On the Turntable — Miles Ahead

July 23rd, 2018

 

 

I have been fortunate – thus far – to have avoided the many summer colds going around this season, but I have been afflicted, once again, by “Miles Fever.”  Every so often, I am struck by an irresistible urge to dig into the catalog of this artist so present during virtually every season of my life, and rediscover the thrill of his sound, and of his cultural significance.

I contracted the virus this morning, and spent the morning (in bed, of course) listening to Miles Ahead, the 1957 recording featuring Miles Davis and 19 musicians under the direction of Gil Evans – his first collaboration with Miles since the Birth of the Cool sessions of 1950, and one of his earliest recordings for Columbia Records.  An early example of “Third Stream” music – a term coined by composer Gunther Schuller to describe the fusing of jazz and classical music – the record continues to sound brilliant, with Evans’ cool arrangements setting a rich landscape for Miles to perform in; at times his flugelhorn is utterly romantic, at others it attacks with energy, humor and fire.  It is, as the most eminent jazz writer Gary Giddins wrote in Visions of Jazz, “peerlessly seductive.”

With Miles’ blessing, he was marketed by Columbia as an artist who could appeal not only to jazz fans, but also, according to George Avakian, the storied Columbia executive who signed Miles to the label, “people who know nothing about jazz.”  In his contributions to the album’s liner notes, Avakian writes that while Miles Ahead is “significant from the musical point of view, it is also an album which we feel is a delight to anyone.”  Giddins wrote that the recording is a “commercial and critical landmark in the music of the ‘50’s.”

The back story to this record is the album cover itself.  Giddins writes that “the only drawback [to the album] was the cover – a sailboat against a blue sky, intended to express the idea of Miles forging ahead, with a blonde model on the boat.  Davis protested, ‘Why’d you put that white bitch on there?’  But the company wasn’t about to burn the 50,000 jackets already printed.”  Subsequent pressings of the recording have featured a rather bland photograph of Miles playing his instrument.

I have hosted several discussions with prominent Miles biographers/historians over the years, and excerpts from two of them – with Gerald Early and John Szwed – are found below.  You can read the interviews in their entirety by clicking on the links found within the excerpt.

 

 

_____

 

 

From a 2001 Jerry Jazz Musician interview with cultural critic Gerald Early, editor of the book Miles Davis and American Culture.

Read the entire interview by clicking here

 

Gerald Early

 

_____

 

JJM You said in one of your essays that he was a “man that was not afraid to be himself.” A musician told Ebony Magazine, “Nobody in the world can play music as beautifully as he does and not be a beautiful person inside.” Others would characterize him as being everything from a mysogenist and angry to sentimental and friendly. Who was Miles Davis?

GE As with any complex person, it’s hard to definitively say he was this way or that way…I would have to say in the end, Miles Davis was a musician. He was a jazz musician, he was a great musician, who was quite dedicated to his craft, and quite dedicated to the art of making music. He was someone who was very dedicated to expressing himself and his inner feelings and emotions. As an artist, he was a very sensitive man. Artists do lots of things, and I think we tolerate certain kinds of behavior from a great artist like Miles that we would not tolerate from an ordinary person. This is true even when we think of the behavior we tolerate from a great athlete. From great people we tend to tolerate certain kinds of lapses that we don’t from others. Regarding the mysogeny and some of the other things, these are things that were part of his personal life, and his relationship with women. I am not saying that people can’t talk about it – Davis himself talked about it pretty graphically in his autobiography. In the end, the quality of his music and what he produced transcends anything about what he was personally, which I think is true of any artist, whether you want to talk about Mozart or anyone of that magnitude. If you read some of Mozart’s letters, he talked in quite derogatory language, so you can find out about the lives of a lot of people if you dig deep enough, and you find out that they may be a little weird or off center. To some degree, I think all great artists are like that. It’s kind of like what Alfred Hitchcock once said about great actors, something to the effect that great actors are sort of nutty people, but the only way they can do what they do is to be the way that they are. I think that’s really true with someone like Miles Davis. I think the only way he could play the the kind of music he played was to be the way he was, so you kind of had to take the whole package. In the end, what could be said is that he was a great musician, very dedicated to his music and was someone was a very adventuresome musician who wanted to try all the time to experiment in the spirit of jazz, explore and try to do new things. I am not saying that everything he tried worked, or that everyone should like everything he did, but I think the spirit of what was driving him most of the time, whether you liked it or not, was most admirable and what we most appreciate and love in an artist. This need of his to push boundaries and explore is what we most admire.

 

JJM To say the least, he was a special artist, and I suppose we put up with behavior of his whether we were fans or peers. His behavior, in truth, impacted very few of us. What struck me about him was that he was a “man’s man.” He modeled himself after Sugar Ray Robinson, and he loved boxing, fast cars, and drinking. He led this sort of Playboy existence. What was his concept of masculinity and how did it appear in his work?

GE Yes, he was very much a “man’s man.” He exhibited a lot of those qualities – the way he dressed, the way he carried himself. As you said, his model was Sugar Ray Robinson, a boxer. He admired prize fighters a lot, and he really liked the sport. He comes across as being a tough guy, and I think a part of the reason why he cultivated that kind of persona was because he was a small man, and I think in some ways he wanted to project a physical presence so people wouldn’t take advantage of him because he was small. Also, I think that as a black man he wanted to project a certain kind of toughness, because, once again, he didn’t want people to take advantage of him. Remember, a good portion of his audience was white, a good deal of the jazz press is white, so he was dealing with a lot of people he was skeptical about – if not downright hostile about. People that he would feel uneasy about trusting. After all, they were white people, and he didn’t have any particular reason to trust them in a lot of ways.

JJM One of your writers, Eric Porter, said that Davis “represents the survival of African-American male genius.” I am sure Davis took it upon himself to maintain his esteem..

GE I think very much so, yes. Another reason for him to have this “man’s man” toughness is because the jazz world, particularly at the time he entered it, was connected to the “seedy” side of life. Jazz was played primarily in night clubs, there were prostitutes around, organized crime, drug addiction, and this sort of thing. So jazz musicians, unlike other kinds of artists who are removed from that world, bumped heads with the lower aspects of life. I also think that Davis developed the kind of attitude he did because he was so exposed to this underworld sort of life that bumped up against jazz, particularly at this time in its history.

JJM What were his politics? How politically active was he?

GE He was never really very politically active. From all indications in his autobiography, it didn’t appear he was particularly political. I don’t even know if he ever voted. During the civil rights movement, he gave a couple of benefit concerts, but he didn’t get involved in it the way Max Roach did, or some of the other guys. He wasn’t somebody who got into a big race pride thing like John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders, or some of the other people who were playing the avante-garde stuff back in the 60’s. He didn’t seem to go that way. On the other hand, even though he didn’t espouse any sort of politics, he came across to the public as being this very uncompromising black man, the sort of guy who didn’t take shit from people. That really impressed a lot of younger black people who came up and who admired him.

 

Read the entire interview with Gerald Early by clicking here

 

_______________

 

Excerpted from a 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician interview with John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis.

Read the entire interview by clicking here

 

 

John Szwed

 

_____

 

JJM As you point out in the introduction to your book, there are already several biographies of Miles Davis, as well as his own autobiography. What did you hope to accomplish with So What?

JS It started when I ran into Miles Davis’ brother Vernon, and when he encouraged me to write, I was unable to resist. I began talking to other family members, his first wife Irene, his son Gregory, and many of his girlfriends along the way. I then found the original notes from Alex Haley’s interview for Playboyin 1959, and discovered there was quite a bit unpublished material in it. I researched biographer Quincy Troupe’s interviews and found material that shed new light on things. To me, that meant that there must have been inaccurate information in interviews over the years because things kept getting repeated that Miles insisted weren’t true, yet they were being copied from one interview to another when he apparently wasn’t too cooperative. So, that was the reason that I started doing this.

JJM What was a significant childhood event of Miles Davis’?

JS I think he had a very uneventful life as a child. It was almost archetypal. He was raised in an integrated neighborhood and fit in very well with it. There is a story about Miles being chased by a white man going after him with a gun, but he denied it. He seemed to have a quite normal childhood.

JJM You wrote that the thing he talked about with much fondness was his paper route.

JS Yes, that was the only day job he ever had, actually. He took a lot of pride in that, and since he had a sizable allowance, he was free to spend money earned on this job any way he wanted. He would buy clothes and records with it.

The most critical moment of his childhood was his parents’ divorce. That affected him, as it would anyone at that age. His parents had quite a volatile relationship, although not as bad as some like to make of it. For example, there are stories of how his father repeatedly beat his mother, but there is no evidence of that. To take the leap that people have taken and glibly say that Miles modeled his own behavior after his father’s, I see no evidence of that.

 

JJM Was he embarrassed by his middle class background as he moved to New York and began hanging out with musicians who didn’t have such a privileged childhood?

JS I don’t think ’embarrassed’ is the right word. He certainly told everybody he had money, and he showed it, buying suits and loaning money to people. He bragged about his father’s wealth and about going to Julliard, so I don’t think he was embarrassed by his background. He did want to mix with the “lower depths,” which at the time was a middle class “beat” sort of phenomenon. He did that, even to extremes, but I never saw any evidence of him hiding anything. He was very open about attending Julliard, which was one of the great music schools in the world, and made a point of sharing his lessons with people. His characterization of Julliard in his autobiography was a bit strange. He trashed it in one paragraph, then a few paragraphs later he bragged about studying there. But that very well may have been the way he felt.

Read the entire interview with John Szwed by clicking here

 

 

 

 

Share this:

2 comments on “On the Turntable — Miles Ahead”

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

The cover to Nina Simone's 1967 album "SIlk and Soul"
“Brown Girl” by Jerrice J. Baptiste

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Publisher’s Notes

photo by Rhonda Dorsett
A very brief three-dot update…Where I’ve been, and an update on what is coming up on Jerry Jazz Musician

Interview

Michael Cuscuna in 1972
From the Interview Archive: Jazz Producer, Discographer, and Entrepreneur Michael Cuscuna...Few music industry executives have had as meaningful an impact on jazz music as Michael Cuscuna, who passed away on April 20 at the age of 75. I had the privilege of interacting with Michael several times over the years, including this wide-ranging 2019 interview I conducted with him. His energy and vision was deeply admired within the jazz world. May his spirit for the music and its culture continue to impact those of us who remain.

Poetry

Photographer uncredited, but the photo was almost certainly taken by Chuck Stewart. Published by ABC/Impulse! Records.. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“And I’m Not Even Here” – a poem by Connie Johnson

Click here to read more poetry published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Click here to read more interviews published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

Three poets and Sketches of Spain

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

Review

Jason Innocent, on “3”, Abdullah Ibrahim’s latest album... Album reviews are rarely published on Jerry Jazz Musician, but Jason Innocent’s experience with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s new recording captures the essence of this artist’s creative brilliance.

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #171

Dick Cavett/via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to being one of the greatest musicians of his generation, this Ohio native was an activist, leading “Jazz and People’s Movement,” a group formed in the late 1960’s who “adopted the tactic of interrupting tapings and broadcasts of television and radio programs (i.e. the shows of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett [pictured] and Merv Griffin) in protest of the small number of Black musicians employed by networks and recording studios.” Who was he?

Click here to visit the Jazz History Quiz archive

Community

photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive