Miles Davis the black unicorn
I give to you
Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926 September 28, 1991) was 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 '40s, 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 Joe" Jones, Billy Cobham, and Jack DeJohnette. He sometimes collaborated with Big Band-leader Gil Evans, and planned collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and Prince 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, Pink Floyd, 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 over the span of 40 years) as a whole can be a frequent source of discontinuities due to containing every style of jazz in existence.
Albums with their own trope page:
- Anti-Christmas Song: "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)"
- Bookends: Both tracks on In a Silent Way open and close with the first section of the piece repeated in its entirety.
- Doo-Bop begins and ends with the track "Mystery".
- Brilliant, but Lazy: Not for his output during his music career (which was very productive) but in music school at Juilliard, he got fairly mediocre grades and dropped out after one year.
- Combat Pragmatist: The young Miles couldn't play as fast as Dizzy Gillespie, so he made a virtue out of playing slow instead.
- Concept Album
- Cool Old Guy: He definitely qualified in his later years with his experiments with hip-hop. One of his favorite albums toward the end of his life was The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique.
- 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 one 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 as 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).
- The examples from his fusion era exceeding 25 minutes:
- 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 in The '50s for being distant, cold, and withdrawn and for having a quick temper, 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.
- Mathematician's Answer: When John Coltrane told Davis he never knew how to end his solos, Davis suggested that "taking the horn out of your mouth" might help.
- 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 you can just say "Miles", and everybody knows who you're referring to. This was acknowledged in the title of his autobiography, which was simply Miles: The Autobiography.
- Out-of-Character Moment: A young music student from Norway (now a composer), once related how Miles suddenly made a social call to her student`s dorm room in Germany late one night while he was touring there. It seemed he just wanted to chat, and sat with her all night, revealing an utterly lonely and vulnerable man. She recalled later how grateful he was for being able to just sit down and open up, and actually offered her the ability to travel with him, just for the company. Considering the fact that Miles was known to be a MAJOR jerkass, this student never forgot the experience, and later wrote it down.
- Bonus points for Miles, who revealed why he felt he hed to be such a jerkass. He was quite annoyed over the constant Executive Meddling, and somewhat powerless in that respect. The record company actually dumped young musicians on him, to secure later stardom for them, because they had "played with Miles". That policy led to many clashes because he had to put up with band members chosen for him rather than the ones he preferred himself. Although most of those guys were quite good, none of them actually got close to him.
- Pop-Star Composer: Miles put together a band to record a soundtrack for the 1958 Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows. Jazz critic Phil Johnson describes the soundtrack well: "The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."
- Posthumous Collaboration: Because Miles had passed away during the recording sessions of Doo-Bop, album producer Easy Mo Bee was tasked with creating brand new tracks from Miles' then-unreleased "RubberBand" sessions with Prince. "High Speed Chase" and "Fantasy" were the results.
- 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"; On the Corner in particular is now widely regarded as a classic.
- Remix Album: Bill Laswell re-edited and remixed several songs from Miles' fusion-era albums, and the result was Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974.
- 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 197581 "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.
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: His autobiography can at times be mistaken for an academic study on the various possible uses of the word "motherfucker"..
- Small Reference Pools: One of the few jazz musicians most non-jazz fans can name offhand.
- 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, while Corea went on to form Return to Forever, and guitarist John McLaughlin went on to form Mahavishnu Orchestra.
- 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.