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Miles Davis Dueling Ambition

May 13, 2001


Miles Davis: An Innovator With Dueling Ambitions


MILES DAVIS'S career began in July 1944, when the legendary Billy Eckstine band visited St. Louis. Booked into a white club aptly named the Plantation, Eckstine was fired for using the front door instead of the "colored" rear entrance. So he took his amazing band, which included Charlie (Bird) Parker, John Birks (Dizzy) Gillespie and Art Blakey, to a Negro establishment, the Riviera Club, where they played with fiery beauty before a large, enthusiastic black audience -- and hurled a lightning bolt of inspiration at an 18-year- old trumpeter named Miles Davis.

Years later Davis would confess, "I've come close to matching the feeling of that night in 1944 in music, when I first heard Diz and Bird, but I've never quite got there." A strange statement, coming from a figure so full of musical refulgence. What kind of lightning struck Davis that night? And why did it strike only once?

The answer lies in Davis's lifelong struggle to achieve three goals: high musical art, commercial success and a deep connection with his fellow African-Americans. Are these goals compatible? Not today, perhaps. But they were compatible during Davis's boyhood, when immortals like Armstrong, Ellington and Basie played dance halls and night clubs and, as the saying goes, "good music was popular and popular music was good." And they were compatible on that memorable night in 1944.

The three goals began to conflict during the last 50 years, a time fraught with musical dead ends, distractions and dangers. In the 1950's, jazz ceased to be entertainment and became esoteric art. In the 1960's, rock and soul won a huge racially mixed audience and cultural cachet, only to succumb a few years later to racial polarization and the decadence of heavy metal and disco. Also in the 1960's, the art music known as minimalism inspired a rejection of song and dance that over the next three decades would help (inadvertently) subordinate the aural to the visual, the ear to the eye. In the 1970's punk restored the cachet of rock but also turned it into avant-garde theater. And in the 1980's, hip-hop revived rhythm but also fostered the myth that truly "black" music does not utilize melody or harmony.

When Davis first apprenticed himself to Parker and Gillespie in the mid-40's, be-bop was popular in Harlem. But as be-bop grew more virtuosic, many black listeners sought the simpler pleasures of rhythm-and-blues, leaving a core of loyal fans but no reliable market niche. Among whites, be-bop attracted discerning admirers but also undiscerning thrill seekers. Add the ravages of heroin, the death of Parker and the condescension of the mainstream, and one can see why Davis's career almost ended in the early 1950's.

But then he landed on his feet, creating (with Gil Evans) the new sound of cool. Critics still debate the virtues of cool: Max Harrison praises its "muted colors" and "lucid proportions"; Stanley Crouch dismisses it as "another failed attempt to marry jazz to European devices." Yet everyone agrees that cool was a hit with whites -- especially "Kind of Blue" (1959), whose mass appeal would today place it next to the chai tea in Starbuck's.

As cool grew "whiter" in the hands of West Coast musicians like Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, the dense percussive style known as hard bop became the "black" alternative. Yet this racial divide did not affect Davis, because as Gary Giddins notes, "The warring subcultures, West Coast jazz (cool) and East Coast jazz (hard bop) had the same Midwestern parent: one Miles Dewey Davis." To the yin of cool, Davis brought rich sonority, blues feeling and swing; to the yang of hard bop, he brought stillness, melodic beauty and understatement. By refusing to color-code either his music or his audience, he rose at the age of 34 to the summit of artistic excellence.

Next came the upheavals of the 1960's. The first was in jazz. Since the 1930's, jazz musicians had been exploiting such modernist ideas as chromatic harmony, modal scales and electronics. But in the 1960's the New Thing, led by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, went further: expanding the sound vocabulary of instruments, eliminating cadential harmony and the modal system, exploring polytonality and atonality, adopting irregular meter, and finally abolishing metric time. The goal, turbo-boosted by black political activism, was total improvisatory freedom.

Some jazz elders were dismayed. Coleman Hawkins growled in 1964: "Those guys are looking for a gimmick, a short cut. There is no short cut." And Davis himself quipped that if Taylor was "what the critics are digging," then "them critics better stop having coffee." But here again, Davis landed on his feet. With four fiercely gifted young players -- Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams -- he set off a controlled explosion that equaled the excitement of the New Thing but that took a disciplined route brooking no short cuts.

It would have been the perfect solution had Davis not noticed that jazz was being eclipsed by rock. Never one to assume that "the fewer hear you, the better you are," he gravitated to where the action was -- to countercultural icons like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone -- and made his famous 1969 "jazz-rock fusion" album, "Bitches Brew."

With its bottomless shifting rhythmic ostinatos, eddying scraps of guitar and bass clarinet, dissonant chords in unmentionable keys and the recurring pitchfork thrust of Davis's horn, "Bitches Brew" powerfully conjures the turbulent undertow of the counterculture. But it's not rock. When rock musicians tried to evoke the same dark mood, they did so by goosing the volume, setting off smoke bombs and applying too much eye makeup. Bands like Black Sabbath were an instant hit with the junior testosterone crowd, and in the 1970's its offspring, heavy metal, became one of the most durable genres in the history of popular music. But this has nothing to do with Davis.

Davis spent the early 1970's trying to connect with black youth, adding disco and funk rhythms to his albums, dressing as a superannuated Superfly, and putting a "blaxploitation" cartoon on the cover of "On the Corner" (1972). But the effort backfired, probably because many young African-Americans shared the perception of the writer David Nicholson: "Fusion Miles always seemed like one of my uncles in bellbottoms."

More relevant to Davis's future was minimalism. Inspired by Indian raga and other Asian sources, the composers Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Mike Oldfield began in the 1960's to fashion a sound, all too familiar nowadays, in which a clear steady pulse is combined with repetitive, often tape-looped melodic- harmonic fragments. The aim, in Mr. Reich's words, was to "facilitate closely detailed listening." But the outcome was nearly the opposite. Beginning with the use of Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" (1973) on the soundtrack of "The Exorcist," minimalist- derived music became "aural wallpaper" for an increasingly image-driven culture.

This sheds new light on Davis's fusion. Mid-1970's albums like "Dark Magus," "Agharta" and "Pangaea" take little from jazz, apart from free improvisation (which Davis had spurned a decade earlier), and little from rock, apart from ear-bleeding volume and electronic instruments. What these experiments really reveal is what Amiri Baraka calls Davis's "penchant for minimalism."

That penchant deepened over time. Davis always preferred sketched understatement to embellished overstatement. But in his pre-fusion music, the repetition of simple melodic motives always relates to the underlying harmonic structure; and even within the loose boundaries of modal improvisation, his melodic line always suggests a fuller volume -- like a late drawing by Matisse. It is only in his post-fusion phase that Davis's melodies quit evoking larger forms and become recycled squiggles.

By an odd convergence, both the minimalists and the black nationalists of the 1960's sought to liberate music from shapely melody, which they variously defined as exhausted, oppressive and Eurocentric. To be fair, Davis bought into this trend less by rejecting melody than by embracing rhythm. Echoing the militant mood, he claimed rhythm as his racial birthright and griped that "white people were trying to suppress rhythm because of where it comes from -- Africa."

But he knew this was an oversimplification. "We ain't in Africa, and we don't play just chants," he said in a different context. "There's some theory under what we do." The African-American music that is Davis's true birthright is, like the infant brought before King Solomon, a living whole in which even the zestiest dance number partakes of melody and even the tenderest ballad partakes of rhythm. By 1975 this living whole had been sundered in the name of "liberation," and to the extent that Davis assisted the sacrifice, he sold out his rarest gift. It is probably no accident that he quit music that year.

By the 1980's, when Davis made his final comeback, almost all popular music had been "liberated" from any melody more taxing than what record producers call "hooks." It was not Davis's fault that the ability to compose, play or listen to melodies longer than two bars seemed as forgotten as the fugue. The damage was done; all he did was recognize it. "A lot of people ask me where music is going today," he said. "I think it's going in short phrases. If you listen, anybody with an ear can hear that."

His comeback was as ambitious as ever. Playing to the mass audience, he granted celebrity interviews and made music videos. Playing to black youth, he mixed it up with contemporary rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop. But what about his third goal, that of high musical art? Are his critics right in saying that he squandered his melodic gift, chasing "short phrases" down the musical drain?

The answer is yes -- at first. Listening to Davis's horn pick its lonely way through a studio-engineered sonic landscape on albums like "Tutu" (1986) and "Amandla" (1989) is like watching a pro tennis player take the court against a ball-serving machine. No matter how skillfully the pro returns the serve, there's no excitement, no volley -- because one of the players, the producer assembling the recording, is not a player. By his own testimony, Davis preferred "live, raunchy, get-down" music to "laying down tracks on tape." But on these albums he phones in his part.

Still yearning to connect with black youth, Davis ended the decade with "Doo-Bop," a hip-hop collaboration with Easy Mo Bee. Released after Davis's death in 1991, "Doo- Bop" impresses neither as hip-hop nor as jazz. But to Davis's credit, neither does it pander to the gangsta image then grabbing the headlines. Called a "licker of moneyed boots" by Stanley Crouch, post-fusion Davis did not on this occasion lick Dr. Dre's Nikes.

Nor is "Doo-Bop" the end of the story. In the mid-1980's, Davis formed a new band with the alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, the bass guitarist Joseph (Foley) McCreary, the keyboardist Adam Holzman and the drummer Ricky Wellman. This globe-trotting group knit the raveled strands of fusion into tight, powerful pieces whose full impact was not felt until 1996, when Mr. Holzman and Gordon Meltzer assembled 11 of the best unedited tracks for "Live Around the World," a remarkable album that has caused many nay-sayers to look again at Davis's later career.

Perhaps Davis did not finally match the thunderbolt of high art, broad acceptance and black solidarity that struck the Riviera Club back in 1944. But for his struggle to do so, we can only admire him. With courage and agility he eluded most (not all) of the obstacles strewing his path, not to mention the many figurative and literal deaths that stalked his musical generation. His long struggle to stay on top was messy and unseemly at times, and it may be that his refusal to age gracefully contributed to the decline of American popular music. But that decline would have happened anyway, and I for one lack the presumption to blame a man for not walking a straight line across a minefield.  

Martha Bayles is the author of ĀĀHole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.'' A longer version of this essay appears in ĀĀMiles Davis and American Culture,'' a companion volume to ĀĀA Miles Davis Retrospective,'' which opens today at the Missouri Historical Museum in St. Louis. Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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