Identifying a Need

Some of you may know I’m in the running to write a book on Bitches Brew for the 33-1/3 books series (I’m on the shortlist and waiting to hear their final decision, hopefully before the end of the month). Maybe that makes me hypersensitive to mentions of the album, but today’s “Week in Review” section of the New York Times has a lifestyle piece that begins:

IN 1975 it was my friend Daryl — one of the very few African-American students in my mostly white prep school — who was the champion of the new. “Boylan,” he said one day after school. “You have to check this out.” Then he put Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” on the turntable.

The album had been out for a few years and was already big — though not in the strait-laced neighborhood I grew up in. I wrinkled my nose as the crazy jazz fusion filled the room. It wasn’t exactly “On Green Dolphin Street” or “Milestones.” It sounded strange, a little atonal. I said as much.

The whole thing loses focus from there, but beyond the technical point that Bitches Brew is NOT atonal, one of the main points I’d like everyone to be able to read in printed form is that the record is also NOT ‘jazz fusion,’ and certainly not crazy.

The writer goes on to praise Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which seems a paradoxical attitude. But then the problem is how people are conditioned to expect to hear something and find easy ways to dismiss the unexpected, layperson and aficionado alike. And Bitches Brew continues to challenge expectations. No word on if she’s hearing it, but please don’t fear the funk. Let it set you free.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One comment

  • Interesting. I hope you get to write the book. Bitches Brew and The Unanswered Question are two of my favorite pieces of music although I never made an association between them before. I need to think about this.

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