One of the reader reviews on the Amazon page for my book, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew scoffs at me for comparing Miles Davis’ artistry to that of Picasso and Stravinsky. That’s not much reason to respond to that, it’s a personal complaint that doesn’t even approach any level of critical thinking, but still it bothers me. Not that someone is dissatisfied with my book, but that this kind of shallow snobbery is still around.
Putting Davis in the company of Picasso and Stravinsky is historically and critically accurate. Each man pioneered brand new styles and concepts in their art, before leaving an innovation behind and moving on to a new one, and then doing it again, and again. To paraphrase a passage from Miles’ autobiography, Miles was seated next to a well-tended woman at a White House dinner, and when the woman asked him, with no little condescension, what he (a black man) did to earn an invite, he responded “I changed music four or five times, what did you do other than being born white?”
Miles (after serving as Charlie Parker’s musical director and sitting in Bird’s trumpet chair longer than Red Rodney or Kenny Dorham) went on to create cool jazz, modal jazz, then jazz-rock fusion. In between, especially with the 1965-68 Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, he climbed a pinnacle of jazz conception that has yet to be surpassed, using wiry structure to contain playing that was almost entirely free within a clear jazz language. Jazz is a hybrid music in that it is the only music to begin as a popular style then move on to become an art music (and no, John Dowland becoming “classical” because he’s ancient doesn’t count). And no one, not even Parker or Duke Ellington or Coltrane (and think about Coltrane and all the other careers Miles launched as one of the great bandleaders), did more to blend the pop with the art. Miles’ music always had soul, blues, funk, sweat, sex, intellect, abstraction, and hipness. Just like Picasso, and Stravinsky. What more can we want from art?
Recommendations? Well, all of it. There are the individual classics, of course, but it’s the body of work as a whole that is an endless pleasure. With that, the record I reach for most often is Someday My Prince Will Come. I just love the elegance and muscularity of Miles’ playing and arranging, Hank Mobley sounds so fresh, and it’s a subtle feature for the great Jimmy Cobb, who just left us this past weekend. If in doubt, though, listen to the great, massive playlist I put together: