Miles Davis was a jazz icon, a bandleader, trumpet player, instrumentalist, and composer of monumental import. Part one of this two-part series ended with Milestone number three highlighting the sensational mid-1960’s quintet, which included Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums — and the extraordinary music they created.
Led by Davis, this core group in 1968 began to be supplemented with an amazing flow of young musicians who created a jazz epoch that incorporated rock, funk, R&B and electrical augmentation that came to be known as fusion.
Milestone number four begins in 1968 and is marked by the release of Davis albums that move away from unencumbered, acoustic jazz instrumentation to an electronic era. The first album that crosses this bridge is Filles De Kilimanjaro (Columbia Records), where Chick Corea on electric piano and Dave Holland on acoustic bass (with Ron Carter on electric bass) joined the quintet.
This is followed by Miles in the Sky (Columbia Records) with guest George Benson on electric guitar and Hancock playing electric piano.
Both albums explore new directions in jazz, and 1969’s In a Silent Way (Columbia Records) speeds the transition to its conclusion. In a Silent Way has four songs played in two extended combinations: “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time.” It features Davis, Hancock on electric piano, Williams, Shorter, Corea on electric piano, Holland, Josef Zawinul on electric piano and organ, and John McLaughlin on electric guitar.
Jazz purists were aghast at these developments and never forgave Davis, as Miles was accused of selling out. Other jazz artists were also changing direction in an attempt to remain viable, but he had the highest profile. Davis, of course, was unfazed by the criticism, as the one constant throughout his life was change.
The year 1969 was a watershed year for Davis as his album and concert ticket sales were in decline. He knew he needed to do something to get back his mojo. At the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, he observed firsthand the reception such acts as Sly & the Family Stone received and had his revelation.
Indicative of the times, the promoter of the NJF had to feature acts such as Sly to draw the crowds that a strictly jazz lineup could no longer produce.
This was not lost on Davis, and as part of his reinvention he left the blues behind and became a rock star — with all the trimmings.
Milestone number five is the 1969 release of Bitches Brew (Columbia Records), which proved to be a commercial triumph, selling over 400,000 copies of the double LP.
Bitches Brew was recorded in New York City during a three-day period in August 1969, coincidentally three days after the end of Woodstock.
It is the high water mark for Davis in this style of music. The musicians on this album include Wayne Shorter, Lenny White, Bennie Maupin, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and John McLaughlin, among others.
It is the epicenter of what came to be called fusion. All of the selections on the album are highlights and most prominently include “Spanish Key,” “Pharaoh’s Dance,” “Bitches Brew” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”
The release is significant, as much music and many careers are derived from this album. Without this recording and its success there are no first-generation followers such as Weather Report, Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Lifetime, The Crusaders, etc.
Unfortunately, those that follow these initial groups dilute the music even further, and any connection to classic jazz is fleeting.
Similarly, after Davis released Jack Johnson (Columbia Records) and Black Beauty (Columbia Records) in 1970 on the heels of Bitches Brew, mainstream jazz fell farther behind in his rear view mirror and completely disappeared by the time of In Concert (Columbia Records, 1973) and Big Fun (Columbia Records, 1974).
Milestone number six is the period from 1975 to 1981 when Davis stopped playing due to chronic ill health and drug problems. While he was away, many wondered if he would ever play again, although for many he had stopped playing in 1969 with his full immersion in jazz-rock.
The final Milestone are the years 1981 to his death in 1991, where even Davis acknowledged that what he was playing wasn’t jazz; he pronounced jazz dead.
There were a few albums of note during this period, but nothing approaching his greatest musically creative period of 1950 to 1970.
Davis’ comeback album in 1981, The Man with the Horn (Columbia Records), is noteworthy only for being his first studio recording in six years. His sparse playing that was so full and influential during his heyday now signaled an inability to carry the tune.
Star People (Columbia Records, 1983) is notable for an homage called “Star on Cicely” to his wife at the time, Cicely Tyson, who helped nurse him back to health during his hiatus. Decoy (Columbia Records, 1984) is a spirited album with energetic tunes such as “Code M.D.” and “Decoy” but little depth. You’re Under Arrest (Columbia Records, 1985) is dominated by synthesizers and pop tunes like “Human Nature” and “Time After Time.”
His final studio project called Doo Bop (Warner Brothers Records, 1991), in collaboration with Easy Mo Bee, was where he sought to capitalize on the commercial appeal of hip hop to once again reach a wider audience. When Davis died in September 1991, the album wasn’t totally complete, and Easy Mo Bee laid the vocals down over two Davis instrumentals.
Davis’ spirit and creativity were best exemplified during the last decade of his life with his development as a contemporary artist. He evolved from drawings in sketchbooks while on tour to delivering his vision via acrylics on canvas, among other media.
His art can be described as post-modern abstract expressionism with a Black sensibility; it is a singular style that is as recognizable as the work of Romare Bearden, Ernie Barnes, Charles Bibbs or Annie Lee. The paintings are filled with vibrant colors, angular lines, striking female figures, his face and horn in various profiles, and Davis’ trademark totem pole faces, as he called them.
He had art shows in Japan, New York and Europe, and his originals sold for major sums of money. His work in art also influenced his clothing fashion designs on and off stage, as his artistic temperament was without boundaries.
Sir Miles Davis was inducted into the Knights of Malta in November 1988 and won 24 Grammys, including one for lifetime achievement in March1990. He was a Renaissance man for the ages who passed away on September 28, 1991.
Miles Davis Starter Kit
Your starter kit for this jazz icon during the period of 1969 to 1991 should be as follows:
• Bitches Brew, Columbia Records, 1969; this has to be considered a must-have Davis release along with 1950’s Birth Of The Cool (Columbia Records) and 1959’s Kind Of Blue (Columbia Records), as each record initiated epic shifts in music.
• The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, Columbia Records, 2003; this five-CD package capturing the recordings made between February and June 1970 is for the serious collector. The original Jack Johnson album had two extended selections, each over 25 minutes, entitled “Right Off” and “Yesternow.”
This collection features comprehensive liner notes, photographs, post production track wizardry, truly alternate takes, unreleased compositions, incomplete compositions with phrasing that appears in his later works, and is amazing in its raw presentation.
• The Columbia Years 1955-1985, Columbia Records, 1988; this four-CD set contains the best of his years at the label, and the music is separated into Blues, Standards, Originals, Moods and Electric. This collection best captures the scope of his career with one-stop shopping, and includes
extensive liner notes and photographs.
• Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990, Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe; published one year before his death, the book tells all including his battles with drugs, the women in his life, the musicians he knew and the music he created.
• The Art Of Miles Davis, Prentice Hall Press, 1991, Miles Davis and Scott Gutterman; this book details Davis’ development as an artist in his own words and those of others who nurtured him in this area. It also contains representative photographs of his works.
Mario Carrington welcomes reader responses to