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Miles Davis: Rock Star?

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Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blondie, Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols, and Miles Davis will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today.

Miles Davis?

Sure, he recorded the best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue. Yes, he was one of the first artists to combine elements of rock with jazz to create the groundbreaking fusion of Bitches Brew (which some claim is really the best-selling jazz album of all time.)

And sure, Miles had the rock star attitude, the pimped-out wardrobe, the badass sneer, the fast cars, the drugs, and the women. But did he ever play “rock and roll” music? Is his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame an honor, or an insult?

Miles Davis’ “electric period” (from roughly 1967 until his death in 1991) has long divided and polarized jazz fans. Initially, fusion albums like Bitches Brew got Miles labeled as a “sell-out” by the jazz community at large. Lately, however, there’s been a resurgence of interest in this long neglected aspect of his career.

Most of Miles’s so-called “commercial sell-out music” is strange and intimidating, lacking “hooks,” melodies, and traditional harmonies. The “songs” are long and rambling explorations, sometimes lasting a half hour or more. The texture is dense, noisy, and often chaotic, with long and unstructured improvisations. There’s nothing else quite like it in all of popular music — not even by other “fusion” artists, past and present.

Needless to say, you’re not gonna hear this stuff on “Classic Rock” radio stations (or most jazz stations either, for that matter.) To include Miles Davis on a list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees such as ZZ Top, U2, and AC/DC is, frankly, absurd and ignorant. Have the voters even listened to this music? Or do they only wish to acknowledge their own “hipness” by including Miles among the enshrined counter-cultural elite?

If Miles were around today, what would he think about being welcomed into this dubious “Hall of Fame”? Would he stand up there with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Debbie Harry, and Ozzy Osbourne mugging for the cameras at the ceremony and expressing gratitude for the recognition?

I doubt it. Miles was never one to sit back and rest on his laurels and past accomplishments, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew included. He never looked back, preferring to live in the present (and often the future.)

More than likely, along with Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, he’d be telling the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to “Kiss this!

Recommended Listening…

On The Corner: Probably my favorite “electric” Miles album, sounding as strange and new today as it did in 1972. Propulsive, schizophrenic grooves bubbling with funky bass, mad hand claps, strange sitar riffs, and stabbing trumpet.

A Tribute to Jack Johnson: Like On The Corner, as much a Teo Macero album as a Miles Davis one, with several sessions expertly assembled in the studio to create this arresting final product. Two fierce side-long jams…

Dark Magus: A descent into the inferno… live at Carnegie Hall! Brooding, sinister, and downright scary. A cathartic listening experience.

Pangaea: Long, expansive, epic explorations with a huge band including a ton of percussion. After this marathon series of 1975 concerts (see also Agharta), Miles fell silent for six years. Unfortunately, he would never attain heights like this again…

A Different Kind of Blue — Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 [DVD]: Enjoy the visual element of the Miles electric band (which includes dueling keyboardists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea at this historic gig). And watch the audience’s confused reaction: “How are we supposed to dance to this stuff?”

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About SVF

  • fornetti

    I do not believe this

  • joe

    hey you guys make good points, OKAY!

  • Vern Halen

    In not a complete Skynyrd fanatiic or anything, but they’re definitely Hall of Famers. They were one of the stepping stones that helped the county & rock audiences cross over to each others’ camps – just listen to all the so called country acts nowadays that play simiarly sounding music to the Skynyrd prototypes. Miles did the same with rock and jazz, but Skynyrd even more so with country & rock, – which is fascinating considering they were never considered a country band or country rock band at all.

  • That’s about where I would fall. I can see Mr. Funk’s point, which is certainly reasonable, quite clearly, but Miles Davis was a huge influence, pre- and post-fusion. Perhaps if he had been categorized thusly – inducting him as an influence makes better sense to me on some levels. Perhaps it would be better if the Cleveland HOF was for “popular music” or anything other than “rock and roll.” What’s done is done, though, and I would rather fall on the side of inclusion.

  • Vern Halen

    Here’s a theory: as rock/pop continues to branch out, there’s an attempt to distill the magic into something more easily understood – just like people want to know what the fundamentals of Christianity are, or how Hitler ever got away with carrying out his insane agenda. Miles is a tough call – but to exclude him is to somehow imply the limitations of the rock genre. Golly gee, didn’t the Byrds say right out loud that Eight Miles High was inspired by modal jazz?

    I remember I used to pride myself on knowing my rock history – but there’s been lots happening over the last many moons and I can’t keep track; this includes revisionist history of what I once took to be fact. So I guess if I have to call it one way or another, keep Miles; for the sake of memory, inclusion is better than exclusion.

  • SVF asks “But did he ever play “rock and roll” music?”

    “Jack Johnson” is rock ‘n’ roll.
    “Cellar Door” is funk (ie. black rock) and other funk icons have been inducted.
    “Dark Magus” for example, also counts towards rock.
    “Live At Fillmore” is kind of electric free jazz.
    “Kind of Blue” is low-key modal jazz.
    The Gil Evans collaborations (and Palle Mikkelborg’s “Aura”) are orchestral works.
    “Tutu” is 80s instrumental pop.
    “Doo-Bop” tried to be hip hop.

  • I see your point SVF. If that’s the nature of your complaint, then I can go along with you on that.

  • Robert Johnson was inducted (appropriately) in the “early influences” category.

    Miles is (inappropriately) inducted as a “performer”.

  • zingzing

    you know, i forgot about can. they were influenced more by mile’s recording technique (which they were coming up with around the same time) than his sound, although you can definitely detect some “in a silent way” in “future days.” i suppose i owe fusion an apology, for years and years of bad-mouthing, if only because of can. i’m sorry fusion. you helped can find its footing. you are excused for many, many bad things because of that.

  • I find it hard to object to seeing Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus or John Coltrane in any rock pantheon, although I’ll admit it’s a bit of a stretch to list him as a rock “performer.”

    He ought to be honored by the Hall of Fame as an early influence, as are Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Christian, and Mahalia Jackson. The problem there is that he’s not as “early” as they are, I guess.

    Still, he’s an influence no matter how you cut it. On the liner notes to the CD reissue of Kind of Blue, it’s pointed out that Duane Allman listened to that record obsessively; one great improv artist learning from another. That may be a small instance but I can’t believe he was the only one.

    For me, Miles’ great career ends when he discovered fusion, and I find In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew all but unlistenable.

    I can’t stop listening to everything leading up to it. Just this morning I was reading Stanley Crouch’s lovely article in Slate on Miles’ “My Funny Valentine,” listening to it on the computer at the same time. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

  • Another way of framing it: Miles Davis belongs is “rock and roll” if Billy Joel is.

  • Thanks JP. I’m totally down with your point above as well: I should have mentioned that. I, for one, can certainly count Miles as a greater influence on my playing (etc.) than Lynyrnd Suckyrd. Same with Mingus, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery and a whole host of cool cats.

    I also agree (to a point) with SVF (though I’d include U2).

    This is the first I’ve read of Lynyrd Skynyrd getting in, and I’m still staggered. And J.J. Cale isn’t in?? Call me the very surprised breeze.

    Explain that!

  • I’m not against rock and roll. I’m against the idea that Miles Davis is being forever enshrined in this absurd “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” inductee category.

    I likes my AC/DC and my Zappa and my Hendrix and my Black Sabbath and my Zeppelin and my Pink Floyd as much as any other red blooded American. (I’ll take a pass on U2 and Lynyrd Skynyrd though.)

    Calling Miles a “rock performer” however just doesn’t add up.

  • JP

    Brian, you have a point!

  • I can see Miles Davis getting in, but Lynyrd Skynyrd??

    Seriously: the R&RHOF is not only for rock and roll performers. Robert Johnson (inducted in 1998) died in 1938 — well before the birth of rock and roll. Does he belong? Sure, because he’s an enormous influence in the history of the genre. From my perspective, so is Miles.

    But Lynyrd Skynyrd?? Really? Why isn’t your article about this travesty?

  • You got some good thoughts on Miles here, but it’s unfortunate that you’ve chosen to frame them in a broad, unjustified, and unproductive sneer against rock and roll in general. Granted, Black Sabbath doesn’t deserve to be in the same hall with Miles Davis, but that’s one of the easiest targets in the place.

    But the really coolest rock star Miles is that freaky-ass Bitches Brew. That’s so far experimentally left field in so many ways it makes me want to classify it with Frank Zappa. That’d probably be his closest company in the hall.

  • Yeah, if anything I take issue with the name of the place having anything to do with “Rock and Roll,” which has become such a convoluted and misused phrase since the ’50s that it’s almost better to drop it altogether and go to “Popular Music.”

  • JP

    Great article, and I’m torn. I can see your point entirely, as Miles was not a rock performer and wouldn’t classify himself that way; so I went to the profile page on the Hall of Fame site to find out why he was selected.

    Though he wasn’t a rock and roll performer, “his work intrigued a sizable segment of rock’s more ambitious fans in a way that no other serious jazz figure had ever done – and not retroactively but while he was alive and making some of his most challenging music.” It mentions that promoter Bill Graham booked Davis with the Dead and some of the jam bands of the day, and that seems a logical connection. “Enamored of the black-rock styles of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, Davis had expressed a desire to form ‘the world’s baddest rock band.'”

    SVF, how do you draw a line between being a fan and being influenced? Music is instinctive, and listening to an artist can influence music in subtle ways. In fact if it’s obvious, I’d say that’s more mimicry than influence.

    I think it’s a great choice, in a way, and I’m in agreement with Zach on being open to a wide array of influence. Although from another point of view, one could say this would be better in a “Popular Music Hall of Fame” than a “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” I guess the question is where does one draw the boundary of rock? The Beatles did work with string sections. I don’t think such a definition is easy to come up with…

  • There’s a great Miles Davis quote in today’s New York Times:

    “What’s a rock ‘n’ roll band? The only rock I know is the rock of cocaine.”

    AC/DC, U2, and ZZ Top are all rock and roll bands, and eligible for induction as defined by the Hall of Fame’s (debatable) criteria:

    Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include the influence and significance of the artist’s contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”

    Miles was influenced and inspired by rock and roll. But did he do anything to “develop and perpetuate” it? Were any popular rock bands really ever influenced by what he did (being a fan and being influenced by him are two different things…)

    If the Hall of Fame’s definition of “rock and roll” is really that inclusive, then why haven’t bands like Can, Kraftwerk, The Residents, and Soft Machine been inducted yet?

    It’s fine to say “drop the genre shit” but let’s get real: Miles Davis was never a “rock performer.” And he knew it. And thankfully he didn’t care.

  • I think the wider range of artists to get inducted in the Hall of Fame, the better. So maybe Miles Davis isn’t meant to be placed on a short list with ZZ Top, U2 and AC/DC; you neglect to mention that those three artists don’t even have much to do with each other, aside from sharing a place in the nebulous and largely useless distinction we insist on calling “rock and roll.”

    Personally, I love AC/DC, appreciate Miles Davis, am ambivalent to ZZ Top and hate U2…does that mean any of them deserve or don’t deserve recognition? Maybe – but if you ask me, the only way to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame transcend its own silliness is by using it to appreciate and remember as wide and broad an array of musicians as possible. Let’s drop this snobby genre shit and just give Miles (and Angus Young, and Bono…) the accolades many feel they deserve.

  • zingzing

    well, maybe miles didn’t play rock, but a lot of people who did listened to him and made REALLY, REALLY SHITTY MUSIC because of it. fusion sucks. i’m all for genre-fucking, but that is one damn ugly offspring. it’s got none of the charm of either, and comes off as either pretentious or ponderous, depending on what angle you come from. the only good thing to say about miles’ fusion was that it was influential, especially on rock music of the late-60’s-early 70’s.

    okay, robert wyatt was good. i can’t think of another “jazzy” rock artist that really escaped fusion without becoming a total tool.