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Would it be fair to say that Miles Davis presented jazz with a new form of virtuosity – restraint?

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ould it be fair to say that Miles Davis presented jazz with a new form of virtuosity in restraint?

Miles Davis is an example of a guy who comes up at a time when the trumpet is defined by Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie is a virtuoso, I mean - unbelievable. Can play more notes with greater dynamics than anybody had up to that point, with feeling, often with a marvelous tone. And everybody who is coming up in that period who wants to play like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is imitating him. And some are coming pretty close. Some are surpassing him in some ways - Fats Navarro played like Dizzy but with an even fatter, richer tone, almost like Dizzy married to Armstrong. Clifford Brown, another guy who had, you know, everything, just everything - gorgeous sound and every kind of virtuosity. Miles Davis comes to New York to study at Juilliard. But basically he's here because he wants to meet Bird and Dizzy.

There's a funny story that I love where he's worried about telling his father that he's going to drop out of Juilliard. His father's a landowner and dentist in the Midwest; he comes from an upper-class family, and they got him enrolled in Juilliard. He says, "I got to fly home and explain to my dad," and this other musician says, "Why do you have to fly home? Can't you just call him?" And Miles says, "And say what? That I'm leaving Juilliard to hang out with a couple of guys named Bird and Dizzy?"

So, you know, he does that and Miles, however, does not have Dizzy's chops. He can't do that kind of virtuoso playing. He also loves another trumpet player named Freddy Webster, who's a swing player who plays much longer notes, almost entirely in the middle register. And Miles finds his route through that kind of playing. Miles develops a style that's not about incredibly speedy arpeggios that go up three, four octaves. He's in the middle range - fewer notes, melody notes. All about emotion, all about a feeling, all about focusing on the timbre so that each note not only says something within the melodic art but says something on the level of tone. So that it communicates a certain kind of feeling.

In his early solos, you can see the melodic genius but they don't always work. And especially in contrast with Charlie Parker - I mean, after Parker's finished, what is anybody going to do? And Miles often sounds like a terrible anticlimax. But by 1949 he takes that middle-range approach, he combines it with the classical influence, he puts together a bunch of musicians. They meet in Gil Evans' home, his pad. He has a midtown place; it's a basement. He never locks the door. Musicians were there 24 hours, sleeping on sofas, getting high, relaxing between sets. And out of this group, John Lewis, Jerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Gunther Schuller, Gil, Miles. Miles becomes the nominal leader and they put together a nine-piece band. Which has one live gig, makes about 12 recordings, which don't sell at all; they didn't really become classics until years later when they were released on an LP as Birth of the Cool. And suddenly by calling them Birth of the Cool it gave them a sort of historical, you know, credibility.

And then they were hugely influential - they became, they basically started or predicted what the cool style was, which was restraint - emotion but emotional restraint. As Miles develops his style he also becomes more and more of a virtuoso so that by the 1960s he's playing incredible things in the upper register. But he would still crack a note and nobody ever minds.

One of his most famous solos is the 1964 live recording, you know, "My Funny Valentine." It's one of the great Miles Davis performances. It's just heart stopping. And he's playing this arpeggio and in the middle of it, he cracks a note. And it breaks your heart; it sounds wonderful. When Miles makes a bad note, it works. I mean you actually had musicians trying to play bad notes the way Miles played them. Stan Goetz is another guy who occasionally would bite the reed a little bit too hard and he would get a kind of a squeak. And in Europe, there were guys for years trying to figure out how he got that squeak. It was a mistake. But Miles becomes a musician who becomes the jazz soloist as confessional poet, and this really becomes clearer in the late 1950s when he starts recording with Gil Evans and makes recordings like Kind of Blue. If you listen to Sketches of Spain, there's a moment where Gil sets up, the orchestra plays an introduction, and then Miles is all by himself, all by himself improvising a solo on a piece called "Saeta." And there's never been anything like that before in music. It sounds like a confessional poet - it's so emotional. He communicates so much and as a result his records reach people who didn't listen to jazz. I can tell you that I can remember a lot of girls in that period who mostly would have, you know, Elvis or Roy Orbison records and they'd have one jazz record and it would always be Sketches of Spain and they'd always put that on when the boy came over 'cause that was a sexy record. And, in fact, all of the Miles and Gil records, like Frank Sinatra's records, were considered, you know, bedroom records. Johnny Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is another one. There were, you know, these records were very sensual - they had a lot of power and it just didn't sound like anything else that anybody else was doing.

Chapter 14 Jukebox