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Marrying jazz to rock

Miles Davis was a great innovator and dared to break away from those who had revolutionised jazz to mean be-bop to come up with his own 'cool jazz'

Born in 1926, Miles Davis grew up on jazz in the time of its first flowering and greatest popularity, the swing age. By his teens, he had decided that his life lay in this art invented by African-Americans and 20th-century America's greatest contribution to music.

He came to New York around the age of 20 knowing that a great revolution was taking place in jazz with the development of be-bop. Jazz was becoming much more a mode of self-expression, an assertion of freedom, than a popular art form. He wanted a piece of the action. He hung around with the inventors of be-bop, the alto saxophonist Charlie (``Bird'') Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. As a trumpeter, he had studied Dizzy's work and taken him for his mentor.

Miles got his chance when the temperamental and difficult Bird, having quarrelled with all his old buddies, needed a trumpeter to play alongside him in place of Dizzy. In the late '40s, Miles was the trumpeter who accompanied Bird most frequently and established himself by contributing distinctive solos to some of the quintessential be-bop recordings and radio broadcasts of the time.

By the early '50s, he had struck out on his own, having tired of playing sidekick to a moody, misanthropic man whose genius was not enough compensation for the environment he carried around. Miles was also ready for a musical change, the first of several that would mark his career out as a constant innovator. He got together with some like-minded musicians, mostly from the West Coast, who were a little tired of the hectic, fast-paced and big jumps from note to note that characterised be-bop. They were all working on a more relaxed approach, something that sounded easy-going: ``cool jazz''. His first declaration of this credo was embodied in The birth of the cool.

By the mid-50s he had followed up with another innovation, modal music, in A kind of blue. This was music without the three- (or four-)note background harmony (or ``chords'') that Western music is grounded in. It too made for a relaxed effect, as did Miles's reduced emphasis on improvised solos in his work.

His move away from improvisation, which be-bop had helped to establish as the defining characteristic of jazz, was accentuated by such devices as the occasional use of extra big bands executing elaborate arrangements in which most of the musicians played ensemble in the background, with Miles on muted trumpet leading them. Prime examples of this are Miles ahead and Porgy and Bess.

Miles had in the '50s started assembling groups in which the other musicians were younger than him or not yet so famous, such as the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He continued into the '60s with still younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) and Herbie Hancock (piano). He was getting quite eclectic in his work, dipping into various styles he had been associated with, and he was ready for the next big change.

The story goes that he once went into a night-club where his old buddy Coltrane was performing. 'Trane had branched out into a very intense, free-form sort of music marked by an inner drive and energy that paid little attention to the world outside. His audience that night: three persons who must have had a high degree of dedication. Miles said he couldn't think of playing to an audience that almost didn't exist. He got together with another band of young musicians and came up at the turn of the '70s with jazz-rock fusion. It was a logical move for someone for whom money and the size of the audience was at least as important as the music. It was controversial at the time because in terms of the development of the art form that is jazz, jazz-rock clearly signified a step backward: there is less virtuosity in it. The marketing motivation was also suspect. But Miles's own trumpet-playing, as well as that of many of his associates in jazz-rock, did deliver both virtuosity and pleasing, even soothing, melodies, with very little of the loudness that goes hand in hand with rock. He in fact continued with his trade-mark phrasing, timing long notes and pauses between them to perfection.

Although Miles continued till his death in 1991 to experiment with marrying jazz to rock and other forms of popular music such as hip-hop, he did get together with some old and new colleagues at Montreux in Switzerland in July 1991 to recreate numbers from his old classic recordings of Porgy and Bess and Miles ahead. Miles Davis and Quincy Jones live in Montreux is, for me, a modern classic.


For a review of Love Songs from Miles Davis click here

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