The hanging gardens of Babylon
Miles Davis the black unicorn
I give to you
Miles Davis (1926-1991) is a trumpeter, one of the most famous Jazz
musicians and composers to have ever lived.
It's impossible to do justice to his long and innovative career, so we're going to try to sum up the highlights. To Make a Long Story Short
: he started as a bebop musician playing trumpet with Charlie Parker
, before ending up at the forefront of almost every major development in jazz after The Forties
, helping pioneer subgenres such as cool jazz, modal jazz, jazz fusion and jazz-rock, and by his death he had become one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century. Basically he is sort of the Nirvana
of jazz: everybody
gets into him at a given moment.
His backing bands have included numerous musicians that would go on to become famous in their own right, such as saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane
, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Kenny Garrett; trombonist J. J. Johnson; pianists Bill Evans
, Herbie Hancock
, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and Keith Jarrett; guitarists John McLaughlin, John Scofield and Mike Stern; bassists Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Dave Holland; and drummers Tony Williams, "Philly Jo" Jones, Billy Cobham, and Jack DeJohnette. He sometimes collaborated with Big Band-leader Gil Evans, and planned collaborations with Jimi Hendrix
were cancelled due to the deaths of Hendrix and of Miles himself.
1959's Kind of Blue
and 1970's Bitches Brew
are often cited as the two top selling jazz albums ever made, with the former also being cited as the best jazz album ever made. His Psychedelic Rock
-influenced jazz-fusion material from the 1970s has proved to be very influential among various rock and Alternative Rock
acts (such as Radiohead
, Brian Eno
, King Crimson
, Frank Zappa
, Steely Dan
, Talk Talk
, Tangerine Dream
), making him probably the most influential jazz musician when it comes to rock. His massive discography
(48 studio, 36 live and 35 compilations, many of which are considered essential to his oeuvre, such as Birth of the Cool
) as a whole can be a frequent source of Dis Continuities
due to containing every style of jazz in existence.
- Anti Christmas Song: "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)"
- Concept Album
- Epic Rocking: This was frequent with his earlier material, but it really went Up to Eleven in his fusion era.
- The examples from his fusion era exceeding 25 minutes:
- "Wili" (Dark Magus) - 25:05
- "Moja" (Dark Magus) - 25:08
- "Tatu" (Dark Magus) - 25:19
- "Nne" (Dark Magus) - 25:31
- "Yesternow" (A Tribute to Jack Johnson) - 25:34
- "Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts" (Live-Evil) - 26:30
- "Right Off" (A Tribute to Jack Johnson) - 26:54
- "Bitches Brew" (Bitches Brew) - 27:00
- "Interlude" (Agharta) - 27:10
- "Great Expectations/Orange Lady" (Big Fun) - 27:23
- "Go Ahead John" (Big Fun) - 28:26
- "Calypso Frelimo" (Get Up with It) - 32:10
- "He Loved Him Madly" (Get Up with It) - 32:20
- "Prelude" (Agharta) - 32:35
- "Zimbabwe" (Pangaea) - 41:48
- "Gondwana" (Pangaea) - 46:51
- Notably, these tracks were all recorded in an era where it was extremely rare for songs to exceed about 25 minutes due to LP space limitations (not only does the material at the centre of the record have less audio quality due to being spread over less space, which is inevitable the more you put on a record, but anything beyond about 27 minutes in length results in the volume of the record being reduced due to smaller space between the grooves, as well as the amount of dynamic range the recording can contain being reduced for exactly the same reason). Of these, all but the last three took up an entire side of a record; the final three were split up over two sides. Davis routinely exceeded the traditional LP length; each record of the two-record set Get Up with It exceeded an hour in length. To put things in perspective, you couldn't fit three LP sides' worth of material from that album on a single CD. That's almost unheard of, and it's common for double albums from the vinyl era to fit on one disc (although I'm not aware of any of Davis's double albums where that was the case). If Get Up with It were reissued on vinyl today it would almost certainly be reissued as a three- or four-LP set with the two longest tracks split up over multiple sides due to vinyl's reputation these days as an audiophile format. Dark Magus also deserves a special mention for every single song exceeding 25 minutes in length (they were split up into two tracks per song for the CD reissue), although it would be less likely for this record to become a 3LP set in a vinyl reissue due to the fact that none of them are all that far over 25 minutes.
- Some of these longer tracks were the result of several tracks, or multiple takes from different recording sessions, being spliced together to sound as if they were a single track. This was very controversial with jazz purists, who felt that it robbed the performance of the authenticity they valued so much, and questioned the validity of an improvisation-based music being tampered with in such a way. Some of them still haven't forgiven him, although some of the fusion albums (especially In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and On the Corner) have been canonised as masterpieces by now. (Note that Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus are live albums, and the material on these is presumably not edited much, if at all; furthermore, much, though not all, of Live-Evil was also recorded live).
- Genre Shift: So many.
- George Jetson Job Security: Many of his pianists. Miles built the concept of Kind of Blue around Bill Evans, who had left the group months earlier, but had neglected to inform current pianist Wynton Kelly of the situation until Kelly arrived at the studio to record the album. He also fired Red Garland for quoting one of his solos.
- Guttural Growler: His distinctive voice was the result of shouting at a record producer while still recovering from a throat operation.
- Hair-Trigger Temper
- Insufferable Genius: To the point that some people were disgusted to be in the room with him.
- Intentionally Awkward Title: Bitches Brew. It's actually a play on words from the Shakespearean "Witches Brew". Nevertheless, for a genre with fans going back to the depression era, it was probably awkward for young jazz fans in 1970 to bring this record (released on the major label of Columbia Records, no less) home to the family.
- Jerkass: Miles gained a reputation for being distant, cold, and withdrawn and for having a quick temper in The Fifties, and never really lost it. He threw Wynton Marsalis out of a concert when he showed up unannounced and would regularly kick off band members for small reasons - if there were any.
- For some time, he performed with his back to the audience (although this kind of aloofness was a reasonably big part of the cool jazz ethos). It was also intended to focus audience's attention on the music, not on persona.
- Leave the Camera Running: "Sanctuary" from Bitches Brew is actually two consecutive takes of the song.
- New Sound Album: A lot. Starting with bebop in Charlie Parker's band, he went on to...
- Cool jazz with Birth of the Cool
- Hard bop with the "first great quintet"
- Modal jazz with Kind of Blue
- A more experimental style of hard bop with the second great quintet
- Fusion and avant-garde jazz with Miles in the Sky
- A lighter style of fusion, incorporating funk elements with The Man with the Horn
- Synthesizers and smooth jazz with Decoy
- Hip hop and New jack swing with Doo-Bop, his final album
- Only Known By Their One Name: Somewhat similar to Morrissey's case - he always went by "Miles Davis", but hey, you can just say "Miles", everybody'll know who you're referring to. This was acknowledged in the title of his autobiography, which was simply titled Miles: The Autobiography.
- Pun-Based Title: Miles Ahead, Milestones
- Rated G for Gangsta: Miles made it clear when he released albums like On the Corner, "You're Under Arrest" and Doo-Bop that he was trying to reach the youth audience. Many accused him, especially in the 80s, of Pandering to the Base instead of putting out "real music".
- Sampling: Miles only ever sampled on his final album Doo-Bop, as it was produced by Easy Mo Bee, the hip hop producer who went on to produce half of The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Ready to Die. Miles himself has been sampled hundreds of times, and not just by hip hop artists; Radiohead and Chaka Khan have had their turns sampling his output.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: According to his own recollections, Miles spent his 1975-1981 "retirement" mostly sitting on his couch, watching TV and occasionally leaving the house to get more drugs. His habits alone would probably make the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like the healthiest kids around.
- He didn't just do that. He also ordered out for food and hookers.
- That was his Reclusive Artist phase.
- Supergroup: His sextet on Kind of Blue, who were already well-known for their other work.
- Several of the Bitches Brew sidemen were well-known in their own right: Chick Corea was an established solo artist, Joe Zawinul was famous for having worked with Cannonball Adderley, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were top solo artists aside from having already spent several years with Miles. Furthermore, Zawinul and Shorter went on to found the famed jazz fusion band Weather Report after leaving Davis' group.
- And his so-called "Second great quintet", which featured drum phenomenon Tony Williams (he joined the band at 17), Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter (probably the most recorded bass player in jazz history. Heck, he's probably the most recorded bass player in history). At least in retrospect this would have to be the most definitive supergroup of all time.
- The "Quintet" after that was equally as crazy, Dave Holland, Jack Dejonette, Chick Corea AND Keith Jarret, Airto and last but not least, Wayne Shorter.
- Uncommon Time: Used occasionally. "Great Expectations" on Big Fun is one example.
- Ur Example: No less a source than Brian Eno credited him as being a major influence on ambient music with "He Loved Him Madly", off 1974's Get Up With It.
- What Could Have Been: Miles wanted to collaborate with Hendrix, but he died before they could ever record together. Bitches Brew was inspired by Woodstock and was recorded the three days directly following the 1969 festival.
- The album Tutu was originally going to be made in collaboration with Prince, but this role ultimately went to Marcus Miller. The closing track "Full Nelson" liberally borrows from Prince's late-80s playbook and really offers a glimpse as to what could've happened there.
- You Have Failed Me: Accompanying musicians were often tossed out - more often than not, without notice, until they noticed they were no longer on the roster.