All Modern Jazz is but a Series of Footnotes to the Music of Miles Davis
June 10, 2023
3 min read
I came to appreciate Miles Davis in a backward kind of way. When I was in high school in the early seventies I was very much into rock. I still am. Back then I came awake in around ninth grade to FM alternative radio and music and culture. I went to a concert in Central Park in NYC at the Wollman skating rink in the summer of 1972 to see Taj Mahal with a bunch of friends. It was Saturday August 5, 1972. I still have the schedule.
The opening band was The Mahavisnu Orchestra. I was blown away. The sound was loud, the instrumentation was rock, and the music was muscular and incredibly powerful. They became my favorite band. The drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist John McLaughlin were Miles alums. I wouldn’t get into their album with Miles “Tribute to Jack Johnson” for several more decades and then I would wonder where that album had been all my life.
In college I got very into Weather Report; another fusion band run by Miles alums Wayne Shorter and Josef Zawinal. It would take me decades to get into Miles second great quintet with Wayne and the album In a Silent Way with Zawinal, Wayne, and John McLaughlin.
As I pulled on those threads and connected the dots and followed those musicians along with Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, back in their careers I started to realize they all started with Miles. It all started with Miles.
As I developed as a musician from a rock guitar wanna-be into a jazz piano player, I delved more into the jazz repertoire and kept running into Miles as a main character in all the different jazz genres. I looked into Coltrane; he started with Miles. I looked into Cannonball; he started with Miles. Bird; Miles was there.
It wasn’t until I read his autobiography written with Quincy Troupe that I got an overview of the staggering achievement and influence of Miles on twentieth century music. It was all described in his signature matter-of-fact understated way in the book.
Miles is like Zelig in the Woody Allen movie. Except Miles doesn’t just happen to be around all these centers of gravity like Zelig; Miles is the center of gravity. He drove all the jazz movements in the Golden Age from after WWII through the end of the sixties. Then he reinvented himself as the baddest rock funk bad ass and turned the world around again and set another wave of musicians in motion that are still at the top of their game today.
This book is about that Golden Age of Modern Jazz: acoustic music of incredible variety, sophistication and groove. Miles is the ideal lens through which to view this musical and cultural era as his life provides the narrative arc that links all jazz genres together.
He was the prime mover in creating all the major jazz genres: bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, post bop, modal, third stream, free, time no changes. He also appropriated much of the Great American Songbook popular standards and transformed them into jazz improvisation vehicles. His creative genius gave those classic songs a new lease on life.
Alfred North Whitehead once said that all western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. The same can be said of modern jazz and Miles. All jazz styles are but a series of footnotes to the music of Miles Davis.
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