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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Genius Guide to Jazz

And Miles to Go Before We Sleep

By Published: August 16, 2005
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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