Miles is Dead


October 02, 1991|By JAMES D. DILTS

An era in American music has died with Miles Davis. He didn'tinvent modern jazz, but he was there at the beginning and by the end of a long and brilliant career, he had come to symbolize it.

Miles succeeded through a combination -- virtually unique among jazzmen -- of talent, careerism, longevity and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. And yet the beautiful trumpet player was a flawed human being.

Miles had a diabolical personality. Some of his admirers in print, and there were many, attributed it to shyness, but he possessed a monumental ego and a hostile and arrogant persona.

This too was calculated; it worked for a quite a while. However, it also contributed to the critical reappraisal that began some time before his death. A performer can only turn his back on the audience so many times before people begin to respond in kind.

Of the authenticity of his musical contribution there is no question. There he is in the photographs taken 40 years ago, onstage on 52nd Street next to Charlie Parker while the American popular song is being reduced to its basic elements and re-created anew -- and beautifully -- every night. The ferment and excitement in the New York clubs at that time must have been tremendous, like Florence in the 15th century when Uccello and his cohorts were inventing perspective and didn't want to eat, sleep or make love -- all they wanted to do was paint!

I discovered Miles Davis in the erly 1950s when my brother-in-law gave me the most important record I ever got; a Blue Note 10-inch LP with Jay Jay Johnson, Jimmy Heath and Art Blakey. ''These guys sit up in lofts in Harlem in their undershirts and play this stuff,'' he explained.

I put the record on and immediately took it off. It was startling, frightening really, to someone whose greatest adventures in listening to that point had consisted of big bands and the Benny Goodman quartet.

But by the time I finished high school in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, I had linked up with others more astute. Together we tried to understand the music. ''Why don't you listen to Louis Armstrong?'' my parents would say. Armstrong then had a television show on which he clowned and waved his handkerchief.

But as Johnny Otis put it, ''Every generation rejects the music of its elders.'' We thought Miles was the hippest human being on the planet. It was not until years later that I had the vaguest notion of the depth and force of Armstrong's contribution.

Miles deliberately established his stage behavior as the antithesis of Armstrong's. If Armstrong was ingratiating, Miles would be cold and aloof; his music would succeed in spite of his demeanor, and it did. He decided to develop his own sound, playing with no vibrato to distinguish himself from other trumpeters.

In the mid-Fifties, he assembled the famous quintet. The results, on record and in person, were transcendent. If the leader was in one of his moods and walked off the stage at Birdland to sit with his friends at a table, who cared -- the finest jazz musicians in the country were still at work.

John Coltrane, a god to us, was just beginning his harmonic explorations, (''John, do you have to play all the notes,'' Miles once asked plaintively), Red Garland's piano solos rolled on like rivers, Philly Joe Jones sounded like no other drummer in America, and Paul Chambers, the bass player, was the epitome of intelligent and supportive accompaniment. Their ensemble playing equaled their individual capabilities.

There were the legendary recording sessions when Miles asked Thelonious Monk to lay out during his solo, thereby eliciting, when it finally came Monk's turn to play, some of the most remarkable condensed improvisational phrasing in all of recorded jazz.

There were the experiments with chamber jazz orchestra and Gil Evans' arrangements: ''Sketches of Spain,'' and ''Porgy and Bess,'' in which Miles perfected his mournful, haunting tone.

There he was again in 1958 in Paris in Louis Malle's first feature film, ''Elevator to the Gallows,'' with Jeanne Moreau, his muted horn nervously skittering along on the soundtrack.

The bands of the next decade with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Wlliams were almost as rewarding. If the subsequent extensions into fusion and rock dead-ended, so what? Something as original as modern jazz is only invented once; after that it's just tinkering and perfecting, and one must admire Miles' dogged determination never to play anything he had ever played before.

Meanwhile, there were the put-downs: of West Coast jazz as effete and over-arranged, an attitude the New York critics were only to happy to indulge him in and which is now undergoing serious revision; of fellow musicians, (Freddie Hubbard, ''ain't got no talent and no ideas,'' Miles pronounced in his guttural voice); of admirers in general, black and white, cruelly and gratuitously.

Of rivals there were few. Clifford Brown, Miles' superior in technique and conception, died in a car accident at age 25 in 1956. Chet Baker, who possessed great talent and almost none of the self-discipline needed to fashion a successful musical career, but then proceeded to do so almost by accident, nevertheless largely self-destructed.

That left Miles who has now left us -- with very conflicting thoughts.

James D. Dilts is a former Sun reporter who has written about jazz.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.