Miles Davis is one of the great musical figures in twentieth century. His contributions to the field of jazz are immeasurable and he is remembered as both an innovator and popularizer of the music, always pushing the status quo of the genre in inventive, often difficult new directions. Here are five reasons to love the music of Miles Davis.
1. He was cool:
Miles was famous (and sometimes infamous) not only for his music but for his personality. He spoke in a rough husky whisper. He was handsome and good with women. He smoked, wore expensive Italian suits and drove European sports cars. He was an amateur boxer. He never took any shit from anybody, had a habit of playing with his back facing the audience, and walking off stage when other musicians were soloing. All this created a mystique around miles, a certain cool quality which many wished to imitate and did.
None of this is to say that Miles didn’t have a dark side. He could be intimidating, abusive, even frightening. He had a bad reputation for mistreating women, being rude to fans and other musicians, even stealing musicians from other bands. Nonetheless, Miles created a certain air around himself, somewhat constructed somewhat real, which made him even more notorious and popular than he was merely for his playing.
2. He was an innovator:
Miles’ music was seen as revolutionary during his lifetime and he invented several genres of jazz, redefining the musical vocabulary and moving the form in new and interesting directions. This started with his 1949 album Birth of the Cool. Miles had been involved in the bebop scene of the 1940’s, a relatively new style of jazz which had replaced the pop tunes of the swing era with fast, abrasive, and aggressive new sounds. Miles played in bebop bands, including that of Charlie Parker, the figure credited along with Dizzy Gillespie with the invention of the style.
Miles Playing with Charlie Parker:
Birth of the Cool turned bebop on its head. Instead of bebop’s fast chaotic rhythms, he focused on melody and combined the slower pace, pop sensibility, orchestration of swing with bebop’s sounds, textures, and style of improvisation. The result was a whole new genre dubbed ‘Cool Jazz’ that would become particularly popular during the 1950’s. Artists, especially on the West Coast such as Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Chet Baker molded the sound into an even more popular form.
Twenty years later, in 1969, Miles would again begin the process of inventing another genre. He became particularly influenced by the rock music that was taking the place of jazz as the popular musical form. He particularly loved the sounds of the hard driving guitar of Jimi Hendrix and the soulfulness of Sly and the Family Stone.
He decided to combine the electronic instrumentation and rock and roll back-beats these artists used with the free jazz and modal improvisation he had been experimenting with during that decade. The first major push in this direction was an album he entitled Bitches Brew. It remains one of the most controversial albums in jazz history but also one of the most popular.
The result was very different from his move to the popular and easily accessible cool jazz sound. It was difficult, meandering, hard to get ahold of. And it sounded like rock as much as it did jazz.
Some jazz musicians and critics see it as everything from a betrayal to a noble failure. Others saw it as revolutionary. Bands such as Oregon and Weather Report would go on to work with this new musical grammar, making it more accessible and rock artists like King Crimson and Frank Zappa soon infused the style into their sound. The musical style was soon dubbed ‘fusion’ and became immensely popular even in an era when jazz album sales were reaching their lowest point.
3. He gave the trumpet a new sound
One of the aspects of Miles’ playing that is remarked about most often is his distinctive sound. The tambour of his playing sounded like nobody else. Jazz trumpeters who came before him were indebted in many ways to the sound of Louis Armstrong and continued to imitate and build off of it. But this all changed with Miles. He was less interested in virtuosic playing than in creating mood and atmosphere with his sound.
Instead of the hot danceable quality of the Dixieland or swing, or the avant-garde pushing rhythms of the bebop players, his sound was cooler and mellower, though no less intense. Many trumpeters would incorporate Miles’ signature sound into their own playing.
4. He picked good people to work with:
Looking through the members of the various bands he put together, you can see some formidable names: Kenny Clark, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJonnette, Dave Holland, and John McLaughlin just to name a few. He created some legendary partnerships, advancing the career of many a young musician.
He also did great work with producers and arrangers. Gil Evans was the most notable. Evans was responsible for the sound of many of Miles’ most famous and beloved records such as Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. Evans was able to masterfully combine Miles’ signature sound with specific musical arrangements that both highlighted and perfectly complimented his sound.
5. He recorded the most popular jazz album of all time
Miles’ significance as a jazz musician and composer is more than just as an innovator. He was also a popularizer. In 1959, equidistant between his two most groundbreaking records, Birth of the Cool and Bitches Brew, Miles recorded the album by which most people know him, the best selling jazz album ever sold, Kind of Blue. The cool and relaxing feel of the record made it possible for Miles to reach across the chasm between jazz (which was quickly becoming a niche musical form) and popular music–while allowing it to remain completely and utterly a jazz record.
The album was notable for its musicians as much as for any of its tracks. Miles enlisted some of the foremost jazz musicians of all time for the record: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly. Especially notable is the work of saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans. Coltrane’s signature hard driving sax solos perfectly contrasted with the mellow melodic nature of Miles’ playing and the drawn out impressionistic piano chords of Evans, whose playing recalls the sound of Ravel or Debussy as much as any jazz pianist.
The album’s success, therefore, comes from a perfect balance of musical forms, gorgeous melodies, and masterful improvisation which combined to create one of the most important and classic albums in the history of music let alone jazz.
Kind of Blue is my favorite album as well and I think it goes a lot into illustrating what made Miles Davis and his music so popular, even twenty years after his death. It was cool, daring, unflinching, technically superb, and immensely moving, all the things that made Miles such a signature personality and musician.