An historical musical event happened in February of 1964. This event was captured by media for the world to experience and has been consumed regularly since. No, I don’t mean that big musical event on the Ed Sullivan Show that had gotten so much attention in the media last week. I’m talking about musicians.
On February 12th of 1964, The Miles Davis Quintet performed at Lincoln Center and the concert was turned into two of the greatest jazz albums of the 1960s: “My Funny Valentine” and “Four and More”, though it has been re-released as one performance on a double CD. This was a very advanced musical event. There are few people who walked the Earth in the 20th century that could play and improvise at this level.
Please join me below the orange squiggle of one of only two truly unique American art forms.
First, before I get into Miles a bit, let me say that I am utterly disappointed and disgusted again. We are half way through Black History month and the only Jazz Ive encountered has either been intentionally put on my radio/MP3 Player/Computer/TV by me…or in the soundtrack to American Hustle. The Grammies suck year after year with their lack of Jazz. Black History month goes by again with barely a mention of true genius; genius which is not just African American culture, but is actually simply and purely American culture.
Also, I have been trying to figure out how to do a diary series on Jazz for just under a year now. And Black History Month and Miles Davis seems like the best place to begin. I intend to do a few more before February is over and then I’ll see how it goes. I’m a jazz musician, so I’m used to people just not giving a fuck about what I do.
So…..FUCK THE BEATLES and forget all of that Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Les Paul, Dave Brubeck bullshit. (Ok, I love the Beatles. And those four white guys aren’t so bad either…Ill get to race and jazz later). This recording is what we musicians like to call THE SHIT…..and I know it places demands on the listener. I know it is complicated. I know it is unpredictable. I know not everyone likes this. And I also know that in this concert, there is a higher level of musicianship than in virtually every recording of popular music made since Bill Haley and Elvis Presley first started ripping of African American music, except maybe the Steely Dan records that use the guys from this band.
And yes, jazz musicians can be arrogant assholes about pop music. Deal with it, we operate above the bar. We spoon feed you nothing. We are as serious about how to play music as Steven Hawking is about physics. And we treat you like adults. Justin Beiber cant play for shit. Neither can Charlie Watts by comparison. (And I love the rolling stones too). Everyone is entitled to like whatever music they like. But Wayne Shorter is to Kane West what Breaking Bad is to Gilligan’s Island. Ya, some of the stuff you love to listen to is for many jazz musicians the artistic achievement of a Harlequin romance novel and contains the nutritional value of a Big Mac. And besides, our hero, our leader, was an arrogant asshole too. Maybe he had to be.
Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991) was born to a middle class St Louis family. His father was a dentist. And Miles went to school with all the other middle-class kids in St Louis. He was constantly reminded that he was not white, by circumstance and by the “blue eyed” folks directly. He came to NYC in the early 1940s and quickly hooked up with Charlie Parker. There are many stories associated with this relationship, such as how Parker sold Miles’ fancy luggage to buy heroin. There are a handful of classic Parker recordings with a young Miles Davis playing trumpet on them. Miles went on to make the classic Birth of the Cool recording which introduced a new approach to Jazz. Miles also developed the habit at the time.
Miles quit cold turkey in the early 50s. The story goes he went home and toughed it out, never wanting his father to hear him suffering from withdrawl and using that as his motivation to quit. Miles is clean of heroin by 1952ish. And all of his friends had seemingly abandoned him. Im not 100% sure about what exactly was the truth, but Miles was bitter towards people like Sonny Rollins for not recording with him anymore. (BTW Sonny is still alive and he and other still living legends will be the subject of the third or fourth diary Im going to do in the next two weeks). That sounds unfair to Sonny to me, Im not up on the details. Nor…as matter of principle…am I looking up any data anywhere besides my memory. This is an oral tradition and I also happen to be professing my faith. I do have a mission.
Miles then went on to establish the first version of his first famous Quintet and Sextet. Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on Bass, Philly Joe Jones on Drums….and his Holiness, the voice of God, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. This group made several recordings. They added Cannonball Adderly on Alto saxophone. Jimmy Cobb replaces Philly Joe. Red was replaced with Bill Evans (who is in a whole other category than the Brubecks and Goodmans and most other white jazz musicians. I will explain how this works later, the white guys can wait) and Wynton Kelly—on just one cut--and with them Miles made the recording “Kind of Blue”. He also started recording with larger jazz orchestras performing the arrangements of Gil Evans (who is in Bill Evans’ category and not Glenn Miller’s). With Gil come the famous recordings Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.
This group is one of the greatest ever in Jazz and became quite well known and successful. In 1960 or 61, Coltrane leaves to run his own band, just like Red did and Cannonball would do. And Philly Joe and Paul Chambers…well, they just played with everyone. Quite literally.
Miles tries a few people, makes a couple of weaker, though still good, recordings. And then comes the 60s band. The Feb 12th 1964 event features the first version of the 60s band. Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums (who is about 17 years old for this concert) and George Coleman on tenor sax. George would be replaced soon by Wayne Shorter, who at the time was in Art Blakey’s band.
Miles decided to donate the proceeds of this concert to support the civil rights movement, Im not sure if it all went to the NAACP or not. It was only controversial because he hadn’t told the band. Of course they supported the movement, but they didn’t have as much money in the bank as Miles did.
Miles was a mean, arrogant, mother fucker and didn’t tolerate racism or any other sort of disrespect towards his person. He had good record contracts because he demanded them. Later on in the 70s, after Bitches Brew comes out and Miles invents both Fusion and Funk, Miles makes a series of funky jazz rock recordings that he demands get marketed directly to black neighborhoods. I have to admit, some of those recordings are difficult to listen to. The recordings get better in the late 70s and through much of the 80s, but they stay funky. His last studio recordings are not my favorites. Shortly before he dies, he does the one thing he vowed never to do again. He performs some of the old music he made with Gil Evans. The vow was to never repeat the past. Miles always went forward.
There is so much to the life of Miles Davis. My friends and I cried when he died, all in our early 20s when it happened. The man was a force in American Culture and deserves to never be forgotten. It is black history month. Miles Davis is American History.
Apologies for the nasty things I said about pop music and musicians, life without the occasional Big Mac would be a sad thing. I know popular music isn’t all vapid and empty. But being a Jazz musician in the 21st century feels a bit like being a scientist talking to creationists about evolution. And dig my DK name, I have familiarity with that subject too. Oh…and the other purely unique USAian artform is the superhero comic book. Happy Valentine’s Day.