From the mid 1940's through the 1990's one name appears in the forefront of every musical movement: Miles Davis. After briefly attending the Juilliard School the teen-age Miles found himself in the club scene of 52nd street listening to and soon after playing with his idols. He was soon recording with Charlie Parker. So why is Miles not simply listed as a bebopper?
Miles Davis immediately began transcending the whole idea of style. His first departure came with the monumental Birth of the Cool album of 1949. This was a reaction to the harshness of the bebop revolution which had a long way yet to go. Miles found new musicians; or they found him. Lennie Tristano [piano], Lee Konitz [alto saxophone], Gerry Mulligan [baritone saxophone], Gil Evans[arranger], Tadd Dameron [arranger].
For a group that only existed for a few recording sessions and barely played live an enormous amount of influential music was made. Miles was 23. Several careers were launched those days and in his late 20's Miles formed his famous quintet with John Coltrane [tenor saxophone], Red Garland [piano], Paul Chambers [bass], Philly Joe Jones [drums].
This group ranks with the Louis Armstrong Hot Five of the 20's and the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie groups of the 40's. The maturity of the soloists, the restraint and power of the textures, and the sustained atmosphere- cool, yet exciting- make these recordings share the timeless quality of classic works. Miles Davis raised the bar for combo playing in a few short years.
Miles went on to collaborate on several beautiful orchestral albums with Gil Evans. Was it jazz? Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain; these albums transcend description. Yet a new version of Miles Davis's music; he was not yet 35 years old.
Had Miles retired in the sixties his place in history would have been assured, but Miles had much more to offer. At this age, the musicians of the previous generation, with few exceptions, had stopped their development and were content to mine the same territory. They were just catching up to Charlie Parker's bebop revolution. Miles was two revolutions ahead of them.
Swirling all around Miles were new sounds. Former sideman John Coltrane [tenor saxophone] was already moving into new territory and young Ornette Coleman's alto sax was out there inventing free jazz. What did Miles do? First he simplified his language with a series of modal bands. Modal refers to the use of a scale as the basis of improvisation. Conventionally a harmonic progression or series of chords formed the basis of improvisation. it had been this way since Armstrong. Now one could maintain a mood by playing around one scale or mode. The modal system forms the real fundamentals of all African and European music. These modes had not been extensively used in their pure form for many centuries. Certainly the blues scale shared characteristics of a true mode but the blues keep shifting, often being based on the 12-bar chord progression. What if the chord progression was stripped away? One could just play in the mode. Miles made beautiful albums in the modal style starting with "Milestones" and "Kind of Blue."
Some of this may sound like Miles was desperate to find something new at any cost to stay ahead of the crowd. The different directions Miles took throughout his career have, in every case, pulled everyone along with him. No matter what other musicians were up to, Miles pointed the direction. Now in 2019, he is also fresh, good and free on itunes.
This is never more true than with "Bitches Brew" when he was 43. Seemingly the last barriers were down. Miles had now essentially invented jazz-rock. Electronic instruments, sound flurries, almost anarchic textures, certainly free-er jazz, but now bound by an intense rock-inspired rhythm section. Again all his sidemen went on to other adventures. Without a big band Miles launched as many important soloists as Basie or Ellington.
Miles Davis's fascination with texture and experimentation continued to the end at 65. Was Miles the best trumpet player of his generation? By most standards no. There were others: Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer. Miles however never failed to make subtle intelligent musical decisions.
The supreme good taste and innate class of all of his recordings are testament to his genius. His influence, not only on all trumpeters since, but on small group playing of all kinds will be proof forever of his enduring importance.