When jazz legend Miles Davis died Saturday after a stroke suffered in a Santa Monica, Calif. hospital, virtually every obituary said the same thing of the 65-year old trumpeter: that he was an original, an innovator, a trendsetter. And, of course, he was.
But in the hype-strewn morass of American media culture, such praise comes cheap. Anyone can be an "innovator," from mall developers to shoe designers, and as such, the obits may have given the wrong impression of why Davis mattered.
Because Miles Davis wasn't just an innovator -- he was one of the two or three most important musicians jazz has ever seen.
Only Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker can be said to loom as large in jazz history, and even their achievements don't quite have the resonance of Davis'. Admittedly, that's saying a lot, since Armstrong pretty much invented jazz improvisation while Parker pioneered bebop, achievements in music akin to Newton's discovery of gravity and Einstein's theory of relativity.
But Davis, though responsible for breakthroughs of his own, did something the others didn't: He kept on pushing his music, as if in constant search of newer and brighter frontiers.
He made his first big noise in 1949, as a 22-year old veteran of the Charlie Parker quintet who turned bebop on its head with the sessions that became "Birth of the Cool." He did it again a decade later, with the modal improvisations of "Kind of Blue," and several times in the '60s, as he incorporated electronic instruments and rock rhythms on "In a Silent Way" and the best-selling "Bitches Brew."
And each brought with it new possibilities, and new acolytes to pursue them.
Cool jazz, for instance, pulled away from bebop's frenetic
virtuosity to stress a more lyrical approach, and paved the way for jazzmen like Chet Baker, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. "Kind of Blue" changed the language of jazz improvisation and opened the door to the extended experiments of saxophonist John Coltrane. And Davis' mid-60s quintet, which included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, stands as the blueprint for the neo-traditional jazz of Wynton Marsalis and his followers.
To list all the noteworthy soloists who had been inspired or employed by Davis over the years would fill this column to overflowing. His influence on jazz fusion alone is incalculable; without him, there likely would have been no Mahavishnu Orchestra, no Weather Report and no Headhunters, for all were spin-offs of his electric jazz bands. Even Madonna can claim a debt, since Reggie Lucas, who produced her debut, was a Davis sideman in the '70s.
Yet none of that can begin to describe the beauty and power o his playing. Saying that Davis pioneered this form or developed that idea may look impressive in the history books, but it does nothing to describe the melancholy of his tone on " 'Round Midnight," the ineffable cool of his solo on "So What," or the plangent urgency of "Petits Machins."
His sound was so vivid and his output so varied that capturing its essence in print is all but impossible. A far better approach would be to do what I've done for the last two decades: listen. Get one of his albums out -- buy or borrow one if you have to -- and hear for yourself what made his music matter.
Because if you have any feeling at all for American music, you'll be the richer for it.