by Paul Tingen
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Billboard Books (September 1, 2003)
Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
Published in May 2001, Miles Beyond is the first book that deals in-depth and sympathetically with the Miles Davis's electric period, 1967-1991. Primarily based on new and often exclusive interviews with over 50 musicians, managers, producers, family, and romantic partners, the pioneering book unearths much new information and thousands of never-before-revealed facts, insights, and revelations about Miles, including many new insights into his working methods, artistic development, and his private life, all set in the context of a chronological analysis of the music he produced from 1967 to 1991.
The book's interviewees include: Bob Belden, Bob Berg, Paul Buckmaster, Leon 'Ndugu' Chancler, Mino Cinelu, Chick Corea, Pete Cosey, Erin Davis, Jack and Lydia DeJohnette, George Duke, Marguerite Eskridge, Bill Evans, Robert Fripp, Sonny Fortune, Jo Gelbard, Steve Grossman, Herbie Hancock, Michael Henderson, Dave Holland, Adam Holzman, Karl Hyde, Robert Irving III, Mark Isham, Darryl Jones, Henry Kaiser, Bill Laswell, Dave Liebman, Reggie Lucas, Teo Macero, Marilyn Mazur, Palle Mikkelborg, Jason Miles, Marcus Miller, James Mtume, Bennie Rietveld, Mark Rothbaum, Badal Roy, Wayne Shorter, Jim Rose, John Scofield, Wadada Leo Smith, Mike Stern, Peter Shukat, Ricky Wellman, Lenny White, Vince Wilburn Jr., Mark Wilder, and Jah Wobble.
The 352-page book contains 17 Chapters with 266 densely-written pages of text, Endnotes, a Bibliography, an overview of the personnel of Miles's live bands 1963-1991, and, from Enrico Merlin, a Discography and a 40-page Sessionography, with details of all Miles's electric music that was officially released in 2001.
From Bloomsbury Magazine: "The most important book on Miles Davis ever."
From buy.com: "Although many books have been written about Miles Davis's far-reaching influence on the jazz world, his electronic experiments from the late 1960s to his death in the early '90s have been less well documented. Dutch music writer Paul Tingen, who first discovered Davis via one of the trumpeter's more rock-oriented albums, redresses this imbalance with his remarkably comprehensive Miles Beyond, an illuminating survey of the great musician's later experimental forays. Tingen analyzes Davis's recording process through revealing interviews with many of his musical colleagues, who recount the seemingly haphazard methods the trumpeter used to draw out the best performances from his musicians. The author also traces the influence of such seminal Davis albums as On The Corner on later generations of hip-hop and dance music artists--for example, Bill Laswell, whose Panthalassa album controversially remixed much of the trumpeter's late-'60s and early-'70s output for 1990s ears. Written with a fan's enthusiasm and a scholar's erudition, Miles Beyond is a refreshing re-examination of the later output of one of the great jazz innovators."
Where were you the first time you heard the music of Miles Davis? Since you are reading these words, chances are that you will know the answers to this question.
The memories of the big moments in our lives, whether personal or historical, remain with us forever, and are often embedded in seemingly irrelevant details: how things smelled at the time, what music we were listening to, what the weather was like. This is often called the "JFK effect," illustrated by the proverbial question: "where were you when you heard that John F. Kennedy was shot?"
Miles Davis never achieved the household fame of the likes of JFK. And yet an amazing number of people remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard his music, illustrating Miles Davis's huge impact.
My own answer to the question when I first heard the music of Miles Davis will bring the reasons for the existence of this site and for writing Miles Beyond into focus. I first became aware of Miles 's music as a teenager in the late '70s, on Dutch radio, at my parents' home. It was a sunny afternoon in the middle of summer and I heard some seriously weird stop-start rock music fronted by a screaming electric guitar.
Since I was—among many other things* —into experimental and avant-garde rock music at the time, bands like King Crimson and Henry Cow, and loved screaming electric guitars, I listened attentively, and made a mental note of the artist mentioned after the piece finished. I remember wondering: "Miles Davis? Isn't he a jazz artist? But this music doesn't sound much like jazz. Maybe this is another Miles Davis." I went to the local music library about a week later and found out that they only had records by one Miles Davis. They were indeed filed under jazz, and hence unlikely to contain the piece I'd heard on the radio.
I was puzzled and about to give up when I noticed a cover that looked promising: a red and gold psychedelic affair with a night vision of a large city seen through what looked like an aquarium. I took it home, placed it on my record player and found my jaw dropping. This definitely wasn't jazz, more like some weird, avant-garde, totally over the top funk. I was initially put off by the nerve-wrecking density and seeming monotony of the music. This was nothing like the engaging, open, stop-start stuff I'd heard on the radio. But since Agharta, the record I'd brought home, was all I had, and since the cover looked so cool, I persevered. The insurgent cover instruction to play the album back at the loudest possible volume was further encouragement, much to my parents' dismay.
Soon I discovered that astonishing moment, 14 minutes and 43 seconds into Side 1, where the band cuts out and Pete Cosey's guitar solo goes into total overdrive. Being a guitarist myself, I thought I was an insider on the outer fringes of crazy electric guitar playing, but this was beyond my comprehension. From that moment on Side 1 until the middle of Side 4, the music was continuously interesting, provocative, unbelievable, and highly exciting. I was sold. For the next months Agharta rarely left my record player.
It bewildered me that I didn't have a clue as to how the music and the solos were structured or conceived. There was clearly a large element of improvisation going on, but the music was too structured and too melodic and there was too much flawless interplay between the musicians for it to be totally improvised. I was baffled by this dense and bizarre music, because I had no frame of reference. Nothing I knew sounded even remotely like it, not even the other electric Miles Davis albums I sought out and enjoyed, among them Get Up With It, In A Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. (Fifteen years later I finally found the piece I had first heard in the Dutch radio. It turned out to be "Gemini/Double Image" from Live-Evil. It was testimony to the strong impression that piece made on me that I could still recognise it after all that time.)
The idea of writing a book on Miles's electric period was born one afternoon in the early '90s at Goldsmiths' College in London, where I was studying for a music degree. I ran into two guys around 50 years of age in the canteen who identified themselves as jazz musicians and college tutors. We talked and they asked me whether I liked jazz. I told them that I greatly admired jazz, but generally speaking didn't have much resonance with it, but that I really liked what Miles Davis had done when he fused jazz with rock. Their reaction pushed me back in my seat. If looks could kill I would have died that very instant. They proceeded to unleash a degree of vitriol on Miles Davis, for 'selling out,' for playing 'kid's music,' for 'betraying the jazz community,' etc etc, which astonished me. This was not a simple disagreement about musical taste, this was pure hatred.
What amazed me most was that they were not traditional jazz musicians, but known and respected (in London) free jazz players. It amazed me because between 1980 and 1983 I frequently visited the BIM-Huis in Amsterdam, the Netherlands's premier free-jazz club. Hungry for more unusual sounds, I had witnessed many free-jazz concerts there, and even joined in with some of the tutorial jam session for young musicians. For me avant-garde was synonymous with open-mindedness, with an urge to boldly go where no-one had gone before, musically speaking. For me it was, and is, about a willingness not to dismiss any music genre or sound or structure a priori, but instead to stretch as far as possible in understanding and accommodating new sounds and styles of music. And here these two old avant-garde jazzers were as conservative, closed-minded, and dismissive as classical music tutors who reckoned that all music written after 1900 sucked. Perplexing.
It was my first direct encounter with the intense feelings that Miles Davis's venture into rock-influenced music evoked in certain sections of the jazz community. It enticed and intrigued me, and I ended up writing a dissertation on Miles's electric period for my graduation. In doing so I found out that there were no books available that covered the electric period well. After my graduation, in 1995, I approached a number of publishers with the idea, without success.
Finally, in 1998, I mentioned the idea to Bob Doerschuk, then editor of Musician, who advised me to get into contact with Bob Nirkind at Billboard Books. It turned out to be a moment of sychronicity. A fan of Miles's electric music, Nirkind told me he'd just had the same idea a few hours before my e-mail arrived.
What followed after I signed the book contract was lots of hard labor, as well as synchronicity, serendipity, and inspiration. During the next two years I travelled to New York, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, London, and Italy, interviewed about 50 associates, musicians, and partners of Miles Davis, and came to terms with almost 60 official electric Miles Davis CDs, as well as with dozens of bootlegs.
In the end, Miles Beyond was published in May 2001, to much acclaim. I set up this web site around the same time. I hope that both the book and this site will enrich and deepen your enjoyment and understanding of the electric explorations of Miles Davis.
© 2001 Paul Tingen
"I was put here to play music, and interpret music... I might do a lot of other things, but the main thing that I love, that comes before everything, even breathing, is music." - Miles Davis.
"Listen." Miles, The Autobiography, opens with this word, immediately hitting bull's eye. It goes straight to the heart of Miles Davis.
Listen before breathing. Miles had a different way of listening. To music. To sound. To people. To the rhythm of the times. To time and space. To understand Miles, we have to listen to the way he expressed himself, in music, words, life-style, and life-choices. Listening is central. It's what he taught the musicians who played with him. It's what he taught his audiences as well.
Bassist Gary Peacock described Miles as "by far the greatest listener that I have ever experienced in a musical group." His colleague Dave Holland observed that Miles had "the best understanding of time, space, and movement of anybody I have ever worked with." Keyboardist Adam Holzman stated, "It may be a funny thing to say for a musician, but Miles taught me how to listen." Percussionist Badal Roy said that the main thing he learnt from Miles was "to play from the heart and to listen."
Miles used to tell his musicians, "When you play music, don't play the idea that's there, play the next idea. Wait. Wait another beat, or maybe two, and maybe you'll have something that's more fresh. Don't just play from the top of your head, but listen and try to play a little deeper." Miles also advised his musicians, "Don't play what's there. Play what's not there." He might have said: "Don't listen to what's there, listen to what's not there."
Aside from during the second half of the '80s, Miles rarely rehearsed his bands, instead instructing his musicians to practice on the bandstand. He got angry with them if they practiced at home or in their hotel rooms, saying, "How are you going to rehearse the future?" He wanted them to be fully present with, to listen to, the music in the present moment. "Of all of those in the band, Miles is the most easily influenced by outside events. He reflects everything he feels in his playing immediately," remarked an unnamed band member.
Miles wanted his sidemen to enter into a relationship with music with what Zen calls "beginner's mind," never on auto-pilot, never just following habit energy, but always alert, ready for the unexpected, right here, right now. "Miles did not want me to come to the rehearsals," guitarist Pete Cosey recalled. "He wanted to keep things fresh. Part of that is knowing what to play and what not to play. The way you do that is to be able to listen what is going on around you. When you come into any situation, it's the best thing to do: to listen. That is how you learn."
Listening requires awareness, paying attention. Miles taught both by example. A word used by many musicians who worked with him is "focus." Dave Holland said, "There was a tremendous sense of focus coming from him that influenced everybody. We were all drawn in by it, it was almost like a vortex. Once you were in its sphere of influence, there was a certain magic that seemed to be happening." Drummer Jack DeJohnette remarked, "Playing with Miles was about being focused. And about being open to where the music takes you. His sound focused your attention on him and the music. Sometimes this meant leading and sometimes this meant following. He just had that magic, he had that power, that special gift."
Miles's unique listening awareness rubbed off on the musicians around him. In his presence they often found themselves raising their awareness and playing to new and unexpected heights. In doing so they exemplified Miles's adage: "Play what you know and play above what you know." Guitarist Sonny Sharrock only played with Miles one day in 1970, but this was enough to change his approach to the guitar, making him realize that playing music is about "really listening, the way Miles listened; to hear the piece to the end right from the first note, and to see what the space is going to be in the piece." Guitarist John McLaughlin commented, "Miles has the capacity to draw out of people things that even surprise the musicians themselves. He's been a guru of sorts to a lot of people. He was certainly a musical mentor to me."
Miles stated that when listening to his music, "I always listen to what I can leave out." He listened to what's not there, to the space behind the notes, the silence from which music emerges and in which it is framed, trying to find the best balance between that space and the notes that furnish it. One of Miles's big discoveries was that this often requires fewer notes, rather than more. As a result, his economy of playing and usage of space became legendary. Miles always played between the lines, implying notes, suggesting a mood with minimal material, stretching the "less is more" maxim to new levels.
Early 1985, when working on the album Aura, Miles told a Danish interviewer: "I don't believe in wasting any phrases, no matter how small, how soft. With phrases comes rhythm. I don't waste rhythm either. The rhythm can throw off the melody and it gets lost. So you have to know what the phrases mean, what the notes mean. A lot of musicians don't! They play a note, and they don't know what it means, they just know 'that's a raised 9th, that's a...' whatever. You should tell them what it means, then musicians won't go to sleep. That's very important."
Guitarist John Scofield said, "He expressed himself in a virtuoso way, but not with a lot of notes. He had this ability to strip things down and to make it profound. When most people play just one note, it's not so hot. But he found the right one to play. It was impossible for anybody else to do what he did because he was so unique. He was a teacher for us all." Jack DeJohnette, Gary Peacock, and Keith Jarrett wrote, "Miles was the authentic minimalist (where, although there are so few notes, there was so much in those notes). No matter how much noise there was around him, Miles always came from silence, the notes existing in a purity all their own." Producer and arranger Quincy Jones, concurred, "Miles always played the most unexpected note, and the one that is the perfect note."
By contrast, many musicians tend to overplay, and Miles joked that because "they play too many fucking notes," they need to go to "Notes Anonymous." He spent much of his life teaching musicians the virtues of space, of silence, of phrasing, of waiting, of economy of notes and ideas, and most of all, of focus and listening. He remembered about percussionist Airto Moreira, "When he first came with me he played too loud and didn't listen to what was happening with the music. I would tell him to stop banging and playing so loud, and just to listen more." According to Moreira, Miles just instructed him with the one-liner, "Don't bang, just play," leaving him to figure out what this meant. Moreira concluded, "He wanted me to hear the music, and then play some sounds."
Illustrating how his listening awareness was always present, not just in music, but in everyday life, Miles once remarked, "Rhythm is all around us, even if you stumble." An anecdote from his time in Malibu in the late '80s illustrates the same point. One day Miles was stopped for speeding. "My speedometer isn't working," Miles proclaimed. "So how can you know how fast you're going?" the police officer asked. "I can hear it," Miles replied.
So listen. Listen to what's not there. Focus on the meaning of the notes. Listen between the lines, of words, of music, and of Miles.
"Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life—with my clothes on—was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944.... Music all up in my body, and that's what I wanted to hear.... I'm always looking for it, listening and feeling for it, though, trying to feel it in and through the music I play every day."
Throughout his life, Miles's main focus was unearthing the meaning of music, delving for the feeling of that moment in 1944, which is the ultimate a musician can experience. Guitarist Robert Fripp described it as the point at which "we are fully alive in the present moment and totally alert to the musical impulse." Miles was single-minded and egoless in the pursuit of this aim, saying, "You gotta get rid of your ego," and "Men have the biggest egos! ... All of them will listen, but if they do it, they'll do it once. Then the ego comes back. A man's ego is something else."
Jo Gelbard, the artist who worked with Miles when he got into painting during the '80s and who was also his partner from 1986 to his death, commented, "He had no ego in music. That's why he had his back to the audience, because he could hear the band better and direct them. As opposed to, `This is Miles Davis, and who cares who's behind me.' It was never just about him and his horn. He was always part of the group that was with him."
Lydia DeJohnette, wife of Jack, knew Miles well. "In music there was no arrogance to his ego," she remarked. "Being on stage was never about him, but always about musical inspiration, no matter where it came from. It made him happy to feel that inspiration. Sometimes he'd look at Jack and say, `You know?' and Jack would go, `Yeah, I know.' There was a knowing that they shared about the musical field, and it is where Miles felt connected with other people."
Jack DeJohnette added: "People were often worried about their personal contributions and their egos, but Miles was thinking of it as a team. He also knew that, whatever was going on, the sound of his horn could galvanize everything. Miles heard the finished thing." Keyboardist Herbie Hancock made a similar point: "Miles is an incredible team worker. He listens to what everybody does, and he uses that and what he plays makes what everybody does sound better."
Miles's ability to focus and raise the level of awareness of the members of his bands was perplexing. Countless musicians who worked with Miles recounted stories of how he had a life-changing impact on them, and many talk about him in near-transcendental terms. Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette called Miles "a medium, a transformer, a touchstone, a magnetic field." The people who were interviewed for this book used words like "mystical," "guru," "sorcerer," "shaman," "teacher," "magician," "Merlin," or "Zen teacher."
"Miles gave me myself," bassist Michael Henderson said. "He gave me something that belonged to me. When I came to play with him, I became `me.' Like everybody else who was with him. We all found ourselves. We found exactly who we were and what we should be doing as far as being in the music industry, and in life."
"I found my musical identity through playing with Miles," echoed Henderson's colleague Marcus Miller. "The first time I played with him, in 1980, I was scared like hell. We were recording a track called `Aïda.' He played me F-sharp and G and said, `That's it.' So I asked, `That's it?' `Yeah.' So I played only F-sharp and G. Miles stopped the band and asked, `What are you doing, man? Are you just going to play these two notes? Is that all you're going to do?' So I started to do all sorts of variations. He stopped the band again, and said, `Man, why are you playing so much? Just play F-sharp and G, and then shut up.' So I thought, `Oh, he's just playing with me. This is a test.' I realized I just had to play and not worry about him. That's what I did and this time he let the whole take go by. Miles had great people skills in the sense of bringing out the best in you as a musician. He was great precisely because he wasn't communicating that much verbally. He made you find it on your own. Just like those martial arts teachers who point you in a direction and tell you a puzzling story that you have to analyze yourself. Or like those student-master relationships where the student can't understand why the master has him painting fences, and later on realizes, `Oh yes, it's because ...' It was the same thing with Miles."
Miller's analogy with fence painting comes from the movie The Karate Kid, in which a Zen-like Asian martial arts teacher has his pupil painting fences as part of his apprenticeship. John McLaughlin also drew the Zen parallel, saying "Miles in the studio directed very closely, but with very obscure statements. He was like a Zen master. He would give you very strange directions that were very difficult to understand, very obscure. But I think that was his intention, as it is with a Zen master. They will say something to you, and your mind will not be able to deal with it on a rational level. And so he made you act in a subconscious way, which was the best way. He had this great gift of pulling the best things out of people, without them even realizing."
Palle Mikkelborg, the Danish trumpeter and composer who worked with Miles on Aura, wrote in his liner notes, "Musically, Miles is to me what a Zen teacher is spiritually." Mikkelborg explained, "I have talked to a lot of people who have been to Japan and who have studied Zen. They say that sometimes in Zen you'll be told things which you don't understand, but you just have a feeling that what they say ... is right. The same with Miles, he often said things that were very cryptic, but had a deeper meaning. During our first rehearsal for the performance of Aura in December 1984 he said to me about the drummer, `Let him play as if he plays to a tap dancer.' We were working on `Violet,' the last piece for the album, a very, very slow piece. I told the drummer what Miles had said and he asked me, `What does he mean?' And I said, `I don't know.' We thought about it, and we guessed that Miles wanted him to keep some energy back, and play with a mental awareness of a hidden, faster energy. It changed something in our attitude, and made the very slow rhythm lift off. I don't see it as anything else than a way of getting the best out of the present musical situation. I think it was an intuitive feeling he had for getting where he wanted to go. He once said to me, `When you conduct an orchestra, you have to smell good.' At the time, I thought, `What the hell does he mean?' Later on I understood that it means to be `on' all the time. `Smell good' means `be aware,' awareness. He was `on' all the time."
By being "`on' all the time," Miles exemplified the unsurpassed dedication and concentration with which he approached music. His attitude expressed a deep reverence and respect, demanding his total, egoless, here-and-now presence, almost as if music was sacred to him. Pianist Chick Corea touched on this when he said, "Miles set an example by the way he loved to make music. He was about making music. That kind of attitude created an atmosphere in which we all joined, because we all wanted to make music in such a very concentrated way." Guitarist Robben Ford recalled, "His presence created such an edge. I'd never been with anyone who could be so demanding just by his mere presence."
Twenty-five years after working with Miles, saxophonist Sonny Fortune's voice dropped to a whisper when he said, "The whole time I worked with him I was in awe over the magic he had. I walked away from the experience of playing with him feeling that it was something that I would never forget. I can't explain it at all. Because of this magic, he didn't have to say much, and he didn't say much. He was one of the persons that I've met who expressed the least amount of trivia. He didn't talk about much, he didn't gossip, he didn't seem to be affected by a whole lot of things. He was a cat who only said one or two phrases, but it would summarize what you were trying to get to. And he had a knowing about music that you could sense and feel, even if it wasn't necessarily visible or describable."
These quotes all describe the same essence, the same attitude, from different perspectives. The analogy with Zen, alluded to by Miller, McLaughlin, and Mikkelborg, is a good way of portraying this. It makes it possible to draw together the perspectives of many observers and to create a comprehensive framework for understanding the many characteristics that made Miles such a great musical teacher and innovator. Minimalism, here-and-now presence, being awake, awareness, going beyond habit energies, egoless service to a greater purpose, teaching by example—these are all at the heart of Zen. Miles's love of boxing has parallels with the martial arts aspects of Zen. And like Miles, Zen teachers are traditionally men of few words, while Miles's penchant for cryptic oneliners has parallels with Zen koans.
The listening sense, especially inner listening, is also often associated with Zen, and with spiritual awareness in general. "Be still, and know that I am God" is a central phrase in Christianity. The original title of The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains the word hearing, and its most-used invocation is "Listen, ye man of noble birth." In his book The World Is Sound, the German author and jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt elaborated on many aspects of the listening sense in a widely known chapter called "The Temple in the Ear" (after a phrase by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke). Berendt argued that our television-obsessed culture has become overly focused on the visual sense, reducing the ears to an "auxiliary organ." He quoted scientific evidence suggesting that the listening sense is more pronounced in women and reasoned that listening reflects feminine qualities of receptivity and awareness, whereas the penetrating and projecting visual-spatial sense is a masculine trait. According to Berendt, revaluing our listening sense is crucial if we want to rebalance and heal our off-kilter culture; he saw Zen practice as one way of achieving this, since it is about "wakefulness" and "listening to silence." With his focus on the listening sense, Miles contributed to this rebalancing process.
* * *
The aim of introducing spiritual perspectives and making the analogy with Zen is not to put Miles on a spiritual pedestal. To his great credit, Miles undermined any attempts by others to turn him into a guru. "I stood next to him in Japan when somebody began kissing his feet, literally," Lydia DeJohnette remembered. "Miles was like, `Stop it!' Miles was aware of levels that other people aren't. He understood the vibration of music, what Jack called the `essence' of music. So he could have been a guru if he wanted to. The '60s and the '70s were the era of gurus. But he didn't want to be a guru. I think some of his obnoxious side came from that."
The era of gurus may be over, but the spiritual and transcendental aspects of Miles's being are hinted at too frequently to be ignored. Things transcendental get dozens of mentions in Miles's autobiography, for example when he says that he believes in "mystery and the supernatural," "superstition," and "numerology," and that he can "predict the future." Miles also stated, "I do believe in being spiritual and do believe in spirits ... music is about the spirit and the spiritual, and about feeling," and repeatedly referred to his clairvoyant side.
Eric Nisenson related how Miles often knew who called before he picked up the phone and could sense someone walking towards his house when they were still a block away. "Real Twilight Zone stuff," Nisenson commented. Quincy Troupe claimed in Miles and Me that Miles had a "spiritual, mystical" effect on him, and related how Miles talked to Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and others after they died. "He saw and understood things differently," Troupe wrote, "and he seemed to feel and know things spiritually, almost to the point of having extrasensory perception."
Miles always seemed to know much more than he articulated, and his often-short expressions were so enticing because they always hinted at a much larger, hidden awareness, an intuitive "knowing," as Sonny Fortune and Lydia DeJohnette called it. Miles's nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn Jr., said, "It was innate, a `knowing' gifted people have. With Miles it was almost a clairvoyant thing." And Miles's companion from 1969 to 1971, Marguerite Eskridge, remembered how he always gave the impression of knowing much more than he expressed. She added, "I honestly couldn't say whether this was because he was searching for the right words, or didn't want to talk about it, or maybe thought something like, `doesn't everybody also know these things and understand them?'"
Spirituality does not necessarily overlap with organized religion, for which Miles had little time. "He was not one for God," Jo Gelbard commented, "but he was convinced that all the concerts and all the sounds he'd ever made were still there, floating around somewhere. That, for instance, his concert on November 12, 1956, was intact somewhere in space, and that they would one day invent a machine to play it again. He loved that idea!" Miles's idea of music floating around in eternity conjures up associations with the notion of "music of the spheres" and has a striking parallel with the idea of the "Akashic Records"—an alleged huge cosmic database of everything that ever happened, and a popular concept in New Age circles.
Robert Fripp, who, like Miles, has a predilection for cryptic but captivating statements, wrote about the difference between the "understanding musician" and the "knowing musician." "Knowing is an ordering of experience on the outside of our perceptions; understanding is an ordering of our experience on the inside of our perceptions."
In this sense, Miles was a "knowing musician." When listening to the essence of music, Miles had the capacity to hear things that eluded others. He heard "meaning" in notes other musicians missed. He was the aural equivalent of a visionary. This made Miles a great teacher and a great musician. It gave him the ability to spot potentially great musicians, and also to play the kid in the story of the emperor's clothes, ruthlessly pointing out when music or musicians were out of touch with "the musical impulse." Yet, crucially, his strength was not in musical conception. He didn't conceive of the many musical innovations that he spearheaded. Instead, he recognized the unique creative possibilities in what was being done by his contemporaries, appropriated and developed these in highly imaginative ways, and communicated his findings to a worldwide audience.
Miles's role was reminiscent of that of the English writer John Aubrey who, one day in 1648, walked up a hill next to the English village of Avebury, looked down, and saw something that no one had ever seen before. As long as people could remember, Avebury had included a mysterious circular earthwork and a collection of huge stones. On that day Aubrey suddenly saw the meaning of the stones and earthwork: they made up a prehistoric site—a larger sister to Stonehenge. When his contemporaries went up to have a look, they invariably recognized it, too, and could hardly believe that they had never noticed it before.
A shift in perspective like this is often known as an "aha" or "eureka" experience; we suddenly "get" something. Moreover, insofar as the new outlook also changed the view the villagers had of themselves and of their world, it can be called a "paradigm shift." The scientist Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of paradigm shifts, defining paradigms as sets of fundamental assumptions and concepts on which particular views of the world are based. Most of the time, human knowledge is deepened by working from a particular set of generally agreed premises. But periodically new paradigms emerge. For example, at one point describing the movements of the sun and the planets based on the premise that the earth is the center of the universe became too complex, and a new scientific paradigm was accepted that sees the earth as circling around the sun. What made this into a paradigm shift, rather than just a shift in perspective on a particular issue, was the enormous ramifications for the way mankind looked at itself and its place in the universe. Another, very literal, example, is the discovery of the law of perspective in the early Renaissance. Suddenly, all earlier drawings and paintings with their wrong perspectives appeared hopelessly naive. Human evolution progresses through these kinds of paradigm shifts. The term can apply as much to new ways of looking at the world, art, or music, as to, on a smaller scale, new ways of looking at our village, or our personal life. To discover, say, that we have a different father than we thought we had, can be a paradigm shift for an individual.
Paradigm shifts are usually preceded by a prolonged period of personal, political, or cultural turmoil, signaling that the old paradigm doesn't fit anymore. We tend to forget about these wider cultural contexts in which paradigm shifts occur, only remembering the individual pioneers. Their names are familiar. Albert Einstein brought about a paradigm shift in our thinking about the universe at a time when the natural sciences were feverishly trying to find new solutions to emerging problems. As part of the rising political awareness in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. helped shift the American psyche on race issues. Charles Darwin changed our thinking about our origins in a society that was trying to make sense of the data provided by numerous fossil finds. The Beatles, embedded in the historic events of the '60s, brought about a paradigm shift in the music and culture of their era.
Miles Davis, surrounded by the cascading musical and political developments of 1945 to 1975, was one of the select group of twentieth-century musicians who initiated several paradigm shifts. He had a remarkable capacity for capturing and transforming the zeitgeist, for pointing his finger at the stone circle at a time when people were ready to recognize it. It was this that made him into one of the great artists of the twentieth century, rather than an obscure visionary remembered only by music historians.
Miles's cool jazz, hardbop, and modal jazz experiments each changed the musical perspective of the jazz community, causing respected jazz writer Leonard Feather to proclaim, "He has manifestly changed the entire course of an art form three or four times in twenty-five years—an accomplishment no other jazz musician can claim." Miles's explorations into jazz-rock and ambient jazz were paradigm shifts that affected not only the jazz community but also those beyond. In the context of a visually orientated culture, his listening awareness can also be described in paradigm terms.
In addition, as the first black jazz musician who consistently crossed over into other music genres, other cultures, and other countries, Miles transcended the paradigm of musical, cultural, and racial segregation. He was one of the first truly universal musicians, going beyond categories, boundaries, and borders of any kind. The effects of his musical and personal odyssey rippled into the whole of twentieth-century music and culture, and are still with us today.
And finally, Miles instigated a paradigm shift on his musical instrument. Before Miles, the jazz trumpet was mostly played with a bright, brassy sound, rich in vibrato. But through Miles's stylistic developments we today hear the jazz trumpet being played very differently, sounding more vulnerable, soulful, like a cri de coeur. Trumpeter Olu Dara observed, "He's singing rather than playing the trumpet. He was using it like the human voice. He transformed the mechanical aspect of the instrument. He made it sound like a breath." Saxophonist Wayne Shorter remembered simply, "They called him the guy with the strange sound on the trumpet."
The absence of vibrato was the most characteristic aspect of Miles's style, resulting in an unadorned, introverted sound, often with a crack at the beginning of his notes, giving the impression of vulnerability. Miles also tended to play in the gentler, rounder-sounding middle and low registers, because he couldn't "hear" the trumpet's high notes. And in 1954 Miles popularized the sound of the trumpet played with a Harmon mute without the stem. Combined with the lack of vibrato, and played close to a microphone, this allows for an intimate, tender, but very expressive sound.
There is a widespread misunderstanding that Miles conceived of these approaches because of limitations in his trumpet technique, but he already displayed awesome chops on some recordings in the '40s. It is more likely that his innovations emerged from his astute listening awareness, which made him recognize the significance of sound. "Sound is the most important thing a musician can have, because you can't do anything without a sound," Miles remarked. "If a musician is interested in his sound, then you can look for some good playing."
Miles kept developing as a trumpeter until he reached his technical peak in the late '60s, playing an extroverted and virtuoso form of power trumpet that included its high register. He also established a very personal, wah-wah-inspired electric trumpet style in the '70s. Both his power and his electric trumpet styles retained recognizable elements of his characteristic cracked, voicelike, vibratoless sound, but neither was as influential. In the '80s Miles returned to his original trumpet style, often sounding more cracked and vulnerable than before because his technique only occasionally rose to its previous heights.
It was Miles's "strange" cri de coeur on the trumpet that had the most universal resonance and added another color to the palette of human experience. Even if he hadn't spearheaded several musical revolutions, his place in posterity would be secured purely for introducing this horn sound. It was the focal point, the pivot that drew everything he did together, the common thread at the heart of all the disparate musical styles and experiments that he traversed during his epic, forty-six-year-long recording career. Echoing the story of the Pied Piper of Hameln, the charismatic sound of Miles's horn made millions follow him into the undiscovered territory he probed.
"When Miles played his horn, everything fell into place ... [and] he spoke to the whole world," Jack DeJohnette remarked. His wife Lydia added, "Miles spoke more with his horn than with his mouth. His inner life came out in his music. When you listen to his horn you can hear sadness, you can hear pain, you can hear everything else. This is where he revealed himself."
Miles's touching, deeply human trumpet sound is so moving and compelling because of its apparent contradiction with the tough, inscrutable, macho persona that he displayed to the world. The poignant irony that the hard man with the legendary rough, raspy, almost demonic voice—the aftermath of a throat operation in the '50s—played his instrument with voicelike lyricism has inflated this contradiction to almost mythical proportions.
Miles's many contradictions, his fierce independence and his leadership abilities, his sensitive, vulnerable sound, his awareness, his listening capacities, and his violence and drug addiction, epitomized some of the extremes of our human nature.
Marguerite Eskridge recounted how Miles expressed aspects of these extremes privately. "Miles was the epitome of the Gemini, Jekyll and Hyde personality. The positive one was golden; [he] would give anybody anything that they needed, open his door and take in guys who were out of work, or homeless. The opposite one was just as extreme; [he] had a very violent temper and could be very violent."
A sense of unfathomable darkness and imminent danger often surrounded Miles. It is hinted at by the more ominous epithets that he received, such as "dark magus," "prince of darkness," and "a puzzle wrapped in an enigma." But the melancholy and vulnerability always shone through. In Miles's horn sound we can always sense the delicate sensitivity that was also there. We sense his spiritual qualities, the fire of his creativity, and the light of his authenticity and "knowing," as much as the surrounding looming shadows. We sense his deep humanity, which makes us feel for him and sympathize with him, and we sense the "unexplainable," larger-than-life qualities that urged him to go into places where most of us wouldn't dream of going. He was both one of us and a stranger in a strange land. He was someone on the brink of several paradigms conveying mysterious tales to which we cannot but listen.
© 2001 Paul Tingen
Still to come: The orginal extended biography of Miles Davis's pre-1967 career that was written for Miles Beyond, but ended up being published in a severely abridged form, because of lack of space.
From Chapter 4 - "New Directions"
Miles's visionary qualities are illustrated by an anecdote told by Herbie Hancock:
John McLaughlin himself does not appear to have recognized the brilliance of his own playing, or that of the other musicians, on the In A Silent Way session. His bewilderment was illustrated by an anecdote told by Herbie Hancock. "After we finished we walked out of the studio," Hancock remembered, "and while we were standing in the hallway John came over and whispered to me, 'Can I ask you a question? I answered, 'Sure'. He then said, 'Herbie, I can't tell... was that any good what we did? I mean, what did we do? I can't tell what's going on!' So I told him, 'John, welcome to a Miles Davis session. Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea, but somehow when the records come out, they end up sounding good.' Miles had a way of seeing straight through what happened and knowing that over time people would figure out what was really happening."
From Chapter 5 - "Sorcerer's Brew"
On the many ingredients that went into the making of Bitches Brew:
Teo Macero added mid-20th century studio trickery, a 19th century classical music awareness of musical structure, and a way of looking at music as abstract blocks of sound, which he freely cut and moved around. In other words, the two most heavily edited tracks on Bitches Brew were hybrids of "figurative" and "abstract" art. They combined, respectively, the traditional musical line of something akin to a sonata form with the cut and paste ideas that had come out of musique concrète, serial music, and studio technology. Add to this the strongly chromatic improvising of the keyboard players, which has echoes of classical atonal music, and it is clear that an impressive amount of influences went into the making of Bitches Brew. This is no doubt one of the major reasons for the recording's immense success and influence. Virtually anyone willing to listen to it with an open mind is able to recognize something familiar in the music, despite the fact that it contains few easily identifiable melodies, hooks, or vamps.
From Chapter 6 - "Kind of Blues"
On why Miles went into electric music:
In response to the question why Miles went into electric music, I'd like to offer two interpretations of Miles's approach to music that have only occasionally been touched upon. The first interpretation is founded on the scientific axiom that accepts the simplest explanation of the known facts as the most plausible hypothesis. The hypothesis proposed here is that Miles is best understood as primarily a blues player who moved into jazz and then into jazz-rock, rather than a jazz player who was influenced by the blues. This makes sense of many aspects of his career and trumpet style that have so far seemed inexplicable. The second interpretation follows from the observation that Miles built every new musical step on his previous steps, and asserts that the secret of his enormous success and influence is that he was a traditionalist and revolutionary at the same time.
From Chapter 9 - "On-Off"
Percussionist James Mtume about the direction of Miles's mid-1970s music:
"Miles and I constantly talked about music and the direction it was going," Mtume recalled, "and one of the things we talked about was fusion. My view was that the fusion movement was the emphasis of form over feeling. It became about how complex you can write things. This is not writing from the heart, but writing from the head. Playing bars of 11/8 for complexity's sake is great for school, but not for music. Miles went way past that. We went straight for the feeling. We were exploring how long we could keep one chord interesting. That was infuriating to the critics, who were glorifying fusion. But we said, 'Fuck fusion.' We were into emotion."
"The other thing that we talked about," Mtume continued, "was that Miles felt that his music had moved away from the pulse of African-American music. He felt his shit had become too esoteric and that he had contributed to that. Miles wanted to find a way back into connecting with the black community. But the aesthetic question was, 'How do we do that?' We discussed this more than anything else. At the time Miles was listening to a lot of James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and George Clinton, and that's what he wanted to put together. Miles's idea was to get back to the root of the music, to the funk, but to funk with a high degree of experimental edge. He wanted to take it much further."
From Chapter 12 - "Star On Miles"
"Jean-Pierre" was to become Miles's signature tune and concert closer until the end of 1987. It was also the concluding theme of his retrospective Paris concert in July 1991. Miles became strongly associated with this melody during the '80s, and this has symbolic value. Because of his grounding in the blues, Miles always had a proclivity for alternating major and minor thirds, one of the hallmarks of the blues, and the melody of "Jean-Pierre" contains both major and minor thirds. Some have criticized the "simplistic," childlike nature of the song, and many musicians would be reluctant to perform it for this very reason. But Miles showed courage in making the tune such an important feature of his live sets. The childlike nature of the tune is illustrative of the childlike sense of wonder and open-mindedness with which he approached his art. They led him never to dismiss any music out of hand, and to be constantly in search for the new and for the magic.
From Chapter 15 - "Alive Around The World"
Bassist Benny Rietveld on his time in Miles's band, April 1988-October 1989:
"There was never anything negative coming from Miles. He'd let me know if it wasn't happening, but always in a positive way, like 'Let's try this feel on this song.' You had to really pay attention, and be right in the moment all the time. He had an incredible presence, which was like a mystical part of him, drawing everyone in. His presence kept everybody on their toes, so that the music was still alive. When musicians play something they know already, the initial spark goes. He never liked that. So he would change things every night, not really radical changes, but things that kept the music fresh, as if you were playing it for the first time. It was like having a Zen mindset: everything is always now, there is no before or after, you should be totally immersed in what's happening in the moment. He didn't talk much. There is not a lot that needs to be said anyway, and he knows that people usually don't listen. So why talk? But he sometimes made these short cryptic comments, and they were like a nut you had to crack open, and find the meaning on your own."
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