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Miles Ahead

RETROSPECT: miles davis | Miles Davis

what can a 63-year-old jazz trumpeter teach you about playing? rather a lot, actually

If your creativity has failed you, try listening to the work of superstar jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Like it or loathe it, you won't be able to ignore it.

LISTEN TO A rock record, any rock record, as if you were listening to it for the first time. Ignoring the human voices, which are the most easily identifiable part of any music, and see if you recognise any of the musicians through their playing. Chances are you can't, not really.

In rock 'n' roll, only a handful of guitar players - Hank Marvin, Jimi Hendrix - have made a sound that was original, distinctively their own, and difficult to imitate.

In jazz, things are different. It isn't just the beard-trimming, real ale-swilling connoisseurs who can recognise individual musicians. Especially if the musicians in question are brass players. And especially if one of them is Miles Davis.

One of the few true jazz superstars was born in Alton, Illinois on 25 May, 1926, the son of a dentist, Miles Dewey Davis II. His mother, Cleota, spotted the young Miles eavesdropping on his sister's piano lessons, and decided to give him a violin for his 13th birthday. But his father thought he had a better idea, and bought him a trumpet instead - the couple later divorced.

Miles learned quickly, and began playing professionally at weekends while he was still at school. He knew he was the best trumpet player in his class, but had to stand aside as all the prizes went to white, anglo-saxon kids with big smiles and blue eyes. It was the first time racial prejudice had affected his musical career, and Miles resolved it would also be the last. Much later, he admitted that along with "curiosity", prejudice had been the biggest influence on his musical development.

The colour of his skin did nothing to prevent Miles from getting his first "big break" when he was invited to join a well-known group for $60 a week. The youngster was ready and willing, but his mother wasn't - and insisted he finish his schooling before he could go off and seek his fortune. So Miles stayed in St Louis, where his family had moved a year after his birth, and graduated from school in June 1944. A month later, a fabled bop band under the leadership of one Billy Eckstine arrived in town, complete with a couple of sidemen - Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - whom Miles had come to admire from records. As Miles entered the club where the band was due to play, Gillespie ran up to him, asked him if he had a union card, and on receiving an answer in the affirmative, asked Miles if he could deputise for the band's third trumpeter, who was ill. Miles gleefully accepted, and ended up playing with the band for three weeks.

After that, parental conflict again appeared to hinder Miles Davis' progress. Cleota wanted him to go to University in Nashville, but his father urged Miles to have a bash at getting a degree from the Juilliard - New York's most respected school of classical music.

Miles opted for the latter course, but as soon as he got to New York he set about trying to find Charlie Parker - who he knew could teach him more about jazz than the Juilliard. After a week, he hadn't just found 'Bird', he was sharing a room with him.

With Parker's help, Miles began to develop his trumpet technique. He also received encouragement from other seminal players of the era, notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. And when the mood took him, he even turned up to the odd lecture at the Juilliard, and learned something from that, too. After long months of solid practising on his own, rehearsing with various bands and gigging with them in small clubs, Miles began to develop his own distinctive style of playing. Above all, he started not just to recognise his limitations as a technician, but to come to terms with them. He knew he couldn't play as big a range of notes as Gillespie, or as loud and fast as Bird. So he concentrated on getting the best out of the middle register, and on playing only a few notes, slowly, with plenty of space between them to give them room to breathe.

Miles Davis was beginning to make a big impact, even though his trumpet playing was often quiet, subtle, and unobtrusive. He was starting to lead his own combos, and in 1948 he made a series of recordings which came to be known as 'Birth of the Cool'. These sessions - recorded in conjunction with composer-arranger Gil Evans - made a sharp contrast with the then-fashionable mood of bop. Where bop was urgent and frenetic, Davis' and Evans' "cool" jazz was soft and supple. And where bop concentrated on a rigid rhythmic structure to underpin instrumental solos, "cool" shifted the emphasis toward a looser, more flexible approach to rhythm and the dynamics of the group.

It's doubtful if the 'Birth of the Cool' recordings could have taken place without Miles Davis. And if they hadn't, the whole course of jazz history may have been utterly different. As it was, however, Miles himself was in no position to exploit the turmoil his soft, understated genius had instigated. By 1950, he'd become a heroin addict. Forty years ago, this was not always the desperate condition that it is in today's virus-infested society. But there were no film noir advertising campaigns to warn of the dangers, either, and heroin could still kill a man stone dead - or at least, kill his creativity.

Miles Davis was lucky. He'd got into the habit on his own, and he kicked it on his own - by "staring at the ceiling for 12 days" and cursing everybody he didn't like. But the greatest single creative talent in modern jazz had come within a needle's width of wasting away into a premature grave.

Miles began playing again immediately after his close call with drugs. But it wasn't until a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1955 that his influence began to be felt afresh - especially by fellow musicians. The trumpeter was now confident of his own abilities, both as a player and as a leader of other players. But he continued to feel constrained by some of the musical conventions of the day, and after signing to Columbia Records in 1955, began a shift away from traditional, complex chord sequences. Without the cushion of familiar chord progressions, Miles and his fellow soloists (who by this time included soprano sax player John Coltrane) had their pre-conceptions of playing challenged, and rose to the occasion wonderfully. For them, and for jazz as a whole, the shift towards a simpler harmonic backdrop opened the way for a new era of melodic invention and improvisation. 'Kind of Blue', recorded in 1959, contains some of the finest examples of Miles' modal dabbling.

Throughout the next decade, Miles continued to work with Gil Evans, and they pursued their common aim of creating music whose strength lay not in sheer weight of numbers or volume, but in simple, striking melody, unusual scales and modes, and intelligent use of space.

By the early 1960s, Miles Davis had become a household name in the US, not because he had bastardised jazz in order to accommodate a wider audience, but because the respect in which he was held by the jazz community was now so deep, "outsiders" were obliged to sit up and take notice.

Miles was also busily enhancing his reputation as an unrivalled nurturer of other musicians' talent. It was not that he "discovered" players as such, simply that he had a knack of seeking out the kind of creative minds his music needed, and then putting those minds in a situation that immediately tested and extended their musical prowess. Several waves of leading jazz musicians served an "apprenticeship" under Miles in this way - among them sax players Coltrane and Wayne Shorter; keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea; guitarist John McLaughlin; and drummer Jack Dejohnette.

Yet although it's true to say Miles Davis refused to popularise the music he loved in order to make it more commercial, it's also true that he embraced a thousand other musical styles and developments as his career progressed. His interpretations of "standards" often fell far outside the jazz idiom; 'Sketches of Spain', an exploration into the moods and colours of Spanish classical music, is a fine early example.

And in 1969, Miles exported his unique vision into the world of rock and fusion music with two classic albums, 'In A Silent Way' and 'Bitches Brew'. Far from feeling threatened by the dual-pronged attack on "traditional" jazz values represented by rock's electric instruments and relentless beat, Miles Davis took both elements by the scruff of the neck, and put them to uses their creators had never intended.

Of course, Miles was ravaged by many jazz critics, enraged and saddened by the way he had dared to incorporate influences from the bastard child of jazz, rock 'n' roll. But Miles had suffered such critical setbacks before, and simply carried on in his own sweet way.

That way was barred temporarily, however, in 1975, when a combination of physical and mental ailments crushed Miles' will to play. For the best part of six years, Miles Davis just sat at home and twiddled his thumbs - because without music, there was almost nothing in his life at all.

Miraculously he resurfaced, as he claims he knew he always would, with a succession of new band line-ups and bold new recordings, such as 'The Man With The Horn', 'Decoy' and 'Tutu'. On these albums, Miles reaffirmed his commitment to expansion through the use of new moods, styles, and instruments. 'Tutu', for example, deployed the inspired structures of Marcus Miller's beatbox and synthesizer programming, over which the man's horn sings, shrieks, moans, and whispers as eloquently as it's ever done.

An epic compilation of Miles' work over the last 30 years has just been released. It's called 'The CBS Years: 1955-85' (the trumpet defected to Warners in '86) and it comprises five records, one each of blues, standards, originals, moods, and "electrics". Within the confines of its length, it is about as accurate and desirable an account of a very complex career as can be compiled. Each major stage in Miles' musical evolution over that period is covered, and the collection is spiced with rare recordings, out-of-print cuts, and never-before-available remixes.

The set will leave you no change from twenty-five quid. But you could buy nothing else with that money that would teach you as much about what it means to be a musician. Miles Davis is a man who lives and breathes and dreams music, who has the rare knack of making music itself breathe, and who has no need of managers, agents, big business people, marketing men, or make-up artists. He has even shown a lack of respect for his own followers, having taken to playing with his back to his audience, and rarely breaking into a smile on-stage, let alone in front of the cameras.

He is a man of few words. Yet he can say more with a single note, a well-placed pause, or the merest inflection of breath than most musicians can say on a sell-out world tour. Listen to what he has to say, and listen good.

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