In jazz, one of the worst things that can be said of a soloist is that he or she "can't make the changes." Making the changes -- being able to follow the harmonic structure, or chord changes, of a composition -- is a basic element of improvisation, as essential to making musical sense as grammar and syntax are to speaking English.
Miles Davis, needless to say, never had any trouble making the changes; indeed, the late trumpeter knew more about harmony at age 22 than most jazz men learned in a lifetime.
But when critics talk about the changes he made, they mean changes of a different sort -- changes in style, in approach, in musical direction. One of the most chameleonic performers in jazz, Davis introduced more innovations than anyone in the music's history, from '50s cool to '60s modalism to '70s fusion. At times, it seemed as if change was the only real constant in his work.
But now that Davis is dead, there is no one in jazz willing and able -- or even interested -- to make those kinds of changes. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case, thanks to a generation of jazz men more interested in tradition (at least as they define it) than innovation.
Young soloists like Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Marcus Roberts and Courtney Pine have essentially turned their back on the future. Their music may be hailed as the new face of jazz, but its touchstones are all in the past -- the hard bop of Art Blakey's bands, the quirky chords of Thelonious Monk, the modal extrapolations of John Coltrane. Rather than pursue the directions suggested by Davis' later work, they've rejected it outright, as if such progressive notions were somehow inimical to the spirit of jazz.
Did modernism die with Miles Davis? And if so, is jazz the worse for it?
Frankly, the answer would seem to be yes to both questions -- but not for the reasons you might think.
To begin with, modernism was on the wane even before Davis died, particularly in jazz circles. Admittedly, there has always been a conservative element in the jazz audience; Louis Armstrong, for instance, once dismissed bebop as sounding like "Chinese music." When Davis started out, such stick-in-the-muds were derisively dismissed as "moldy figs," and though the slang would change as his career progressed, the reaction his music provoked did not.
"Bird used to play 40 different styles," Davis once said of Parker, his mentor in bebop. "He was never content to remain the same." And Davis took that lesson to heart.
xTC For the most part, though, the contention among jazz fans wasn't over whether or not the music should change -- only the truly crackpot ever argued that -- but how. In the '60s, there were those who felt the course to pursue was Coltrane's path of spiritual and harmonic exploration, and those who argued instead for Ornette Coleman and the absolute liberation of free jazz. Davis' fondness for rock rhythms and electronic instruments was but one of many aesthetic arguments.
But as the '70s segued into the '80s, each of these bold new approaches began to weaken and crumble. Coltrane was dead and his apostles had lost their way (or lost the faith); Coleman had retreated into his theory of harmelodics, a musical language so private and impenetrable that even his disciples had trouble using it once they left the fold; and free jazz had become an intellectual dead end, one more irrelevant aspect of the cacophony that was music's avant garde.
Only fusion remained, but without Davis to shepherd it -- he had been sidelined by medical problems in 1975, and didn't play again until 1981 -- it had degenerated into an excruciating cult of technique, full of brash young virtuosi with amazing instrumental abilities but absolutely nothing to say.
It was fusion, more than anything, that soured the younger jazz men on modernity. Wynton Marsalis, in particular, has bitterly derided fusion, saying in interviews that, "Fusion's not really jazz. It has elements of jazz, but it's not really jazz." And that may well be.
But leaving aside the issue of fusion's validity as jazz, let's look at what Marsalis would put in its place. Jazz is, as he sees it, not simply a traditional kind of music, but a music of traditions.
"Jazz has the African component," he said a year ago. "And the conception of African music is that the same music can get played for centuries, because it has a functional purpose. So jazz is designed to be repeated over and over and over again."
Marsalis' argument makes sense as an artistic philosophy, and sheds a lot of light on why his current recordings are so obsessed with standards, Southern culture and the blues. Moreover, there's quite a lot of truth to his belief that jazz cannot be learned from recordings, that it derives its strength and vitality from day-to-day culture.