wayne Shorter from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, bringing in the ultra-tight rhythm section of Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and adding a hotshot young keyboardist named Herbie Hancock. This band combined the modal approach with the rapid rhythmic energy of bop, and largely jettisoned the classics for original compositions by Davis and Shorter. The best example of the second quintet’s work can be found on 1967’s Miles Smiles, which showcases Hancock’s remarkable virtuosity and provides an amazing example of how truly simpatico jazz players anticipate one another’s moves and integrate them into a seamless whole.
The definition of “jazz fusion” is pretty nebulous by its very nature. It once signified genuine efforts to incorporate rock, folk, soul, and ethnic music into a jazz framework, but in recent decades has come to mean dishwater-weak blends of weightless smooth jazz and forgettable pop melodies. But Miles Davis was, once again, at the forefront of fusion back when it really meant something. His second quartet, particularly compelled by the keyboard explorations of Herbie Hancock, began to experiment in the mid-’60s with reviving blues elements in its music while still maintaining a forward-looking perspective. Even Davis knew he was onto something with 1968’s Filles De Kilimanjaro, and the playing is that of a band that knew it was headed in directions not easy to describe. Purists mark this as the beginning of the end for Davis—conservative critic Stanley Crouch famously, and absurdly, dubbed it his “last important jazz record”—but it’s just the opposite. Davis’ decision to move past traditional instrumentation and standard jazz approaches marked the end of the beginning.
Miles Davis’ catalog is littered with great live dates, and picking just one is an exercise in futility. However, one album stands out as an essential document not only of Davis’ formidable prowess as a bandleader and live performer, but also of the most important transitional period of his career. Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West, taken from a live date in April of 1970, picks up on Davis and his collaborators at the peak moment between the end of his acoustic period and the beginnings of his fusion experiments and controversial electric years. Most of Davis’ Fillmore sets are worthwhile, but this one seems especially dynamic: stretched-out, open, groovy, and sometimes fingertips beyond the band’s capacity to keep it under control, it’s a compelling performance that, like the best live shows, catches the band barely able to contain its own ambition. It’s got enough traditional elements to remind listeners of how Davis got there, but it’s steeped in an entirely new musical language that would show where he was headed.
Originally intended as the soundtrack for a documentary about the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, A Tribute To Jack Johnson—recorded, like Kind Of Blue, almost entirely without rehearsal over the space of two days in 1970—has gone down in history as a watershed moment in Miles Davis’ career. Working with a galaxy of tremendous musicians (including McLaughlin, Hancock, Chick Corea, clarinetist Bennie Maupin, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham, and the phenomenal guitarist Sonny Sharrock), Davis and producer Teo Macero assembled two thunderous tracks. They reflected the eclectic fusion work that absorbed Davis at the time, and pointed the way forward (especially in the James-Brown-inspired bass line of “Yesternow”) to the hard-edged funk that would consume him over the next few years. One of his crowning achievements, Jack Johnson showed that even in this new phase, Davis could put together the most talented band available and wring every last drop out of it.
No period in Miles Davis’ 50-year career proved more divisive than the ’70s, when he began to incorporate electric instrumentation into his bands and bring elements from rock, funk, and electronic music into a jazz framework. The first of these records was 1969’s In A Silent Way, and there are no baby steps here: Davis plunges feet first into the deep end of a murky pool. Jettisoning all pretense of jazz as a method of reinterpreting traditional music, and abandoning melodic play almost entirely, the album features only two extended compositions, each mirroring the other in a clever structural approach that does nothing to subtract from its emotional richness. Enhancing the work of stalwarts like Shorter, Hancock, and Williams with new players who would become key parts of his sound (especially Joe Zawinul, Corea, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin), Davis took a great leap forward and created a amalgam of jazz and rock forms that only one person—Davis himself—would ever equal.
If In A Silent Way was a great leap forward, then 1970’s Bitches Brew left the planet altogether. It’s almost impossible to overestimate the importance of the album, which amalgamated jazz structures, rock rhythms, and funk instrumentation into something that changed the very definition of what jazz could be. Anchored by an innovative (and impossibly heavy) rhythm section consisting of electric and acoustic bass, multiple drummers, and electric piano, Bitches Brew found Davis bringing rock intensity to jazz and jazz improvisation to rock. (His own playing is wild and chaotic, likely the most unrestrained of his career.) Davis also used unusual compositional techniques, borrowing much from the electronic music he was listening to at the time, and was the first jazzman to begin using the studio as an instrument, as more innovative rock bands had been doing for a few years. Incredibly divisive and both literally and metaphorically electrifying, Bitches Brew changed the game not just for Davis, but for everyone else. It would no longer be possible to talk about jazz in the same way.
Davis was now, well, miles ahead of most of his contemporaries, and had taken jazz places many people felt it was never meant to go. He was also being influenced by the black-power funk of James Brown and Sly Stone, the psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, and especially the electronic compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen. (For an excellent, and often contrary, reassessment of the often-reviled music, see Phil Freeman’s book Running The Voodoo Down.) Before, these influences had played around in the margins of Davis’ music; 1972’s On The Corner placed them front and center. Almost completely forsaking the trumpet, Davis built a base of extended, funky organ riffs around which his sprawling new outfit could vamp; the result is a startling new sound that combined raw funk, modal jazz, and aleatoric music. Critics despised it, and the public—who had turned Bitches Brew into a huge hit—largely agreed, deciding Davis had gone exactly one step too far. Now, it’s possible to see the future in On The Corner: Its striking mixture of funk, electronic sound, and fusion anticipates ideas that would come into vogue in hip-hop and dance music decades later.
Long out of print and recorded at a time when Davis’ professional reputation was being seriously questioned by the jazz establishment, the double album Dark Magus didn’t get a full re-release until 23 years after it was recorded. Drawn from a live show at Carnegie Hall in 1974, it finds Davis—who by now was committed to the Stockhausen-influenced idea of avoiding individual songs in favor of extended movements that mutated into the next piece—delivering a set of four new suites he’d composed for the occasion. Working with a band that included Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence on sax, James Mtume on percussion, and stalwart Michael Henderson on bass, Davis put out a set that seems impossibly heavy and deep. This is the jazz equivalent of doom metal: low, snarling, dark as a dungeon, and exerting pressure every step of the way. Davis had been nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” years before, but by Dark Magus he was really earning it.
Albums like Kind Of Blue and Jack Johnson prove one thing about Miles Davis: He had a gift for catching lightning in a bottle. This didn’t stop during his electric period, and proof of that can be found on Pangaea and Agharta, two live sets taken from a single performance in Osaka, Japan in early 1975. Davis himself was in poor shape at the time (his drug problems had returned, and were exacerbated by a number of health problems, including arthritis, ulcers, and sickle-cell anemia), but he compensated for his own inability to deliver the ear-catching solos of the past by surrounding himself with a band that was sharp as hell. In addition to Mtume and Henderson, the albums featured hot sax solos by Sonny Fortune and phenomenal guitar-playing by Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas. This latter element only served to drive jazz traditionalists further away, but for those with open minds and ears, it’s revelatory. Influenced by psychedelia and prog rock, and using an armada of effects, Cosey in particular flails away on his guitar like mad, sounding more like an avant-garde rock experimentalist than a jazz sideman.
Soon after recording Pangaea and Agharta, Davis retired from playing due to his health problems, and was out of the public eye for six years. He didn’t return until 1981, and took baby steps until he was able to come back at full strength. Part of this process involved returning to more traditional jazz forms (albeit still fully informed by the fusion style he had helped bring into existence) and assembling a smaller, less ambitious combo that could handle their share of soloing. Some critics dismiss this entire period of Davis’ career, and while it’s not as relentlessly forward-looking as his work in the previous three decades, there’s still some quite accomplished music here. 1981’s We Want Miles, which won him a Grammy, is one of the best of this era, allowing Davis to cushion his resurgent trumpet playing with some top-notch work by bassist Marcus Miller and sax player Bill Evans.
In a discography as vast as that of Miles Davis, there are bound to be some demerits. It’s hard to pin down exactly what they are, though, since people tend to react to him less by individual albums than by stylistic periods. (That said, it’s hard to find too many fans of his 1991 hip-hop/acid jazz album Doo-Bop, though it has its defenders.) As a rule, it’s wise to be careful around live performances; while many are essential elements of his catalog, others—especially those on lesser-known labels—are low-quality recordings of dubious provenance drawn from mediocre club shows. Care should also be taken with Miles Davis anthologies; while there are some good ones, Davis put out enough solid albums to satisfy most listeners without having to resort to best-of collections, many of which are assembled with little attention to overall style and tone. There are any number of useful guides to Davis’ sprawling oeuvre that will help avoid the many pitfalls that exist.
Some of the most interesting—and often overlooked—music of Davis’ career was created for films or drawn from musicals. One of his best early albums, created during a lengthy sojourn in Paris in the ’50s, was the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud (Elevator To The Gallows). Largely improvised (by Davis, drummer Kenny Clarke, and a trio of French sidemen) around quickly composed harmonic sequences, it’s an incredibly evocative, moody mini-masterpiece. Though Sketches Of Spain may be the pinnacle of Davis’ collaboration with Gil Evans, their take on George Gershwin’s classic Porgy And Bess runs a close second. It bears almost no resemblance to any prior version of the opera, with Davis interpreting each song with the modal experiments that would later pay such great dividends on Kind Of Blue. Finally, often overlooked thanks to the general low regard in which his later work is held, Siesta is in fact one of his best late-period works. The movie is pretty terrible, but the score, arranged by bassist Marcus Miller, incorporates classical and folk themes into a subtle thing of beauty that often recalls Sketches Of Spain.
Obviously, with so many recordings and an unprecedented amount of influence on the jazz scene, Miles Davis left behind a legacy far too extensive to be covered in an article this short. Among those albums not mentioned already, many are more than worth seeking out: early pre-Quintet albums like ’Round About Midnight and Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants; key live dates (the early brilliance of Miles Davis At Newport 1958, the transitional-period Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965, and the electric craziness of 1971’s Live-Evil); and some of the more worthwhile expressions of his later post-comeback fusion albums, especially the bluesy Star People from 1983 and 1989’s Amandla.
1. Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet (1958)
Approaching a set of jazz standards with the respect of an elder statesman and the energy of a young maverick, Davis and his first quintet deliver six tracks of barely restrained brilliance. A snapshot of everything that was good in jazz at the time.
2. Kind Of Blue (1959)
That rarest of things, a near universally agreed upon masterpiece, Kind Of Blue is the work of a handful of brilliant musicians at the very peak of their powers. Not only one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, it’s one of the greatest recordings of any kind ever made.
3. Miles Smiles (1967)
The only thing Miles Davis’ second quintet had in common with his first was Miles Davis. But the group’s fiery improvisational approach made its original compositions light up just as brightly as the first group did the Great American Songbook.
4. In A Silent Way (1969)
On this majestic album, you can actually feel jazz changing. Heralding the full-blown electric fusion experience to come, it’s an incredible accomplishment.
5. Bitches Brew (1970)
The public embraced this storm of eclectic, electric jazz, turning it into a Top 40 hit; the critics savaged it, saying it represented the death of the medium. History has vindicated the greatness of an album that changed the very language used to talk about music.