Even though it was more than two decades ago, I still clearly remember parts of the day that I learned Miles Davis had died. I was a freshman, and that memory starts while I was sitting at a table having lunch. First, Cathy approached, set down her books, turned to me and asked “Weren't you talking about that guy Miles Davis the other day?” By freshman year, I was playing pretty intensely (or so I thought). I had long since lost interest in the mainstream sounds of the day, and Miles had become one of my favorite musicians.
“Yeah,” I answered, my voice rising, so as to trail off with a question. I was surprised Cathy brought him up. “That's what I thought,” she said, her smile melted into a very different expression. “I heard he died the other day.”
I'm not sure why, but I thought she was kidding. Cathy said she'd be right back, and hustled off to grab a sandwich. Within minutes, Cathy's roommate Becky found her way to the same table and said to me “Did you hear that Miles Davis died?” I chuckled. I mean, her roommate just laid this on me and now she was too. It had to be a put on. They had schemed this up to play a gag on me. I was certain of it.
No sooner had Becky finished uttering her words, when Tom raced over to me. “I've been looking for you everywhere for the last three days," he said. "Did you hear that Miles Davis died?” “Alright, you almost got me that time," was my reply. "I was starting to believe it. First Cathy, then Becky, and now you." Tom paused, shook his head, and drew in a deep breath. “No, man, I'm serious, Miles died.”
I have been to hundreds of live performances, but I never got to be in the same room as Miles and hear that horn. It stung. I had plans, a promise really, with a musician friend back in Boston – we would hear Miles on his next tour, no matter what.
That tour never came.
The month of May marks Miles' birthday. May 26. Happy birthday Miles! Thanks for all the gifts. You know, those recordings you left for us.
This June will make 20 years since Davis' last studio album, Doo Bop, has been released. It was a controversial release, as parts of it were finished after he had passed. Furthermore, the music marked a change in the trumpeter's direction by featuring synth bass, looped tracks, and assorted elements of electronica. In some ways, those sounds seem dated now. In others, they still seem relevant and fresh.
Like a lot of other people, Davis' music was a Gateway of sound for me. On one side stood mainstream music. On the other side, something different. The album that lured me through the portal, the first sounds of Davis' music that I heard were off Four & More. It had Ron Carter on bass, my instrument, and Boston native Tony Williams on drums. I remember Carter's big, round sound; his flowing style. I remember Williams' adaptive playing; his exploratory and rhythmic use of cymbals. I had never heard anything like that music - that was when I discovered jazz.
In the book Jazz Styles, musicologist Mark Gridley states "Miles Davis is a jazz trumpeter and bandleader who has played a pivotal role in the history of modern jazz because he has been deeply involved in according and promoting several styles well before they became widespread trends. Over a fifty- year period of productivity, Davis has contributed stylistically diverse body of music, parts of which defined jazz for three different generations of listeners. His recordings have won the near universal admiration of fellow jazz musicians. A significant slice of modern jazz history is documented in Davis-led recording sessions because he gathered the key innovators of the day for his bands. Unlike most artists, Davis never became limited to one particular band style.”
Gridley also discusses how Davis created an original trumpet style, participated in what writers called cool jazz, worked with Bill Evans to pioneer modal and improvisational approaches to music with the Kind of Blue recordings, and combined elements of jazz, rock, and funk on works such as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and On The Corner (which was recorded 40 years ago this summer).
In short, Miles was a musical icon. In 1986, the New England Conservatory bestowed an honorary doctorate of music upon him. In 1990, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
I never got to hear that horn played live. I'll have to live with that. It still kind of burns me.
In the 1989 Autobiography Miles, Davis states: "The very first thing I remember in my early childhood is a flame." Ironic, I guess, so I've decided to use this reflection of Miles and his music, the same music that ignited my passion for jazz, as a simple way to begin this monthly blog. Welcome to Hub Jazz.