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Miles Davis: Not Overrated, But Overhyped

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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.

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About Michael J. West

  • MILESFAN

    Why you hating on Miles, man?

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    I have to assume by that question, Milesfan, taht you didn’t actually read the article. Read it and then we’ll talk.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Michael, loved this. i’m just wettin the ol’ heels in jazz as of late, an i did indeed start with Miles, mainly on account of how the myth surroundin him was fascinating to me (i myth i maybe concocted in my own head over the years). at this exact minute i’m listenin to Sun Ra, an pleased enough that i can tell the difference. I still don’t think i could tell you the difference between a bad jazz record an a good one, but i gotta say Agharta by Mr Davis makes my eyes bubble. in a good way, course.

    But yes, this was fascinating for a newcomer such as myself, who still doesn’t know what the hell his opinions on anythin to do with the genre might be.

  • beaumont

    Mike is wrong

  • jed2

    I’ve had this arguement so many times with people and they refuse to listen. Davis is an icon to people, to the point where his music becomes less relevant than what he “represents”. Personally, I think the contributions of Monk, Mingus, Parker, Ellington, and Coleman all outshine that of Miles Davis.

    And I really can’t get behind “Kind of Blue” being the best jazz album of all time.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    In all honesty, it’s unfair to call ANY album “the best jazz album of all time.” There are too many different types of jazz, too many players and styles and instruments and what-have-you to pick out any single one and say “this is the greatest EVER” without being SUPREMELY reductive.

    But I’d say that even “what he represents” comes out of ignorance a lot of the time. I recently read something that called Miles Davis “the consummate jazz musician of the 20th Century.” And here I thought everybody had heard of Louis Armstrong.

  • tailgunner

    You’re not a musician. You’re a critic. And a hostile one at that. No one really cares what you think. And your comments about Miles, or any musician for that matter, doesn’t take anything from the music.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    At least you care.

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    zing!

  • jazzman

    What a truly awful article, you know nothing about music, obviously.
    Somebody always gotta be eatin’ the hater tots…

  • Maxime Catellier

    Hi,

    I’m really pleased with your article, it sums up all my thoughts on Miles Davis. Yes, he’s a great musician, but like I said very often to my friends, I don’t think he’s a great composer. He’s good, but not great. I find his compositions somewhat conservative. Above him, 10,000 feet above, I would consider Thelonious Monk as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. Not only in jazz.

    So, thank you very much. It’s true that the influence of Miles Davis on Marsalis and co has been kind of annoying in the past decades. People seems to think that jazz is that kind of bubble gum music, very neat and very clear.

    P.S. Pardon my english, I’m from Quebec.

  • raybanfan

    I second that, Miles is legendary in many aspects with a deep variety through his long career in Jazz. As a jazz artist he sold more records than most of his counterparts. However other than the greats covered on the article, i truly believe Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan both who had lived a relatively short life deserves my highest commendation. Should they have lived longer I wonder where Miles will stand today.

  • Vinlander

    Number of record sales or hype has never been any factor in my opinion on music be in in jazz, rock or even metal. Usually record sales reflect more what is appealing to the masses…and the masses are usually set to the lowest denominator…

  • http://azam.org ramo

    Great article, Those that are defending him as a godhead are only proving your point.

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