One of my heroes has always been Miles Davis. Last month Columbia Records released the Miles Davis’s awesome Bitches Brew Live, from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969. As I listen to that CD now, I am struck by just how ahead of his time Miles was. What follows is a fragmented thought on aspects of Miles’s fusion period. It is the conclusion of an abandoned article I wrote just prior to coming to Southern New Hampshire University in 2005.
By the late 1960s Miles Davis had ceased to be the dark embodiment of cool. Although he was as detached as ever, his sound was moving progressively further away from anything that resembled music, let alone jazz. Miles was pushing the boundaries of musical structure to unfathomable depths, which resulted in what seemed to be an ever-increasing resentment by the public toward his music and his personality in particular. The general sense was that Miles was going out of his way to alienate the traditional jazz fans that still wanted to hear him play those killer ballads. Therefore, this pushing of the boundaries of music was, at the time, and to those dwelling in the jazz world, anything but cool. By the late 1960s and early 1970s Miles was no longer playing “jazz,” but a hybrid influenced by several musical styles. Increasingly absent were his tailor made Italian suits and ultra hip style. Now he was moving toward more funk and (God forbid) rock rhythms and styles. His earlier influences like Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie were replaced by Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix; musical figures who were, at the time, enjoying an astounding degree of public attention and praise. Miles was aware of the plight of jazz when compared to rock and soul. As Ian Carr explains in his biography, Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography: “The basic problem facing Miles Davis and all other jazz musicians was how to reinstate instrumental music as a major force on equal terms with the ubiquitous vocal groups.” Ever the chameleon-like figure, Miles knew he had to find another audience, and another audience he did find. What followed was the electric period and the advent of fusion which lasted from 1969 until his retirement in 1974. When Miles reemerged from seclusion in 1980 he was a shadow of his former self. However, he soon built himself back up to strong levels of performance. The last eleven years of his life were spent actively touring, recording, and painting, a hobby Miles had taken up as a form of physical therapy following a stroke.
Since his death in 1991 the mystique and allure of Miles Davis has continued to grow. He was larger than life, and his legacy to the world can be heard in his music and seen in his art. “One learns,” writes Ralph Ellison, “by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar.” Miles Davis perpetually moved forward throughout his career. When he finally did look back with Quincy Jones in 1991 for a re-visitation of Miles’s collaborations with Gil Evans, he was close to death. We should be thankful that Columbia Records has embarked upon such an extensive reissue campaign for the music of Miles Davis, despite their attempts to turn him into a commodity (much like what Thomasville Furniture is doing through its Hemingway and Bogart Collections). Moreover, the persona of Miles Davis continues to haunt the periphery of American popular culture. Ironically, we now consider the music of Miles Davis as emblematic of the American experience during the mid to late twentieth century. Yet, while he was alive he felt that American audiences and critics did not appreciate him or his contributions to music in a way that several European nations did. In many interviews he stated that if he had “been a white Miles Davis he could have done so much more.” Despite our first African-American President, race is still a problem in this country. Like James Baldwin, Miles Davis refused to compromise on his beliefs, attitudes, or views of how he should or should not conduct himself. As a result his lifestyle, as well as his several innovations in music, Miles Davis continually sought out the unfamiliar. The persona of Miles Davis is problematic, but nonetheless intriguing.