I’m really excited about the new film coming out about Miles Davis. He is a unique person within music and 20th century American history. And I’m really glad that Don Cheadle is telling the story, and that he chose to tell the story within the context of Miles’ lost years in the late 1970s.
In the late 1970s, Miles gave up making music so that he could focus on doing cocaine and having sex with women. That’s maybe the most perfect hipster life possible – the existance that all hipsters aspire to. Once you’ve made a bunch of genre defining albums, and created a iconoclastic, enigmatic persona, to just retire and stick your face in a mountain of blow. And he came back from that to make some more records before he died too. I used to have a copy of his final album, “Doo-bop” (I think?), which was made with a hip-hop producer in 1990. It’s Miles soloing over straight electronic beats. He never stopped moving towards the newest sounds, working with the latest up-and-comers. He was always on the edge, from the very start.
Miles arrived in New York City in 1944 – aged 18 – to study at Julliard, but was soon playing with Charlie Parker, who was the man of the hour in jazz. The late 1940s sometimes strike me as the most exciting time in jazz, a crossroads when the old big bands were still current, but you had a generation of players emerging who were completely changing the art form. New York must have been just amazing in those days – the world was so fluid in those days, and there were so many incredible musicians playing. The bust of Tom Pendergast, the political boss of Kansas City, under whose reign the jazz clubs in that town had flourished, in 1939 brought a new style to NYC in 1940, just before the beginning of the War. I feel like the War is a truly unappreciated thing sometimes in American culture. It changes everything because crazy stuff is possible during war time. Thelonius Monk became the after-hours pianist at Minton’s. I remember when I was a teenager getting into jazz, I was always trying to figure out the whole bebop thing. Much later I came to think of it as the rise of the late night jam session in New York. The Kansas City players brought a style focused more on long-form jams rather than the compressed solos of the big band style that had dominated New York in the 1920s and 30s.
One of the most annoying things about trying to write anything about jazz is that it makes me want to constantly look over my shoulder. There’s always someone who knows more, and there’s a constant need to acknowledge authority in a jazz scene, which I find utterly frustrating. When I used to play in a jazz band in Chicago I would get super annoyed at the heirarchies in the scene, which were totally meaningless beyond the scene, but were important for gigging within it. I’m extremely bad at playing politics within a scene, because I almost always see them as anti-politics, i.e. everyone is looking out for their narrow interest, and trying to make sure nobody else gets anything to be jealous of. Ridiculous, but not unusual. Being original is so much harder than I ever thought. Not because it’s hard to make stuff up though, but because it’s nearly impossible to get people to accept anything new. But in the late 1940s, the world was ripe for originals, and Miles Davis was always the most original.
It’s really crazy, too, how he was right at the forefront of bebop in the late 40s, and then cool jazz in the early 50s, and then hard bop in the late 50s, and then modal jazz in the early 60s, and then fusion in the late 60s and early 70s. It’s also crazy how many records he put out – but then, in those days you could make records a whole lot faster. And jazz musicians were great at cranking out records. The level of musicianship made that possible. It was possible to just have a group walk into the studio, and have them record a classic. That’s almost impossible to do now, but so much more is made out studio recording. Everything has to be big and fancy and expensive. But I think that has more to do with preserving the mystique of the recording studio than anything else. Music is such a strange thing now – we put it on a pedastal, under a microscope, and everyone tries too hard. Miles always sounds like he’s just in the thick of it.
Part of what made him so great was his ability to listen – he might have had the finest ears anywhere – and the way he could put together great bands. There are still lots of great musicians playing today, and lots of great music, but there’s nothing like Miles Davis right now.