You never know who you’re going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter’s not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By – or, better, that TGB needed his column – which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.
From about 1960 until his death, Miles Davis was the coolest dude on the planet.
He was born on 1926, to an affluent family in Alton, Illinois, and the family moved to East St Louis soon after. His father was a dentist and they owned a good sized ranch in Arkansas where the young Miles learned to ride horses.
His mother was a pianist and she taught Miles the rudiments of the instrument; however, his father gave him a trumpet when he was 13. It seems there may have been tension in the Davis household as apparently he gave Miles this instrument to spite his wife who really didn’t like the trumpet.
Miles took lessons and became proficient playing in local music societies and the like. After leaving school he went to New York to study at Juilliard. He found the grounding he received there valuable for his later work but criticized the curriculum for being too centred on European classical music.
During this time, he started playing with various jazz musicians around town eventually joining Charlie Parker’s band when Dizzy Gillespie left the group.
From here on, there are books full of information about his musical life, his personal life, his political life and pretty much everything you wanted to know about him and lots you really don’t need.
Even a synopsis would be far too much for this column. I’ll only say that he was one of the three or four most important figures in jazz. He died in 1991 at the age of 65.
Today I’ll mention some of his most important albums. As with his life, there are more that I can include here, but these are my choices.
My first serious encounter with Miles (as it were) was when I bought the album, “Some Day My Priince Will Come.” This was the also the first time I’d heard a muted trumpet for a sustained period. Before that, it was generally just for a short time, for an effect. I still preferred the trumpet without it but it was interesting nonetheless.
It didn’t hurt that he had some fine players in his band at the time, some whose names are synonymous with Miles – John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. This is the title track.
Although he had already made many records as sideman and even a few under his own name, Miles really first came to general notice with the album, “Birth of the Cool.” Recorded in 1949 and 1950, Miles got together nine musicians, including himself, under the not very euphonious grouping of a nonet.
This group included some of the finest players around, John Lewis, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Clarke, Kai Winding and especially Gerry Mulligan. Gerry not only played baritone sax, he was an arranger and wrote many of the tunes – more than he’s been given credit for.
This was a very influential record that went against the prevailing bebop style at the time. Bebop was fast and furious; this album was laid back and had an almost detached elegance. This was Miles’s first session with his long time arranger, Gil Evans.
Here are the gang, with Gerry very prominent, playing one of his compositions, Geru.
In 1958, Miles went to Paris, something he did often in his life (and who can blame him?). It was there that he was asked to create the soundtrack for the film, Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold).
This is a film noir of the first order that owes some dues to Hitchcock but was itself influential. The film had a couple of firsts. It was the first film directed by Louis Malle and it was Jeanne Moreau’s first film. It was also the first film for which Miles supplied the sound track.
The film wasn’t in the rather stylised noir style of the American films of this type; the characters seemed to be making it up as they went along.
This is take 2 of Nuit Sur Les Champs-Élysées.
The album, “Milestones,” was the first in which Miles introduced modal jazz into his repertoire, something he went on to develop with great effect in “Kind of Blue.”
This album also contains blues of various stripes although nothing I could see Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf playing. The album also marked the return of John Coltrane to the fold who probably had some input into the modal phase of Miles’s work.
Given all that, I’m going for a track that’s closer to bebop than anything else, Dr. Jekyll.
For “Sketches of Spain,” Miles went off on a totally new direction. This is something he did often, of course, but this time it was in the direction of classical music rather than a new form of jazz.
Some jazz fans dismiss the album as too structured. However, Miles replied, “It’s music, I like it”. Good enough for me.
The centrepiece of the album is a reinterpretation of the adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. Not surprisingly, this is a long track so I’ll only play the first part of it.
We now come to the biggie. Not just Miles’s best-selling album, the biggest selling jazz album of all time and the most influential, “Kind of Blue.” Besides all the books about Miles, there are books dedicated to this one album. That’s going a bit over the top but everyone should have a hobby.
I just suggest you listen to all of it. Alas, I’m only going to play a single track so I’ll leave it up to you to check out the rest.
In late 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 409–0 to recognize and commemorate the album on the 50th anniversary of its release. The measure also affirmed jazz as a national treasure and to encourage the United States government to preserve and advance the art form of jazz music.
Can you imagine anything else being affirmed 409-0?
This is So What.
“In a Silent Way” is a gorgeous album. I loved it when I bought the vinyl copy. I loved it when bought the CD and I loved it when I bought the box set of the complete recordings for the disk. Obsessive, moi?
The critics panned it at the time of its initial release. They’ve certainly changed their tune by now. Other musicians who heard it at the time loved it. Listen to the musicians, I say.
I’ve gone for the title tune from this album. That’s John McLaughlin on the guitar.
Miles once said that he could make the best rock album around. He did just that with “A Tribute to Jack Johnson”. The album had only two tracks, both of them marvelous, but they’re both about 25 minutes long so I have to skip over this one.
Continuing his rock theme brings us to the most famous of his later albums, “Bitches Brew”. Some say this album out-sold “Kind of Blue.” Some also say it was more influential than that album. Certainly in the rock & roll area, they’d be right about the influence; as to the sales, who knows?
Here, Miles again used John McLaughlin on guitar, as he did on “Jack Johnson” and “Silent Way,” this time name-checking him with the tune, John McLaughlin. Miles isn’t really much in evidence on the track, but that’s okay.
This is really only part one of Miles, the more interesting part, as he kept recording and performing for another 20 years.