I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I love Miles Davis. He was a tremendously talented artist whose every move seemed to reshape the boundaries of the music. He essentially invented cool and modal jazz; he was one of the prime developers of hard bop; he unleashed fusion upon the world; and today’s conservative school of jazz basically plays the music that Miles played with his ’60s quintet. And then there’s that fluid, sparse, incredibly romantic trumpet style; nothing quite like it on Earth.
The trouble is that even these impressive accomplishments have been magnified out of proportion. Miles Davis today is treated as the Sun and the Moon, the beginning and the end – the embodiment of jazz. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is unfortunate.
It’s unfortunate because the jazz universe is so large, rich, and diverse that to focus on any one musician so exclusively is to completely miss the larger picture. From where I sit, the fact that Miles worked in so many genres should lead listeners into the other aspects of those genres. Like how he does hard bop? Then give Art Blakey and Horace Silver a whirl. Think Kind of Blue is the greatest jazz album ever? I agree, but you’ll also love Bill Evans and Jackie McLean. His ’60s semi-avant-garde excursions are a great introduction to what people like Andrew Hill were doing at the time. And God knows you need your Coltrane. And then, check out the cats who were the sidemen that I’ve already mentioned! With so much to hear, singling out Miles just seems like a tragedy.
It’s also unfortunate because giving Miles all the attention and Godhood means that there’s not enough attention and Godhood left for thsoe who, frankly, deserve it more than he does. Armstrong, who really is the embodiment of jazz, for example. Duke Ellington, the man who codified jazz composition. Charlie Parker, who rewrote the jazz bible in his own name. Dizzy Gillespie, the professor of bebop. Thelonious Monk, the abstract master of jazz harmony. Ornette Coleman, whose legacy is jsut about all the jazz developments of the past four decades. Miles is in the Top Ten of all jazz masters – no question about it. But all those other people I just listed? They’re on that list too, and they’re ahead of Miles.
It’s unfortunate because Miles is the most accessible of those major jazz masters (barring Armstrong). Yes, I know that this one really seems as though I’m reaching; am I really so snobby that I would treat accessibility as a drawback? Well, no … not for Miles himself, anyway. He had every right to make his music so easily appealing, and you have every right to enjoy that appeal. The unfortunate part is really an indirect side effect: see, jazz is what they call “head music.” It’s important that listening to it presents a challenge, because it means you have to put some mental muscle into listening to it and comprehending it. Now you do have to exercise your brain to listen to Miles, but you do so in rather subtle, and, honestly, conventional ways. It presents a false standard for how jazz should work. And it can make it harder to appreciate more abstract, difficult jazz. (Unless, of course, you can listen to Sketches of Spain and easily follow that with Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, and appreciate both of them as jazz. In which case I stand corrected.)
And most of all, it’s unfortunate because it frankly gives fuel to what are often called the jazz neocons: the Marsalis/Crouch/Burns cabal. Creative as Miles was, his stated mission was “to take jazz closer to the mainstream.” And that’s okay, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the soldiers manning Camp Wynton have taken that idea and used it to de-legitimize anything that is further out on the jazz spectrum than Miles. It hampers progress, folks, believe it or not, because for progressive musicians to be successful and to grow, they need receptive and appreciative audiences. And the neocons honestly don’t want them to have it; they feel it corrupts jazz. It is honestly one of the reasons that Mr. Davis is held up so high–because if you concentrate on melodic, listenable Miles, you might not notice those crazy avant-garders playing in the background. Don’t fall for that game.
ONCE AGAIN: This is not intended to disparage Miles Davis. He was a genius who made compelling, original, and gorgeous music. But I do feel the need to tear down the belief that he is the One True King of jazz. Not only are there people who have a better claim to that title, but there are people who take the complete opposite approach to jazz from Miles and should be appreciated anyway.
Put simply: there’s a famous John Lennon quote where he said, “If you were looking for another name for rock & roll, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” Which has some truth to it. But I fear that putting “Miles” and “Jazz” in the same thesaurus entry is terribly reductive, misleading, and all-around bad for the music. Let’s not.