Miles in May
Miles Davis. In all his forms he made jazz history: as a trumpet player, style developer, composer, and bandleader. His trumpet playing is not one of speed or high register but rather more introverted. He gradually used less and less vibrato and had a preference for a specific trumpet mute: the Harmon mute. This produces a subdued trumpet sound that became one of Davis’ trademarks.
From Bebop to Cool
Davis appeared on the scene in the 1940s, while bebop was developing. He was on stage and in the studio with Charlie Parker in New York. But after three years of bebop, he struggled with the blazing-fast tempos and high registers. Composer, arranger, and bandleader Gil Evans made him think differently about music and its possibilities. The result was a change of style, and around 1950 the album Birth of the Cool was released. Nine musicians (a nonet) who did not compete with their saxophones and trumpets, no fiery sounds, murderous tempos, or strong dynamics. Cool jazz is about soft-focus, merging colours, and an important role for unusual wind instruments such as the horn and the tuba. Moderate tempi, mezzo-forte dynamics, no virtuosity, in other words: chamber jazz. It was received in a positive but cautious way. In the late 1950s, the partnership with Gil Evans resulted in Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. This time with larger orchestras.
Davis takes a compositional step with a principle that is based on horizontal tone sequences, instead of the usual vertical chord schemes that had been used thus far: modal jazz. He did not invent this, but he was one of the first to use it successfully, like in the title piece of the album Milestones (1958). One year later, Kind of Blue was released including the modal compositions So What and Flamenco Sketches. Kind of Blue became the best-selling jazz album ever: an album that many non-jazz lovers have in their collection. There even are lists of films in which the record plays a role: it is played, gifted, or its cover is seen in an interior.
Cool is a warmed-over turkey
With a giant step in time, and in Davis’ career, we arrive at Electric Miles. In 1969, he made jazz-rock fusion, surrounded by amplified guitars, bass guitars, and synthesizers. A large part of his audience dropped out, but a growing number of young rock fans poured in. And as always, he knew how to attract the right – and increasingly younger – musicians. He expressed himself negatively about Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue, he did not want to be reminded of them, “It’s over (…) I have no feel for it anymore – it’s more like warmed-over turkey.”
It was said that Miles Davis was touchy, cold, and distant; a man of few words. The communication he had with his audience and his fellow musicians, was limited to the music. After the collectively played theme, and after his solos, he often disappeared from the stage. Davis was nicknamed Picasso of Jazz because of his radical changes in style. He shared his other nickname, Prince of Darkness, with many other musicians, songs, albums, politicians, and literary characters.