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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
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.