Miles Davis is a legendary trumpet player, who is considered to be one of the most influential musicians of the XX century. He participated in the bop revolution (alongside with alto sax player Charlie Parker, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, piano player Thelonious Monk, drummer Max Roach, piano player Bud Powell, bass player Charlie Mingus and a number of others). During the so-called bop revolution, he could not boast of such an impeccable playing technique (such as, for instance, Gillespie), that is why he needed to shape his own unique performing style. This style, according to the critics, involved special attention to the tone color, building the musical phrases with a remarkable number of pauses and question-like intonations. The critics called his style “intimate”, “containing both the warmth and the power”.
Miles Davies also is a leader in the fields of bop; cool and modal jazz styles alienated many fans and critics when he ceased activity in previous styles to pioneer jazz-rock fusion in the late 1960s. Many saw this move as a commercial sell-out, but behind this problem lurked a larger debate about the future of jazz, the whiteness of rock and the race in general.
The contribution of Davies into bop started when he arrived to New York at the age of 19 and started playing with his idol, Charlie Parker. The playing style by Miles was a perfect match for the playing style of Parker because it provided vivid contrast between the two (Parker’s playing was more hectic and fast-paced, while Davies’ carried the placidity and swinging into the sound). Having recorded several albums with Parker, he organized in 1949 a musical band of his own (a nonet, consisting of nine people), which had a very unusual instrumental complex (including a tuba a French horn). With this band, a revolutionary album was released that had a “speaking” and very symbolical name – “The Birth of Cool”. The very idea of this album is in opposition to bop (the “hot”, energetic jazz). “Cool” jazz is characteristic for a more rational, more placid and “reasonable” improvisation style that required that musicians should approach the material with a leveled head and a calm attitude. All emotions characteristic for bop were “cooled down” and made less intense. Also, the “cool” style was heavily exposed to the influence of classical Western music in terms of composition and arrangements. This release influences the development of jazz in the future greatly. Immediately after that, musicians from the West Coast (primarily white people) displayed specific interest in this style and began to experiment within its frame.
Here, one should pay attention to the social element of this story. The thing is that the white musicians of the West Coast, having caught up and adopted the “cool” manner, started to earn impressive amounts of money on that and soon many of them made a real fortune. On the contrary, the black musicians of the East Coast, who knew they gave birth to the style, did not enjoy commercial success at all. Of course, they felt hurt and discriminated, and exploited by their counterparts and colleagues.
The next period opened for Miles Davies with a successful battle with his drug addiction problem. Having overcome it, he releases in mid-1950s a number of albums (four, to be specific – “Cooking” “Relaxing”, “Working”, and “Steaming”) for Prestige Records, which became the classics of jazz and a certain yardstick, a standard for the future generations of musicians. These albums were recorded with the most well-known and celebrated quintet (the so-called First Miles Davies Great quintet) consisting of John Coltrane (tenor sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chamber (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).
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The following revolutionary period was manifested by the record of 1959 of the “Kind of Blue” album. This album heralded the introduction of the “modal jazz” style in music. The band included John Coltrane (tenor sax), Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums) and Bill Evans (piano). The participation of Bill Evans illustrated a very important social tendency that influenced the musical community as well as all other American strata of that time – the racial inconsistencies. Black musicians were obviously not happy with the success of white ones (like Dave Brubeck) who took their achievements and made a huge success leaving the real authors behind. Therefore, the band (all of the members were black) was unhappy with Miles adding Bill Evans to the group. As a result, only one song was recorded with participation of Bill Evans, after that Miles Davies had to change him for a black piano player. This is an illustrative example of how the inequality, double standards and the glass ceiling effect in the industry of that time created a feeling of being left out for the black musicians. This helped shape an unhealthy situation when the musicians were sometimes assessed and chosen to work not only for their musical talents, but for their ethnic and race identities, too. Such attitude was demeaning and degrading and undermining the professional achievements of the musicians.
There were several reasons for this development step. First of all, many musicians of the bop era were tired of constantly working on complicated harmonic pirouettes and inventing increasingly complex decisions. Miles Davies turned his attention on the work by George Russell (a jazz theoretician) that was called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” and, while applying this new knowledge, he managed to break free from lots of harmonic phrases, clichés and melodic patterns. He was enabled to create a new, lighter approach where the harmonic structure was facilitated and devoid of excessively “heavy” components. The name “modal” is explained the following way: the musicians who played it used “modes”, or the scales like Lydian, Phrygian and many others. This gave musicians the opportunity to improvise according to the melody and not the previously learned harmony scales. The harmony contains its own melodic potential, and was used exactly for that purpose by modal jazz musicians. This was the essence of the novelty for this style, and many musicians were “freed”, liberated, figuratively speaking, and were able to move forward to form any methods other than the old ones.
The last revolutionary contribution introduces by Miles Davies was fusion music. Basically, after “Kind of Blue”, Davis gained immense popularity and went forward into studying modal jazz in its depth. He recorded several orchestra albums (“Porgy and Bess”, “Sketches of Spain” in 1961). After that, he toured over Europe several time, having temporary residence in Paris and Stockholm. However, at that time he often spoke to his colleagues about being tired and wishing for something new – forms for musical art. Simultaneously, this was the time when rock music was “conceived” and began to gain popularity, characterized by “straight eights”. This captured Davies’ attention, and in 1969 (the turning point in Davies carrier) he gathers a new band (Wayne Shorter at soprano sax, Chick Corea at electric piano, John McLaughlin at electric guitar, Dave Holland at bass, Bennie Mauplin at bass clarinet and others) and recorded the famous “Bitches’ Brew” album. The essence of this new revolutionary step was to create a natural amalgam of rock and jazz music. This type of music united the rhythmical base of rock music and the polytonal solos of instruments (that also could play their parts at the same time). This music proved to be very attractive to professional performers because it gave them much more room for improvisation.
There are two main reasons why the Miles Davies was such a revolutionary musician and so forward-thinking: the technical progress and his own personal traits of character. Technical progress inevitably influences the forms of art and the trends; it has been so for centuries. For instance, impressionism was partly spurred by the fact that the chemical companies started to produce oil paints started in tubes (just like toothpaste). Rock’n’roll and rock music were made possible to a large extent thanks to introduction of an electric guitar. Davies saw a potential in electronic instruments such as electric piano and guitar, which served as a material basis for his musical findings. Davies was by nature a person who craved for change. He avoided conservative solutions and sought for innovation in all spheres of life. Therefore, his decisions concerning music can never be labeled as sellouts.
Generally, in this context jazz should be approached as part of American and global cultural history, and emphasis should be placed on diversity and equality among people from different social, cultural, racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Of course, the social contexts changed rapidly in the course of historical change (XX century, inter alia, proved to be the most hectic and turbulent time of human history, which surely fuelled rapid cultural transformations). What Miles Davies was trying to achieve was basic and fundamental understanding of how music should be free from stereotypes and independent from bias and presuppositions. Diverse groups within the society of the United States (black versus white America) also had their respective musical aesthetics (let alone the subcultures). Miles Davies was naturally and consciously creating and demonstrating collaborations and interactions between these groups. His work contributed to shifting the focus from intercultural and interracial inconsistencies to actual music-making and performance. Davies made efforts to change emphasis from social to artistic part of the music. In the 1960s, during the “Bitches’ Brew” period, he started playing with lots of white musicians like John McLaughlin. Later on, he even expressed strong desire to produce a combined record with Jimi Hendrix, whom he considered to be a genius (this did not happen due to Hendrix’s death). This proves once more that Davies could see beyond borders of musical genres as well as beyond racial lines. Innovation and boldness in musical forms and presentation proves artistic freedom characteristic for Miles Davies to a much larger extent than for most of his contemporaries. He understood that some white musicians profited from discrimination of black musicians completely unintentionally – they just made good use of the preferences that the society had to offer. At the same time, they actually did not wish to participate actively in treating black musicians unfairly. The reality was rough though: many clubs, especially in the South, still would refuse to give stage to black musicians. Some club owners did allow them to play, but paid less money than they would give to a white band. To proclaim one’s desire to work with musicians of different races was a sign of bravery and a certain unconformity with social standards. In their turn, the black part of the jazz community held (openly or covertly) a view that all innovation and all development in music belonged to them only. This created hostility and distrust between groups of musicians that was readily spurred by the businessmen of the music world. However, attraction to innovation and curiosity served a good deal to musicians like Miles Davies who wanted to reset the priorities and put music first, as it should be.