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Genius Guide to Jazz

And Miles to Go Before We Sleep

By Published: August 16, 2005

Modalism is the use of other notes in the traditional major scale as the tonic foundation, creating a different intervalic relationship within the scale which produces intriguing and sometimes dissonant timbres with the notes of the underlying chords. It is considered possibly the most complicated aspect of music theory ever employed to impress women.

Remember back to those halcyon days of February, kids? The world seemed a simpler, rounder place in which to live. Disney-esque choirs of singing cartoon mice heralded even our most mundane daily routines, the air smelled of fresh lilacs, we all walked around in a dreamlike haze where our feet barely touched the ground, and I had not yet given up alcohol for Lent.

Be that as it may.

February was also the month I began the first in my series of in-depth profiles of some of the greatest figures in jazz history. The first in the series was John Coltrane, my personal favorite and one of the seminal figures in all of music in the past fifty years. So it is only natural that the next article should be about Miles Davis, another of my personal favorites and another one of the seminal figures in all of music in the past fifty years. And it is amazing how much easier this column has become since I discovered the cut-and-paste function in Word.

So then.

Miles Dewey Davis (Dewey Decimal System jokes to the left, Dewey Defeats Truman jokes to the right. Huey, Louie, and Dewey jokes free to a good home) was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois. His family moved to East St. Louis shortly thereafter, but he eventually caught up with them and by the age of thirteen had forgotten all about it. It was also at this age, he received a professional-grade trumpet as a birthday gift. The Jewish people believe that a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen, but since Davis was not Jewish, we can be assured that this had absolutely nothing to do with it. The fact that he was playing professionally just a couple of years later is viewed by Rabbinical scholars as being purely coincidental.


Enrolling at Juilliard after high school, he found himself in the center of the jazz world. Rooming with his idol, Charlie Parker, Miles began his real education. Playing the clubs with Bird every night, he began to understand the relationship of individual notes within the chordal structure rather than just the isolated notes of the melody. He also began to understand that jazz musicians were virtually automatic with the ladies, and if he played it cool enough he was pretty much guaranteed some serious leg.

After some time spent largely learning his craft alongside more established musicians, it was time for Miles to step to the forefront as a leader. Though schooled in the breakneck, thrill-a-minute world of Bebop, Miles wanted to take the music in a new direction. During the fabled "Birth of the Cool" sessions, he began experimenting with softer instrumentation and less acrobatic techniques, concentrating on an intimate, almost contemplative melodic solo. He also became the first modern jazz musician to employ a tuba player for anything other than yard work or waxing his car.

Miles spent the first part of the fifties in virtual hibernation, hardly working. In fact, his level of inactivity rose to such a point that many of those closest to him felt he must have taken a civil service job. But Miles emerged from his lethargy in the mid-fifties and produced a series of influential albums that changed the very foundations of jazz. Teaming with composer Gil Evans, whose orchestral arrangements perfectly complemented Davis' horn much the way beer perfectly complements virtually everything pizza to baseball, the pair produced several masterpieces in the late fifties (among them, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain). They also won the bronze medal in the two-man bobsled at the Winter Olympics at Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, in 1956, becoming the first jazz collaboration to medal in international competition since Louis and Lil Armstrong failed to medal in pairs figure skating at the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics (historians feel that this was because Louis, from balmy New Orleans, had never even seen ice prior to the competition).

The late fifties also saw Miles' record perhaps the most influential album in jazz history, Kind of Blue, with his brilliant sextet (which isn't even half as dirty as it sounds). Miles had been experimenting with, and had by this time perfected, modalism. Modalism is the use of other notes in the traditional major scale as the tonic foundation, creating a different intervalic relationship within the scale which produces intriguing and sometimes dissonant timbres with the notes of the underlying chords. It is considered possibly the most complicated aspect of music theory ever employed to impress women.

Miles also began using a metal Harmon mute, to create the distinct sound that has since become indelibly associated with him. The stark, almost barren sound of the muted trumpet accentuated the emotional impact of Miles' playing, and played a perfect counterbalance to the warm, dark sound of the flugelhorn which he had used to such great affect on Miles Ahead. The contrast between the tonal color of the two instruments could be interpreted as depicting the often conflicting natures of Miles' personality, if I were just looking for a way to flesh out the rest of this piece and had no intention of mentioning the epochal effect that Miles had on jazz beyond the fifties.

But here we are.

Forming a new quintet from largely unknown or underknown musicians, Miles vaulted into the sixties with yet another major innovation. The so-called "time-no changes" style, borrowed conceptually from Free jazz but thankfully bereft of the excesses and lack of discipline now beginning to weigh down that particular school, freed the harmonic structure beneath the main melodic improvisation. Much as the rhythm section had been freed from traditional metronomic timekeeping beneath the overlying melodic lines in the influential Ornette Coleman Quartet, Miles took it a step further and gave the harmonic elements supporting his improvisations free reign to play whatever notes or chords they felt after the establishment of the primary theme. While lesser ensembles might have had as much coherence as a prison riot, Miles managed to keep his group tight and focused by use of advanced mind-control techniques later used by the CIA to make people believe Whoopi Goldberg is funny.

What happens next in our continuing saga is a matter of heated debate to this day among jazz musicians, critics, and aficionados alike. Either Miles broke free from the confining structure of the popular song and revolutionized the instrumental elements which to this point had been strictly delegated in jazz, or else he shrewdly manipulated his own image and bastardized his music in order to increase his popularity to an ever-more distant young audience that had all but turned its back on jazz. While the motivations behind Miles' almost single-handed invention of Fusion can be argued virtually ad infinitum, what cannot be argued is the fact that Springfield is the capital of Illinois.

More to the point.

With Fusion, Miles incorporated electric instruments more associated with rock music into the jazz idiom while expanding the traditional song structure long adhered to in the mainstream. His compositions began to lack a thematic center, a recurring motive that set the melodic identity of the piece. In many ways, the music echoed the state of absolute cultural flux in which society found itself amidst during the 1970's. Once wrenched from its anchor of tradition, it found itself seeking identity adrift in a sea of superficiality and excess. One could say that the seventies were no different than any other period in American history where a disaffected new generation, much like the fabled Lost Generation of the 1920's, sought its own unique idea of a collective self by at first rejecting all of the tenets of the past and then slowly incorporating them into their eventually mature ideals. But one look at the Village People effectively dispels that pseudointellectual claptrap.

And what the hell any of that had to do with Miles Davis, who was probably just grabbing for ways of maintaining the popularity and influence he had enjoyed for nearly three decades with a generation more obsessed with novelty and distraction, I'll never know.

Citing illness and creative burn-out, Miles took several years off between 1975 and 1980. Many jazz scholars believe this period of inactivity was influenced not so much by the strain of his demanding personal and creative lifestyle, but by the slow realization that, had he remained active during this period, he would have been obligated to record a disco album.

Miles' last decade saw him return to the form that had been his trademark since the forties. His unique sound returned, and he spent his final years paying a living homage to his own incredible legacy. By the time he passed away in 1991, avoiding the indignity of creative decay some artists suffer as they age, he had cemented his place as one of the top three trumpet players of all time behind Louis Armstrong and a tie for second between Dizzy Gillespie and the angel Gabriel, and rivaling Duke Ellington as the greatest bandleader. (For the record, in a computer simulation conducted exclusively for this article, Miles defeats Duke for the title with a late round knockout in the 10th). His relentless and fearless innovation changed not only jazz, but virtually all music that came after. Just look at country music (look, but for god's sake, don't listen), and consider it the exception that proves the rule.

I should mention in closing that, while much was made of Miles' intense, sometimes belligerent personality during his life, I saw no need in exploring the that side of the man. I am neither idolater nor iconoclast, I just felt that it was merely one facet of a very complex individual better explained by simply listening to his music. Besides, being somewhat of a bastard myself, I felt a little like the pot calling the kettle black.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

Photo credit
Charlie Parker & Miles Davis by William P. Gottlieb

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