If a man like Miles Davis was ironing his shirt, chances are it was caught on tape. Then, in 2003 or something, Sony/Legacy probably released it with some dope packaging, slick production notes, Columbia label, and an MSRP of $129.99. There’s a reason for that and I don’t believe that its possible to overstate. Miles Davis was at the forefront of every major development in Jazz from his first gig in 1945 until his last in 1991. If the Fates ever took a break from weaving, it was to hand Miles Davis a trumpet.
At some point we’ve all been handed a copy of Kind of Blue. Maybe in high school, while thumbing through your JB’s records, you got a little ambitious and gave a few spins to Bitches Brew. Maybe you liked them, but with such an overwhelming amount of material to dig through, where to go next is a complicated question. That in mind, I’d like to introduce the first in a series of Listening Guides to Miles Davis’ career.
Miles the sideman:
Musicians don’t just blossom overnight. Shit, back when labels did their job a band had at least three records to try to get it together. Miles weren’t no different.
Early on, he could play so damn good that he caught a three-week stint playing trumpet for the Eckstein Band when they came through his native St. Louis. Miles Davis cut his teeth filling in with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, a fact that in retrospect seems like a passing of the torch.
Immediately after moving to New York, Davis dropped out of Julliard and landed a gig with Bird himself. There are a numerous slabs of wax from this brief but fertile period; mostly released under Bird’s contract with the Savoy and Dial labels. Most of these sessions appear out-of-order on discs that sound like they were mastered in a tin can. There’s an unspoken rule of thumb when it comes to a CD compilation: judge the disc by its cover. The better looking the artwork the better quality to the mastering.
To get a real taste for what the soloist could accomplish as a sideman I recommend 1950’s Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi.
Miles and Gil Evans:
Miles stepped out on Parker a few times. He played with Mingus in ’46, when Bird was laid up Camarillo State and Davis had some time on his hands in Los Angeles. He led a couple of sessions of his own with and without Bird in ’47 and ’48. He had always gone back to the nest though. Toward the end of the 40’s, however, Bird didn’t care about anyone but heroin. Its around then Miles Davis began bumming around Gil Evans‘ apartment all hours of the night. Not an uncommon activity among late 40’s New York jazz scene. And, as almost anyone could tell ya, you hang around with someone long enough you’re gonna start a nine-piece band. It happens.
During the end of ’49 and the beginning of 1950 Evans and Davis’ nonet cut the sessions that would inspire the Cool Jazz movement and would become the 1957 album Birth of the Cool. Davis returned to Parker’s band a few times, but with Evans had created something beyond bop that the two were only beginning to explore. From the get-go the promise of this partnership was profound and gorgeous.
Birth of the Cool, not only ushered in a new era of Jazz, it established Miles as its king (to critics, the original 1950 sides sold rather poorly). That was only the beginning, and Davis wasn’t interested in any crowns unless they were going to come from the Penguin Guide to Jazz. We’ll get back to Miles and Gil though, in 1950 Davis was a busy man.
Miles on Prestige and Heroin:
While Davis spent a good deal winter and spring 1950 in Paris, State-side critics began to write him off. He had found himself in the unenviable position of having to prove himself. Luckily, something had bubbled up in New York. Something almost so polarized from Cool Jazz (which really aside from Davis became a West Coast phenomenon) it speaks to the breadth of American regionalism to call them both Jazz. Like calling both Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys Hardcore. That something was Hard- Bop.
Taking the harmonic and structural implications of Be-Bop and adding to them the solid, moving, and blues drenched rhythms of early R&B, Hard-Bop remained largely indifferent to the pacific tides of the West Coast Jazz scene.
Hard-Bop gave soloists a chance to blare like Gospel singers, and had drawn Miles Davis to it as Ulysses to siren song. The emerging new sound gave Davis the opportunity not only to build on the ideas that rained off Parker, but to edit them. Unluckily, there had been something else kicking around the New York Jazz scene in 1950 dropping jazz musicians like flies- heroin.
Armed with both a new addiction and sound, Davis spent 1950-1954 cutting excellent sides and, poorly, hiding his habit. His early sides for Prestige, and a few from Blue Note, are documents not only of the developing wider sound (he recorded his early sessions with a veritable whose who of Hard- Bop), they are documents of a singular and searching genius. Davis’ 1951 album Dig! features the thunderous drumming of legend Art Blakey and the sax work of a young Sonny Rollins. It stands out – if not among Miles Davis’ most well received work – as one of the cornerstones of Hard- Bop.
My personal favorite from this period is Miles Davis and Horns, which teeters between the soulful Bop of the early 1950’s and the arrangements he would later create with Gil Evans.
Critics hailed the release of 1954’s Walkin’ which encapsulates Davis’ Hard-Bop years with pristine intensity. Given the nature of LP releases before In the Wee Small Hours or Rubber Soul, however, few of the albums released by Davis at the time were wholly considered efforts*. They were instead collections of sessions, many of them featuring different line-ups within the same LP. After ’54 a newly cleaned up Miles Davis would put an end to that and establish such a powerful and unique line-up of musicians they would be remembered as The Great Quintet. But first, he’d have to kick the horse.
More on that next. Same Bat Channel, Same Bat Time.
*Frank Sinatra, its said, was one of the first artists to use the long-playing record, or LP, to establish a theme to which the individual selections relate. The Beatles, nearly a decade later, cemented this approach after their soundtrack albums (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) with Rubber Soul while The Beach Boys took the idea one step further with Pet Sounds. Creating what we have come to think of as the ‘album’. Prior to these ideas LP’s were collections of singles with little to no relation other than the featured artist.