Miles Davis summed up a time and he summed up a music

Carl Schoettler

October 01, 1991|By Carl Schoettler

DURING the long weekend of mourning for Miles Davis, somebody said it had seemed like Miles would be here forever.

Well, of course, he will be.

Miles played trumpet solos that made you bleed from the heart. He made you swing and he made you think and he made you weep.

But he rarely made you laugh. His mood, his mode, was melancholia. His tone was mournful. His time was 'round midnight and those bleak hours into the dawn when you run out of everything you need and there's no place to get it.

Miles played as if death waited in some empty room down the hall. His music had a fateful quality. He found meaning in silence.

Listen to "Sketches of Spain." Miles captures the duende --the passion for love and death -- of the bull ring with an emotional impact more like Garcia Lorca than Ernest Hemingway.

His playing of Thelonius Monk's "'Round Midnight" is something like the perfect jazz solo. As do Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines on "Weatherbird" a quarter century earlier, Miles sums up a time and a music. He distills the essence from Monk's tune, already a model of spare economy. And like Louie, Miles would influence everyone who came after him.

Miles played "'Round Midnight" with John Coltrane in the middle '50s in the quintet that was one of the finest small groups in the history of jazz, in the history of music. Philly Joe Jones played drums, Paul Chambers bass and Red Garland piano.

I used to listen to Miles in those days at a place called the Showboat in Philadelphia. Philly was a good jazz town then. zTC There were lots of places to listen to the music. And everybody came through, from Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus.

The Showboat was a narrow little basement joint where the band played in the middle of the bar. You never were more than 10 feet from the musicians, and you could sit all night on a dollar beer.

I didn't know I was watching an icon of contemporary culture. I loved the band. I thought the Miles Davis Quintet was as good as any jazz group ever. And they were -- comparable to Louis Armstrong's Hot Five.

Paul Chambers died young, dead of the jazz life, as they say of Miles. They're all dead now, except for Red Garland. With the death of Miles a generation can feel its own mortality.

Miles was as protean a figure in modern jazz as Picasso was in modern art. Like Picasso, his one constant was change. He stayed on the edge for nearly 40 years, from Charlie Parker to Prince.

He played bebop with Parker in 1945, announced the birth of the cool with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan in 1949, put together the classic quintet in the '50s, added Cannonball Adderly to make it a sextet toward the end of the decade.

Miles assembled another fine quintet in the early '60s with drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter, and a little later brought in Chick Corea, on piano, and Dave Holland, on bass.

They explored a percussive, "modal" music that abandoned the chord-based improvisation of bop and hard bop. And they produced such lovely records as "Nefertiti" and "Filles De Kilimanjaro."

At the end of the '60s and through the '70s Miles began using rock rhythms and electronic instruments in "fusion" bands, with musicians like Shorter, John McLaughlin, the guitar player, and Corea and Joe Zawinul, both playing electric keyboards.

He made "Bitches' Brew," probably his best-selling record, with his electronic jazz-rock band. After a hiatus brought on by a car accident that broke both legs, and heavy drug addiction in the late '70s, Miles returned with another electric jazz rock band, oriented more than ever toward pop music. He declared himself a great admirer of James Brown and Prince.

But he brushed all his music with lyrical sadness. He played up-tempo tunes such as Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and ballads like the Rodgers and Hart standard "My Funny Valentine" with the same elegiacal tone. Kind of blue was his trademark.

Miles remained, for his generation, and virtually up to his death Saturday, the essence of hip, the definition of cool, from the way he played to the way he dressed to the way he kept time with his foot -- with his heel not his toe. It was hipper, he said.

He sometimes said he didn't like his music called jazz; the word was a "white" invention. "We play black," he'd say.

But that "we" included some fine white musicians, notably Bill Evans, who may have been Miles' favorite pianist. And he never played better than when Gil Evans was his arranger, as on "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess," "Sketches of Spain" and, of course, some of the pieces on "Birth of the Cool."

Miles had the hard, angular face of a warrior, black and handsome, his skin pulled thin and tight over his skull as if his head had been sculpted by the greatest of Ashanti goldsmiths.

He did do a lot of boxing; people were always worrying he'd bust his lip and end his career. And he played wonderfully on "A Tribute to Jack Johnson," the heavyweight champion with whom he seemed to find a strong identity.

The first generation of bebop musicians began to assert their right to have their music treated as art. Miles demanded that recognition. He had the arrogance of genius.

It's hard to think of him dead. It did seem as if he'd be here forever, plunging on toward some new uncharted tomorrow.

Carl Schoettler is a writer for The Evening Sun.

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