Remembering Miles Davis

The Magic of Miles

Revolutionary Worker #1104, May 27, 2001, posted at

This May 25 would have been the 75th birthday of Miles Davis. As one of the great jazz musicians of all time, Miles Davis and his contribution to jazz remains a subject of intense interest and discussion. And his music continues to give the people tremendous entertainment and joy. The 75th anniversary of Miles' birth is being marked in many different ways, all over the country--from special CD releases, concerts, and radio tributes to programs, exhibits and festivals. Many articles are also being written at this time about Miles Davis--including a recent controversial and rather disturbing piece in the New York Times by cultural critic Robin D.G Kelley, about Miles and the "pimp aesthetic" (5/13/01, "A Jazz Genius In the Guise of a Hustler")

This week, we remember and celebrate the magic of Miles with this article which appeared in the RW shortly after his death.


On Saturday, September 28, 1991 Miles Davis died after giving people over four decades of defiant, beautiful and ever-changing sounds. Miles was one of the greatest innovators and pioneers of jazz. The tone of his trumpet had an unmistakable quality that was remarkably voicelike. And his sense of phrasing was like human conversation that could be either soft and slow or rapid and raw. Whether ballad, be-bop, modal jazz or funk--the music of Miles touched many deep emotions and moods. There were the whispered, painful ballads. And there were also the hard but unforced notes that would jab and punctuate with and against the rhythms. His music developed and changed through the years. But what always came through was a fiercely searching, many times angry, language that almost always challenged convention and dared to enter unknown musical territory. His music would lift your spirits and make you think. And then before you could settle in, Miles would already be moving on.

"Scientist of Sound''

"During 1945, we used to go down almost every night to catch Diz and Bird wherever they were playing. We felt that if we missed hearing them play we were missing something important. Man, the shit they were playing and doing was going down so fast you just had to be there in person to catch it. We really studied what they were doing from a technical point of view. We were like scientists of sound. If a door squeaked we could call out the exact pitch.''

From Miles, The Autobiography

Miles was born in 1926 and grew up in East St. Louis. He started playing the trumpet when he was 13, and by the time he was 15 he was already performing around town. He came of age, musically and temperamentally, during the be-bop revolution in jazz--a movement that was linked to big changes in society and a growing restlessness among Black people. Charlie Parker on sax and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, early creators of be-bop, were two of the first influences on Miles. After he got a chance to play with them in St. Louis, Miles decided to move to New York, the center of this musical revolution. During the day he attended classes at the Juilliard School of Music. But the night was when he really went to school, performing in the 52nd Street clubs. He quickly began to develop his own style and became an innovative and influential force. By 1945 he had made his first recording, joined Charlie Parker's quintet, and dropped out of Juilliard.

In 1948 Miles began to experiment with a new sound. This was the more elaborately orchestrated style that became known as "cool jazz.'' Here he developed a remarkable and haunting solo voice, backed by the rich, full sounds of larger ensembles. In the mid-1950s Miles announced the arrival of hard bop and assembled his first important quintet, which included the raw energy of John Coltrane on tenor sax. This group, which mixed harmonic nuances with driving, fast licks, became a popular and defining influence on the direction of jazz.

Miles would go on to achieve a unique solo style, while at the same time developing new group sounds. The personnel of his bands would always change, fluctuating with sharp turns and departures he'd take from a path in music--that he himself had forged--but would then move off of in search of something new.

By the end of the 1960s Miles began to experiment with more rock rhythms and electronic instruments. And it was during this time that he left the small club scene to perform in huge arenas like the Fillmore East and West. For the first time, Miles was introduced to a whole new rock audience.

Moving into the 1970s, the musical road of Miles turned to the fresh and spirited sounds of funk. He listened to and learned from James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and the group Sly and the Family Stone. And he changed his music in a conscious effort to reach young, Black audiences. He said after Jimi Hendrix died, he realized that no matter how great a musician Jimi was, very few young Blacks had heard of him, because for them he was too far over into white rock. Miles said, "After playing a lot of these white rock halls I was starting to wonder why I shouldn't be trying to get to young black kids with my music. They were into funk, music they could dance to. It took me a while to really get into the concept all the way, but with this new band I started to think about it.''

Retirement and Renewal

At the end of 1975 Miles went into complete retirement for five years. After years of fighting a heroin and alcohol habit as well as other health problems, including ulcers, throat nodes, hip surgery and bursitis, Miles needed a physical break. And he also needed a break from his intense, speeding quest for musical innovation and perfection.

In 1981 Miles returned and immediately began to develop another new Miles-style and sound. He incorporated pop tunes into his music, blending them with his distinct, muted but piercing sound that still reminded people that Miles, more than anyone, could use the vocabulary of ballads to touch the inner soul. At the same time, Miles' angry, no-holding-back message came through in new ways. When Miles talked about his 1985 album You're Under Arrest, he talked about how he was always being harassed by the police and the problems that Black people have with policemen everywhere. He said,

"That's where the concept for You're Under Arrest came from: being locked up for being part of a street scene, being locked up politically. Being subjected to the looming horror of a nuclear holocaust--plus being locked up in a spiritual way. It's the nuclear threat that is really a motherfucker in our daily lives, that and the pollution that is everywhere.... I mean, they're just fucking up everything because they're so fucking greedy. I'm talking about whites who are doing this, and they're doing it all over the world. Fucking up the ozone layer, threatening to drop bombs on everybody, trying to always take other people's shit, and sending in armies when people don't want to give it up. It's shameful, pitiful, and dangerous what they're doing, what they have been doing all these years, because it's fucking with everyone....''

Behind Miles' Sound

"Black people have got to keep saying it and throwing our conditions up into these people's faces until something is done about the way they have treated us.... We've got to make them know and understand just how evil the things are that they did to us over all these years and are still doing to us today. We've just got to let them know that we know what they are doing and that we're not going to lighten up until they stop.''

From Miles, The Autobiography

Miles talks about coming up in East St. Louis and hearing stories from Black people who survived race riots in 1917. And throughout his book he talks about racism in the United States. He talks about how the record companies would mistreat Black musicians, denying them the money, promotion and credit they deserved. And he recounts incidents of discrimination and racist police harassment. His acute awareness of and repeated experience with racism deeply affected his thinking and couldn't help but be reflected in his music. He recounts how he'd be deep into his music and certain events would force their way into his consciousness, profoundly shaping his whole being. In the mid-'50s he was in the middle of some intense recording sessions and he said: "During the time while we were cutting that album, a horrible thing happened--a young, fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi by a gang of white men for talking to a white woman. They threw his body in the river. When they found him and pulled him out he was all bloated. They took pictures of him and put them in the papers. Man, that shit was horrible and shocked everyone in New York. It made me sick to my stomach. But it just let black people know once again just how most white people in this country thought of them. I won't forget them pictures of that young boy as long as I live.''

Later in his book, Miles says straight up what he thinks about the United States: "America is such a racist place, so racist it's pitiful. It's just like South Africa only more sanitized today; it's not as out in front in its racism. Other than that, it's the same thing. But I always have had a built-in thing for racism. I can smell it. I can feel it behind me, anywhere it is....''

Miles was sometimes accused of being aloof and arrogant. But at bottom Miles' style was a conscious protest against how Black people are treated in this country. And early on he made a vow to himself that he would never bow to racist stereotypes by trying to please with "shuffles and grins.''

Miles developed some of his most innovative music during the 1960s and early '70s--a time when the U.S. was being rocked by rebellion and upheaval. And the fierce struggles of Black people as well as the anti-war movement affected and were reflected in jazz, as with other forms of culture in society. Miles saw himself as "being rebellious and black, a nonconformist, being cool and hip and angry and sophisticated and ultra clean.'' And he recognized and appreciated the rebellious significance of other Black musicians he worked with. He points out in his book, speaking of John Coltrane, "Trane's music and what he was playing during the last two or three years of his life represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time.... It was all about revolution for a lot of young people--Afro hairdos, dashikis, black power, fists raised in the air. Coltrane was their symbol, their pride--their beautiful, black revolutionary pride. I had been it a few years back, now he was it, and that was cool with me.''

The revolutionary spirit of the '60s and early '70s never left Miles. But unfortunately, there were parts of Miles that were stubbornly unchanged by these rebellious times. He never fundamentally changed his backward views on women and he continued to treat those women closest to him in oppressive ways. Some of this he attributed to the disorientation and desperateness of the times when he was most deep into drugs. But Miles never criticized some of his most cruel and male chauvinist behavior toward his wives and other women around him.


Miles always struggled to find connections to the masses. He wanted to reach as many people as he could through his music. And refused to accept the notion that "jazz'' would--or should--only reach a small group of people. He spoke against the music becoming "a museum thing locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic.'' And he was always seeking to learn from others, especially the younger musicians coming up. Even as he remained a leader and teacher, he inspired others to go off in their own creative directions. He said, "To be and stay a great musician you've got to always be open to what's happening at the moment. You have to be able to absorb it if you're going to continue to grow and communicate your music. And creativity and genius in any kind of artistic expression don't know nothing about age; either you got it or you don't and being old is not going to help you get it.'' Miles was always trying to get his finger on the changing pulse of the people and he constantly looked to and learned from what was new and challenging. As one jazz critic noted, "One of Davis's trademarks was to play the note above the expected one, as if reaching for an idea glimpsed just over the horizon.''

Miles said, "Nothing is out of the question the way I think and live my life. I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning. That's when it starts--when I wake up and see the first light. Then, I'm grateful, and I can't wait to wake up, because there's something new to do and try every day. Every day I find something creative to do with my life. Music is a blessing and a curse. But I love it, wouldn't have it no other way.''


Miles also left behind some thoughts to remember with his death. He said, "When I think about the ones who are dead it makes me mad, so I try not to think about it. But their spirits are walking around in me, so they're still here and passing it on to others.... I believe their music is still around somewhere, you know. The shit that we played together has to be somewhere around in the air because we blew it there and that shit was magical...''

The magic of Miles is still with us.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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