22 August 2012 **** Front Page

When Miles Davis changed music and culture

By Tapani Lausti

Richard Williams, The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music. Faber and Faber 2009.

Richard Williams's interesting book revives very personal musical memories. I first heard Miles Davis's Kind of Blue in mid-sixties, a few years after its issue in 1959. It certainly made a strong impression, but since I had been hugely impressed by the Miles Davis Quintet recordings of 1956, the impact was perhaps less than one might expect. Alongside with Charlie Parker's records and Sonny Stitt's New York Jazz, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet revolutionized my appreciation of music. I kept listening to these records in awe of every solo, every note and every phrase.

I might apply Williams's suggestion of the meaning of Kind of Blue to my own earlier reactions: “It was as if Miles Davis had tapped into something more profound than a taste for a particular set of musical sounds: he had uncovered a desire to change the scenery of life.”

I do agree with Williams's comment on Kind of Blue “… that there had never been anything that so carefully and single-mindedly cultivated an atmosphere of reflection and introspection, to such a degree that the mood itself became an art object.” And also “… in its ability to combine complexity of content with a powerful sense of ambiance, it has become one of the most influential albums of our time.” (p. 2)

I had never thought of it or known about it but Williams explains how the German musician Manfred Eicher launched his label ECM after having been inspired by Davis's album. Indeed, the music on ECM albums echoed Davis's idea that less notes have a more intense effect. Or, as Williams puts it: “… never needing to raise its voice to make itself heard but speaking more clearly as the years go by.” (p. 12)

There is no doubt that Kind of Blue was an important step in turning jazz from entertainment into art, and saying this in no way dismisses earlier jazz music's artistic values. It is also true that already in the fifties jazz clubs around the world had started to have less dancing. Listening became more concentrated. A certain cultural atmosphere formed around this listening experience. Its distance from mainstream culture was not expressed as aggressively as the case came to be with rock culture in the 1960s and 1970s. For me jazz was the epitome of the modern era and its freedom of improvisation not only a source of great joy but also a symbol of a more free attitude to life in general.

Williams writes about this change in jazz emphasizing how for instance the difference between Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's music demonstrated “the breadth of possibilities that had been revealed.” (p. 39) Already the 1956 quintet recordings had intrigued me by its tension of styles (I know this has been pointed out often): A trumpeter playing fewer notes than was common among trumpeters of the day, a saxophonist (Coltrane) accused of playing too many notes, a pianist (Red Garland) whom some people mistakenly heard only as a cocktail bar pianist and a drummer (Philly Joe Jones) who some people accused of being too loud. For me, the combination was an explosive experience.

But already earlier an important event in jazz history took place when Miles Davis met the arranger Gil Evans. Evans wanted to make an arrangement for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra of “Donna Lee” of which Davis was the chief composer. Davis agreed to this but only if Evans gave him a copy of his arrangement of “Robin's Nest” for the Thornhill orchestra. Davis was clearly aware of Thornhill and Evans's modern touch. Evans and Davis began to spend time together, talk about and listen to music, classical included. Together they found exciting ways to go beyond some of the more staid aspects of bebop. This culminated in 1948 to the performance of the Miles Davis Nonet on Broadway. Count Basie was there every evening and liked the music. He described it as “slow and strange”. The album that followed was called Birth of the Cool.

The story then comes to the quintet of 1956. Davis had had doubts about Coltrane but the band turned out to be so good that even Davis himself described the music as unbelievable. He said that the music used to send chills through him at night, adding that “it did the same things to the audience, too.” (p. 63) This was my own reaction as a teenager sitting in front of my record player.

Davis's combos were amazing in the quality of the musicians involved. By Kind of Blue the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley had been added to the frontline, Garland had been replaced by Bill Evans (on one track by Wynton Kelly) and Jones by Jimmy Cobb. The superb bassist Paul Chambers was still there. And later, in the 60s there was the Second Great Quartet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The later fusion bands had many other great musicians in them.

Williams writes lucidly about many other important moments in Davis's career, like the album Miles Ahead, music score for Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud, the collaboration with Gil Evans on Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.

Williams also expands the tale of Davis's influence outside jazz proper. Many parts of the book chart the way Kind of Blue inspired an amazing number of experimental and avant-garde musicians. It is a musical world largely outside my own experience but as cultural history it makes fascinating reading. From this book you learn a lot about music, art and culture.

Let this quote from the English experimentalist Brian Eno sum up Davis's role in music and culture: “Miles Davis hasn't remained popular so many years only because he made great music; it's because he has a cultural position, and you get all that with it.” (p. 246)


Visit the archive: Music

See also: Jazz CDs


[home] [archive] [focus]

Site Meter