July 10th, 2001

Miles Davis

Miles Davis isn’t just among the most commercially successful jazz artists of all time, but also considered a genius on a par with Picasso. A restless changeling, he’s believed to have transformed jazz more than once. To rock fans, he is the first point of call in Jazzland, looming large like the Statue of Liberty, an emblem of what they sail to that land in search of – The Cool.

Icon, musician’s musician, populist, Miles had it all. Pity, then, he had to spoil it all by being a parasite, hypocrite, bigot, phoney, arsehole and, latterly, the world’s worst dresser, the backline of Earth, Wind And Fire excluded. Miles always affected the demeanour of True Black Man, as if scarred by an upbringing in the darkest ghettoes of racism and oppression. This is meant to excuse his obnoxious behaviour towards women, such as first wife Frances Taylor whom he beat up, his monosyllabic, joylessly profane mode of expression, the legacy of “cool” he has passed on to the more weaker-minded among today’s African-American musicians.

Truth is, he was born into a prosperous middle-class family, son of a dentist . His was the sullenness that comes with privilege. He despised Louis Armstrong’s hugely affable, grinning onstage presence. He implied that this was Uncle Tom-ism on Armstrong’s part and decided to affect a surly indifference to his audience instead. Yet Armstrong, 100 times the artist Davis was, knew the true meaning of hardship and misery – which is why he forged a trumpet style that was more expansive, more joyous than anything the planet had ever experienced.

This was the paradox of great jazz (Armstrong, Coltrane, Parker) – borne out of conditions of bleakness, bigotry and deprivation, it nonetheless taught its dead-inside oppressors the very language of happiness, of true spirituality, of unbridled emotion – how to live. Davis’ musical voice, by contrast, is muted, morose, enervated, inward-looking. A small, churlish voice to suit a small, churlish man. So weak was his playing that it had to be overdubbed on his earliest recordings.

Realising that he could never match the pyrotechnic energy of Gillespie-style bebop, he survived by the expedient of changing the context in which he played. Davis’ own trumpet style was a reedy constant throughout his career – his “innovations” were principally in personnel changes and it was the personnel who were principally responsible for the innovations. Albums like Birth Of The Cool and Sketches Of Spain, then, are primarily interesting for the arrangements of Gil Evans, the much-vaunted Kind Of Blue’s unique tone is largely down to pianist Bill Evans, as attested on his own solo work.

In the Sixties, Davis lived off the innovations of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and then, in his electric, Bitches Brew phase, the principal author was keyboardist Joe Zawinul, later of Weather Report. Davis was the ringmaster and whipcracker, never the talent. In his final, Eighties phase, surrounded merely by mediocre session musicians, Davis’ true blandness eventually shone through, his ghastly, garish onstage garb unable to distract from over-varnished lift muzak like Aura and Tutu.

Davis was always down on whites yet, as is often the case among such inverted racists, had a secret, fawning respect for all things Caucasian. He doted on Stravinsky and Berg – “proper” music. In his biography, he names names when listing the indiscretions of his black musical contemporaries but is much more discreet about naming the clientele of a white call girl he knew, because they were “mostly white, important” people.

Furthermore, his music has spoken down the years not to black experience but to white, European lifestyles. There’s a tidy chintziness about Kind Of Blue, for instance, that leads logically to the old theme music to Tomorrow’s World or background music at Seventies Ideal Home Exhibitions. His “fusion” period, conversely, impacted very untidily, like an oilslick. Who can calculate the man and studio-hours wasted, the volume of rubbish generated, the overlong slap-bass solos perpetrated by pony-tailed fat men with their sleeves rolled up, as a result of the sludgy, formless merger of three hitherto great genres – rock, jazz, and funk (like mixing gravy, ice cream and malt whiskey) on Bitches Brew?

Those who objected to Miles’ electric period had a point that wasn’t merely Luddite, incidentally. By resorting to amplification, Davis precluded the possibility of dialogue between musicians, one of the key points to jazz. They simply couldn’t hear each other. The malign shadow of Miles Davis has for too long cast a shadow over the rest of jazz, obscuring greater, more radical and life-affirming talents than his own. Miles Davis, in effect, is jazz for people who don’t really understand jazz. Cool? Tepid and talentless more like. Time to turn up the heat on this dead fraud.

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