January 11, 2009

"Dancing miles with Miles"

Miles Davis was one of the 20th century's most innovative musicians. Throughout a long and illustrious career that spanned the latter half of the 20th century, he was the epitome of the consummate professional. A master innovator, he was a primary force in the development of jazz from bebop through fusion. His concise, lyrical phrasing, introspective style, and boundless invention continue to influence jazz musicians throughout the world.

“Nothing is out of the question for me. I’m always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up in the morning and see the light… Then, I’m grateful.” ~ Miles Davis

Born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois, to dental surgeon Dr. Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., and music teacher Cleota Mae Davis, Miles grew up in the black middle class community of East St. Louis, Illinois. His interest in music developed early on and by the age of 12 he had begun taking trumpet lessons. He began playing bars while still in high school and at 16 he was playing out-of-town gigs. He was 18 years old and just out of high school when he got the chance to sit in with Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker both of whom were playing in Billy Eckstine's band. Understandably, he fell under the spell of these founders of bebop.

His mother had wanted him to attend college, so as a compromise, he entered Julliard in New York City in September 1944. He immediately began playing in clubs with Parker. By 1945 he had dropped out of school in favor of a full-time career as a jazz musician. He played with Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, as well as Parker. In the summer of 1948 he formed a nine-piece band, The Miles Davis Nonet. It was distinguished by a unique horn section. In addition to his trumpet, it featured an alto sax, a baritone sax, a trombone, a French horn, and a tuba. The Nonet recordings, later released as Birth of the Cool, had a significant influence on several of the band's musicians, including saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, and pianist John Lewis, and are considered the beginning of the West Coast cool jazz movement.

“If you got up on the bandstand at Minton’s and couldn’t play, you were not only going to be embarrassed by the people ignoring you or booing you, you might get your ass kicked.” ~ Miles Davis

His progress as a musician was marred by heroin addiction in the early fifties, but, by the middle of the decade, he had kicked his habit. In July 1955, he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and created a sensation playing "'Round Midnight." The performance led to a contract with Columbia Records and allowed him to put together a permanent band. He went on to organize a quintet featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. They began recording his Columbia debut, Round About Midnight, in October. At the same time, he was still obligated for five albums on an earlier contract with Prestige. Over the next year, in order to satisfy this commitment, he alternated his Columbia sessions with sessions for Prestige. The products were Prestige albums The New Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin', Workin', Relaxin', and Steamin'. Davis' first quintet was one of his better documented groups.

“We’re not going to play the blues anymore. Let the white folks play the blues. They got ‘em, so they can keep ‘em.” ~ Miles Davis

Further milestones lay ahead for Davis -- his groundbreaking orchestral work with his musical soul mate Gil Evans, the recording of the most popular jazz album ever
(Kind of Blue), further endeavors with another pivotal quintet in the '60s and finally, "the fathering of the Free Improvisation and Funk-tinged riffs and grooves of the Fusion age with Bitches Brew." Through it all, Davis remained the consummate professional and master innovator, never resting on his laurels, always focusing on the better riffs to come.

Miles Davis was one of the greatest visionaries and most important figures in jazz history. Miles was born in a well-to-do family in East St. Louis. He became a local phenom and toured locally with Billy Eckstine's band while he was in high school. He moved to New York under the guise of attending the Julliard School of Music. However, his real intentions were to hook up with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He quickly climbed up the ranks while learning from Bird and Diz and became the trumpet player for Charlie Parker's group for nearly 3 years. His first attempt at leading a group came in 1949 and was the first of many occurrences in which he would take jazz in a new direction. Along with arranger Gil Evans, he created a nonet (9 members) that used non-traditional instruments in a jazz setting, such as French horn and Tuba. He invented a more subtle, yet still challenging style that became known as "cool jazz." This style influenced a large group of musicians who played primarily on the west coast and further explored this style.

The recordings of the nonet were packaged by Capitol records and released under the name The Birth of the Cool.
The group featured Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Max Roach, among others. This was one of the first instances in which Miles demonstrated a recurring move that angered some: he brought in musicians regardless of race. He once said he'd give a guy with green skin and "polka-dotted breath" a job, as long as they could play sax as well as Lee Konitz. After spending 4 years fighting a heroin addiction, he conquered it, inspired by the discipline of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

After a triumphant performance of Thelonious Monk's classic 'Round Midnight at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Miles became a hot commodity. He put together a permanent quintet that featured John Coltrane, Red Garland, "Philly Joe" Jones, and Paul Chambers. Miles had a gift for hearing the music in his head, and putting together a band of incredible musicians whose contrasting styles could result in meeting the end result he was looking for. He later added a 6th member, Cannonball Adderly and replaced Jones and Garland with Jimmy Cobb and Bill Evans. In the late 50s, his groups popularized modal jazz and changed the direction of jazz again. He made 2 more classics with the Sextet during this time, Milestones and Kind of Blue. After this time, most of his group left to form their own groups. This was a constant during Miles' career--he brought in the best up-and-coming musicians and after playing in his band and getting established, they formed their own groups. Among the bandleaders to have come from Miles band include: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Red Garland, "Philly" Jo Jones, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, (Shorter and Zawinul would go on to form the fusion group Weather Report) Keith Jarrett, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, John McGlaughlin, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern, and Bob Berg.

During this time, Miles and Gil Evans collaborated again and made another unique record, Sketches of Spain, in which Miles plays Spanish Flamenco music backed by an orchestra. His tone is so beautiful and clear, it almost sounds like his trumpet is singing. After experimenting with different groups for 3 years, Miles, who was in his late 30s (old by jazz standards), fused his group with young players in order to bring in fresh ideas. In 1963, he put together his 2nd legendary quintet: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and 16 year old drumming protege Tony Williams. For 5 years, this group pushed the limits of freedom and made some fiery jazz! In 1968, Miles brought in Joe Zawinul as a 2nd keyboardist and around this time, started experimenting with electric instruments. He made the classic In a Silent Way and a year later, he added British guitarist John McGloughlin and replaced Tony Williams (who left to form his own band) with Jack DeJohnette, and he took jazz in yet a whole new direction with the record Bitches Brew,
in which he fused Rock Music with jazz and went heavily into electric music. This record fired the first shot in the fusion revolution which took jazz to a whole new level of popularity.

In the early 1970s, Miles kept experimenting with the electric instruments and fusing more funk into his music. In 1976, a combination of bad health, cocaine use, and lack of inspiration caused Miles to go into a 5-year retirement. He conquered his cocaine habit, received new inspiration and returned in 1981 and made a series of records that I haven't heard. He did keep pushing music, as he was not one to rest on his laurels and play his old music. He started experimenting more with synthesizers and using studio techniques in his recordings. He won a series of Grammy Awards during this decade and continued turning out sidemen, such as Garrett, Stern, and Berg, listed above.

Miles Davis crossed over on September 28, 1991 from a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure in Santa Monica, California at the age of 65. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.

Donna Kirven, better known in the poetry world as “Celestial Dancer,” was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., but currently lives in Northern California with her husband and two daughters. She has written poetry since age 10, and had her first poem published in her high school newspaper. Donna attended Temple University, and is currently a master’s candidate in organizational psychology. Her first book, When a Band-Aid Isn't Enough, and other poetic perspectives was released in February 2005, and offers a eclectic compilation of traditional and non-traditional poetry.

She has just released her second book of poetry, The Alchemy of Understanding, Poetic Soul Therapy, released December 2007, where she has included a collection of poems that reveal facets of living where understanding is, isn’t, was or wished for. Reflecting on her latest book, Celestial writes that her poetry is delicately crafted to leave readers breathless, not just because it sifts your breath away through shock or extracts it with sudden expressive impact, but because the potency of human emotion and speed with which these portraits of feeling have been painted have entered the deepest realm of your heart, mind and soul at a pace that pulls your breath inward in its wake, allowing you to experience the most cherished and often unspoken human sentiment.

Donna is the CAO of Spotlight On Jazz And Poetry. She also hosts a program called Bodies at Rest. It's an internet haven where you can find a slice of rest for your mind, body and soul.

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