Jazz week: trumpet. Day 4, Miles Davis

January 13, 2011 • 7:09 am

For someone who heavily abused his body with drugs, trumpeter Miles Davis lived an extraordinarily long life (1926-1991).  His inclusion rounds out the four periods of jazz (early, swing, bebop, cool) that I wanted to cover. (Tomorrow is a surprise trumpeter.)  Commenters yesterday pointed out that while not as technically proficient as Gillespie, Davis was nonetheless at least as musically creative.  I must say, though, that I have little use for the later Davis with his strange getups and psychedelicized music.

Fronting several small groups, and producing, to my mind, three classic albums (Kind of Blue—the best selling jazz album of all time and the only jazz album I know of certified as a “national treasure” by Congress—Sketches of Spain, and Porgy and Bess), Davis pioneered the slower and less pyrotechnic, but equally satisfying, genre of “cool jazz”.  To me it’s best exemplified by this song, Boplicity, from his album Birth of the Cool (1957).  It was written with the help of arranger Gil Evans, who was largely responsible for the sound of cool jazz.

The music of Miles Davis is the only jazz I consider suitable as “make-out” music. It’s slow, often romantic, and tinged with sadness.  (The absolute best make-out album in jazz, however, is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a lovely collection of ballads for sax and vocal. Listen here and then buy it.)

The album Kind of Blue (1959) contained the track So What.  I couldn’t resist putting putting up the YouTube version in which Davis plays with John Coltrane.  Much early jazz was not captured on film, largely because it featured black people, but by this time there were more film clips showing the greats blowing.  The YouTube notes say this about the video:

Recorded by CBS producer Robert Herridge. Cannonball Adderley had a migraine  and was absent from the session. Wynton Kelly played piano–he was the regular band member at this time–but Bill Evans had played on the original recording of “So What” on March 2, 1959. The other musicians seen in the film were part of the Gil Evans Orchestra, who performed selections from “Miles Ahead.”  Jimmy Cobb on drums.

You can hear the original version from the album here.

In 1958 Davis released Porgy and Bess, an album of songs from Gershwin’s musical.  Also produced with Gil Evans, it’s one of my favorite albums, and achieved great commercial success.   Here’s the most famous cut from that album, Summertime:

34 thoughts on “Jazz week: trumpet. Day 4, Miles Davis

  1. Like many, I discovered jazz just by buying all the work created by everyone involved with Kind of Blue.

    I love the story in Kind of Blue‘s liner notes how generations of musicians tried unsuccessfully to recreate this sound—they were always a little off. The studio discovered a flaw in one of taping/mastering processes that created a fractional shift in the notes.

    A good companion to Sketches of Spain‘s Concierto de Aranjuez is Segovia’s guitar version.

    Mercifully for us, you opted not to post about Miles’s later jazz fusion.

    1. I would recommend Paco de Lucia’s performance of Concierto to Segovia. Rodrigo stated shortly before he died that he preferred Lucia’s interpretation, and it’s interesting to hear a flamenco’s playing of the concierto.

      I also mostly agree about Miles’ later stuff, but I have to endorse his live album “Live around the world” as well as the studio album “Aura.” Those two make up for “Tutu.”

  2. Kind of Blue is a must have, but I really like Bitches Brew and that genre.

    The music of Miles Davis is the only jazz I consider suitable as “make-out” music. It’s slow, often romantic, and tinged with sadness. (The absolute best make-out album in jazz, however, is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a lovely collection of ballads for sax and vocal.)

    Coyne After Dark.

  3. Davis was MORE creative than Gillespie. From about 1955 onward he was THE leader of contemporary jazz, pioneering new styles about every five years.

    The 60’s quintet is what many consider the pinnacle of acoustic jazz. Get all the albums of this great band, you won’t be dissapointed.
    At the end of the sixties into the seventies he birthed the fusion movement with a series of albums: Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live Evil.
    His 70’s work is as good as anything he ever did.
    His 80’s output is ‘meh’ but not bad. I think it was just that Miles rolled with the times and unfortunatly the 80’s was dominated by bad synths and now severely dated sounds.

    Miles key to success was he always surrounded himself with the best available players in every decade and in my degree-in-jazz-performance opinion he was the easily the greatest figure in 20th century music. Yes.

    Don’t stop at Kind of Blue! Keep going!

    1. I have to agree there. What stands out to me is how many different jazz greats were birthed either directly or indirectly from Miles. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter & Joe Zawinul (though those two get their lineage from Cannonball and Blakey, respectively).

      From his 80s output, I still have a soft spot for “Decoy” and “Star People” – and with the exception of the cheesy Michael Jackson shit, “You’re Under Arrest”. Some amazing pyrotechnics from John Scofield on the title cut of that album.

      Tutu was a clear disgrace, though. Although to be fair, it really is a Marcus Miller album (who wrote and produced all that repetitive crap). Amandla’s pretty “meh”, as well… but not nearly as rancid as Tutu. There’s also some movie soundtrack album that’s really sterile and atrocious – made about when he died.

      For me, the later Miles is still fine brew. It’s like being cool with English IPAs AND Stouts AND Porters AND Belgian styles, etc. If you only get into one style or period of music, you’re willfully cutting yourself off from a lot of cool experience.

      My peer group in college however, were steadfastly sucking down the Stroh’s, Miller and the Bud Light. (The Who, Stones, Roxy Music etc.) It’s only when stuff gets that stupid and bland that I can’t understand wanting to continue to partake.

      1. I found both Tutu and Amandla perfect breakouts from the steady jazz-fusion scene, jumping the cheese and continuing the cool. For what the music was meant to be, it was perfect, and it certainly introduced a lot of hipsters to real music. Miles’ music was always like that, though, to me; with every listen to it you get a yearning for more of the real music underneath.

        Btw, the soundtrack was to the amazingly under-appreciated movie “Siesta.” It wasn’t *that* bad music in itself, some of the tunes in fact quite wonderful, but it was another Marcus Miller venture and suffered from the simplistic textures and drive and from the fact that it was meant for movie and hence not that focused on melody and progression.

        Sketches of Spain will probably forever be my favorite, right after Bitches Brew.

        Btw, I would love it if the suprise blower next week was Chet Baker, one of my all-time favorites, a sound quite unique and mellow. Unless, of course Mr Coyne is going to pull a complete whammy on us and do Tomasz Stanko or Marsailles. 🙂

        1. I second Stanko, who, perhaps, is even more creative than Miles (perhaps!)

          Meanwhile, early Roxy Music: bland????

          1. About the only rock that isn’t (to my ears) is Zep, Rush, and Jimi Hendrix. (I cannot categorize Zappa as “rock” even though he did, and have the same difficulty with Jeff Beck, SRV, Steve Morse…)

            And had Jimi lived, there would have been a collaboration between Jimi and Miles. The date was set. As Miles’ said in his autobio: “everybody knows you don’t mix barbs and alcohol.”

            So yeah… I don’t care if they put an oboe in a rock group, or gave Eddie Jobson a job, or what they were WEARING — it’s the musical structure – the composition, that makes Roxy (and just about any other pop) bland as hell to my ears. I find that, with the above exceptions, as the music gets more interesting, it gets less popular and more proggy (e.g. Tull, UK, etc.).

            It’s one of the pitfalls of being a musician, I think. I’m not alone in this — all the good ones I know become opinionated along the lines of demanding less repetition, more rich chord progressions, and wilder time structures. 4/4 120bpm I-IV-V progressions only get you so far.

            1. I am continually amazed by the popularity of bands/artists who almost never break out of simple diatonic harmony.(ie-all the chords/notes fit in the home key) 90%of Beatles songs have at least one chord that doesn’t fit or a modulation.(Secondary dominants/borrowed chords/pivot chords)
              I think people go by the WORDS in pop music, less so than the music.
              I guess some artists get so stuck in this diatonic rut that they hear any accidentals or modulations as ‘wrong’. Sad, really.

              1. That’s why one rarely hears any bands doing Beatles covers. (and why all cover bands have half of their repertoire be Stones tunes).

  4. Spoiler alert !

    Jerry’s surprise for Day 5 of Jazz week begins with a B and ends in aker.

    It has to be.

    His near-eponymous album ‘Mr. B’ is as cool and hauntingly beautiful as Jazz trumpet playing gets.

    PS. And it’s excellent make-out music.

      1. Ha!

        Thanks for the hat tip, but I’m not fit to oil Miles’s valves.

        Besides, I’m almost strictly a legit player. I’ve had fun playing in some big bands over they years, and a lot of fun playing in theater pits, but I never quite stopped sounding like the straight white guy. That, and I can’t improvise to save my life.

        On the subject of Miles…I think I wore out Dad’s LP of Sketches of Spain when I was growing up.

        I…the man was brilliant, without equal. Let’s just leave it at that.



  5. Funny people mentioning Kind of Blue. I just got a new MP3 player that came with a free-downloads coupon. So last night I drove my browser to the online store and, deciding I should get some jazz (which I like, but unaccountably have very little of), picked that album more or less at random.

    Currently playing: “Stella By Starlight”.

        1. doesn’t it give the name of the performers? or is a compilation album? regardless, if you haven’t heard it, I’d recommend keith jarrett’s version from his recent release “yesterdays,” as well as jim hall’s from the album “jazz guitar.” It’s interesting to see how different musicians approach tunes, especially old standards like Stella, which is probably my favorite ballad (next to blue in green).

          1. If there are album notes somewhere in this download, I haven’t found them yet (this is, in fact, the first time I’ve downloaded instead of ripping from CD). FWIW, this album was subtitled “Legacy Edition”, so may not have the same tracks as whatever vinyl may be out there.

  6. One other point, about heavily abusing his body with drugs — he got the monkey off his back early. I think he was off heroin before the 70s hit. According to his autobiography, he had his dad bring him groceries for about two weeks when Miles went cold turkey.

    Willpower was a big thing with Miles. He considered fat people to be weaklings who didn’t have the willpower he had (he was a bit of a prick that way). Try looking for fat people in any of the bands he put together. Instead, he kept the pounds off – and when he wasn’t glued to the TV watching people pummel each other in the boxing ring, he was smacking a punching bag and otherwise staying in shape.

    That he lived long was not surprising to me. He wasn’t a heavy drinker, and he lost the heroin habit early (which is more of a maintenance drug, anyway). Most of the jazzers that died early were not only heroin addicts, but were also heavy drinkers (esp. when there was no heroin).

    1. What about Cannonball Adderly.
      I don’t think he cared what you looked like if you could play like he wanted.

      And yes, in his late 60’s early 70’s period he was Clean, eating vegetarian, and exercising. He then started using coke and his long weekend 75-80 hiatus was basically a coke and sex binge. He never touched his horn in those years, apparently.

      1. Right. I didn’t know he was doing blow during those years. That detail must’ve slipped me. Lucky he didn’t have a coronary then.

        True about Cannonball. Plumb forgot about him. I know the biggest thing MD ever cared about was whether the person in the band could play their ass off. And wow, could Cannonball ever. I was lucky to have seen him in concert around ’74… the first big-name concert I attended. Concerts were few and far between in Anchorage AK back then.

  7. Greatest musician of the 20th Century IMO.
    But ‘KoB’ was him just getting started.
    One of his best bands (the “Lost Quintet” of 1969) never even recorded.

    Open your ears to the electric stuff; it was always Miles playing exactly what he wanted to play.

  8. Know less than nothing about jazz.

    I have this album, Miles Davis, Some Kind of Blue. Completely worn out now.

    I’ve used this album when I was waxing floors, wrapping presents. Making love. Any of these count?

  9. Kind of Blue, in my opinion, could make a runt for the Greatest Album of All Time.

    Miles isn’t necessarily my favorite musician; some sax player would get that honor (or possibly Bill Evans), but Kind of Blue has a transcendent perfection that no other album i’ve ever heard has.

    Time and place, and group of musicians all at the top of their games, and the dawn of a new musical era; some albums happen in some way that no one could ever predict. It’s one of those albums.

  10. What totally amazes me is that Davis, Coltrane, Monk etc. were playing to these small audiences and had only a cult following, now they are the Kings of Jazz. Go into any record store or online and now they have 50 or more albums for sale. I wish I had been alive in those days to see these greats the Village Vangaurd or another small club.

  11. Jerry,check Peter Ind.He is british jazz bassist.He has played with Miles Davis,and Billie Holiday,among other.He recorded an album while he was living at Goat House near Big Sur(when I was 11).I actually took lessons from him.No jazz career resulted however.Alas

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