Birthing The Cool: The Times and Tunes of Miles Davis
Miles Davis painted in music like others painted in fine oils. His brushstrokes cut through the air in brilliant colors and textures, never too coarse or to delicate. His canvasses were the soundscapes of Jazz; he never had enough room to finish the picture, so he’d build a bigger canvas. Davis was the greatest Jazz innovator of the last half of the 20th century. He honed the art of improvisation and inspired new artists from all sides of the musical spectrum. From his early days beboping with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, to inspiring 60s jam bands with Bitches Brew, Miles Davis was always looking for a new way to play.
Miles was born into a middle-class family and raised in East St. Louis, Ill. His father was a successful dentist and his mother was a music teacher. At an early age, he became interested in trumpet, and was taking lessons by the time he was 12. By high school he was playing in Eddie Randall’s Blue Devils, but everything changed when he was 18. Billy Eckstein had brought his band to town for a two-week residency; this is where Miles first met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They needed a replacement for a trumpeter that had been sick, so they called in Miles. After high school, he enrolled at Julliard, but after one semester he quit, in order to join Billy’s band on a permanent basis.
He played in several bands throughout the late 40s, but spent a lot of time playing around and with Charlie and Dizzy. Bebop was the latest step taken in the path of Jazz, with Charlie and Dizzy leading the march. Characterized by rapid and expansive improvisation, bebop took over in the place of big band swing. Davis fought to create the same sounds as Gillespie, but he could never get it right. He was a mellow player; he didn’t have that manic edge to propel the music. His was a graceful, “cool” play.
1949 saw Davis come into his own as both player and creator. He put together a nine-piece band (“nonet”), and cut a series of sessions between 1949 and 1950 later known as The Birth Of The Cool. The essence of bop was washed over by a cooling balm of lyricism. The drive was all there, but Davis figured out how to reign it in. His was not a style of simplicity or meekness, but of emotional space. He gave his music room to move around, room to take breaths and speak out. These sessions were released as singles over the next few years and weren’t released as a full album until 1957. “Cool Jazz” was the first of many accomplishments accredited to Davis.
Miles was known for putting bands of unknowns together, building them up for a few years and then having them go onto successful solo careers. His nonet consisted of Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Max Roach and composer Gil Evans, who would be partnered with Miles on many of his most successful creations. Evans was the classical structure beneath Davis’ improvisational conversing. They worked on projects like Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead and Quiet Nights.
Throughout the mid 1950s and into the 60s, Miles’ style changed often. He put together a new quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones and an up-and-coming saxophonist named John Coltrane. From the bluesy feel of Walkin’ to the hard bop of ‘Round About Midnight and the flamenco dance of Sketches of Spain, Davis was always at the forefront, leading the charge.
By 1959, he had moved away from chordal playing and was basing his tunes off of scale progressions. Kind of Blue is where this technique came to fruition. This became his best-selling album and what we come to associate with the quintessential Miles Davis. Again, punctuated by an immense amount of space, each note has a more prominent role. Each sound has a voice, and you wonder how he can go from one place to the next and keep it all in context. The only thing to accompany this with is a gin martini, extra dry, and a fine Cuban cigar.
He was always picking the finest musicians to work with and 1963 saw that happen once again with a new quintet. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams came together with Miles to craft what became Bitches’ Brew in 1968. With the addition of Joe Zawinul on keyboards, John McGloughlin on electric guitar and Jack DeJohnette on drums (replacement for Tony Williams) Davis had turned the corner into electrification. At this time his performances were becoming extended jam sessions that would blend elements of rock with the jazz he had so carefully crafted. While not going as far as “fusion jazz” it did inspire bands such as The Grateful Dead.
The 70s saw him dig deeper into the rock and funk grooves, while still keeping in the realm of jazz. His addictions got the better of him and by 1976 he dropped out of sight until 1981. He continued recording albums throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, collaborating with pop stars and even touching into the hip hop realm before his death in 1991.
Miles Davis not only expanded the boundaries of jazz, but he also helped refine what it was at its core. The different mediums, textures and sounds blended effortlessly with an unpredictable improvisational style continues to keep lovers and listeners alike on the edge of their seats. He was never satisfied with the status-quo. He summed it up best when he said “The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to find new ways to play.”
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You’re currently reading “Birthing The Cool: The Times and Tunes of Miles Davis,” an entry on Broken Radio
- February 22, 2010 / 12:00 pm
- Bebop, Billy Eckstein, Bitches Brew, Charlie Parker, Cool Jazz, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Zawinul, John Coltrane, John McGloughlin, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, Ron Carter, The Birth Of The Cool, The Grateful Dead, Tony Williams, Wayne SHorter