When the renowned trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis chose the members of his quintet in 1955, he passed over well-known, respected saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins to pick out the young, still untested John Coltrane. What might have seemed like a minor decision at the time would instead set the course not just for each of their careers but for jazz itself.
Clawing at the Limits of Cool is the first book to focus on Davis and Coltrane's musical interaction and its historical context, on the ways they influenced each other and the tremendous impact they've had on culture since then. It chronicles the drama of their collaboration, from their initial historic partnership to the interlude of their breakup, during which each man made tremendous progress toward his personal artistic goals. And it continues with the last leg of their journey together, a time when the Miles Davis group, featuring John Coltrane, forever changed the landscape of jazz.
Authors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington examine the profound implications that the Davis/Coltrane collaboration would have for jazz and African American culture, drawing parallels to the changing standards of African American identity with their public personas and private difficulties. With vastly different personal and musical styles, the two men could not have been more different. One exemplified the tough, closemouthed cool of the fifties while the other made the transition during this time from unfocused junkie to a religious pilgrim who would inspire others to pursue spiritual enlightenment in the coming decade.
Their years together mark a watershed moment, and Clawing at the Limits of Cool draws on both cultural history and precise musical detail to illuminate the importance that their collaboration would have for jazz and American history as a whole.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she has served as director of the Institute for Research in African American studies. She is the author of "Who Set You Flowin'": The African-American Migration Narrative and If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and has edited several collections of letters and essays. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper's Bazaar, Callaloo, and African American Review, and she is also a frequent commentator on WNPR's News&Notes.
An accomplished saxophonist, Salim Washington has led two bands, the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic and the Harlem Arts Ensemble. He has recorded four CDs as a bandleader, including Love in Exile and Harlem Homecoming. He is an avid composer and teaches music and Africana Studies at Brooklyn College.
An accomplished saxophonist, Salim Washington has led two bands, the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic and the Harlem Arts Ensemble. He has recorded four CDs as a bandleader, including Love in Exile and Harlem Homecoming. He is an avid composer and teaches music and Africana Studies at Brooklyn College.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she has served as director of the Institute for Research in African American studies. She is the author of “Who Set You Flowin’”: The African-American Migration Narrative and If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and has edited several collections of letters and essays. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Callaloo, and African American Review, and she is also a frequent commentator on WNPR’s News&Notes.
Read an Excerpt
PRELUDE: THE HEAD
I think it was the beginning of another level of expression in this music.
FOR MANY, MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE were the last major innovators in jazz. Decades after their deaths, their shadows linger over modern music, affecting genres from soul and hip-hop to the experimental wings of European concert music. Within the world of jazz there has been no musician since whose influence runs as wide and as deep. The only artists whose contributions are comparable, in the sense of affecting the way other musicians think and play, are the great pace setters who came before them—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charles Parker, Billie Holiday, and a handful of others. And, like these giants, both Davis and Coltrane have become icons far beyond the world of jazz—indeed, beyond the world of music.
In six years, Davis and Coltrane created a band that displayed a perfect mix of form and content, an ensemble that provided an aesthetic model for its time period while also providing artistic answers for the future. The balance between hot and cool playing, between head-spinning innovation and toe-tapping familiarity, the new feeling articulated by the band, all spoke to the times and to the necessities of black life in midcentury America.
Both Coltrane and Davis, known to musicians simply as "Trane" and "the Chief," were artists whose approaches to their instruments inspired others not only to imitate their musical ideas, but also to mimic the minutiae of their personal technical mannerisms. These include everything from material changes, such as the widespread use of Harmon mutes for trumpets on ballads or the preponderance ofalto and tenor saxophonists who now double on soprano saxophone, to sound production, such as Trane’s hard edge or the Chief’s squeezed notes, and extend even to styles of melodic ornamentation.
In an art form that reveres the improvisations of outstanding soloists, their ability to create memorable statements places them in select company, and their solos are the normal entry point for appreciating their artistry. However, Trane and the Chief were innovative in other ways as well. They were leading improvisers, yes, but they also have become canonical as composers, bandleaders, and musical thinkers who never rested upon their laurels but continued to invent and try out new ideas. Although this is an impressive array of achievements with expansive implications for American music in general, their musical excellence alone does not exhaust their importance in our culture. Coltrane and Davis have iconic stature in American culture not only for their music, but for the examples they set as men and particularly as black men during one of the most socially dynamic periods in our history. Both the ways in which they navigated their art form vis-à-vis its artistic and social contexts and the ways in which their personas spoke, and continue to speak, to our culture remain important parts of their legacy.
Miles’s public persona, among other things, expresses the confidence and hipness that became so important to American masculinity, and did so in a way that was genuinely cool, virtually free of the predictable affectations of pretenders. The ways in which the Chief spoke and dressed inspired those for whom style mattered. When many of the great bandleaders required their musicians to wear uniforms, or at least suits, in order to be considered presentable, Miles wore richly colored sports coats made of fine fabric, and he expected his band mates to be equally well dressed. He attended to sartorial details such as the type of stitching on his shoes. His personal affect was direct and pointed; there were no gratuitous smiles or any of the pretenses of the entertainer. Miles’s manner seemed to say: "The coon show is officially over; we are here to play."
While the Chief was savvy enough to capitalize upon his status, he didn’t have to fake the funk. Miles Dewey Davis III was raised to be a confident black genius; sustained achievement had been a matter of course in his family for generations. He came into the world with a long pedigree and surrounded by flesh-and-blood examples of how to maintain dignity and to successfully maneuver the world even in harsh, racist environments. Breaking barriers, superb intellectual achievement, and financial success were all legacies bequeathed to Miles not only by his father’s generation, but by his grandfather’s as well. His frank outspokenness, take-no-shit attitude, and self-confidence recalled the courage of politically minded artists like Paul Robeson. But, unlike Robeson—the outspoken actor, athlete, singer, and activist—Miles was consistently able to capture the imagination of generations of black people as well as whites in such a way that his struggles against the unthinking and unhip in our culture were constantly celebrated. (It should be noted that unlike Robeson, Davis was never seen to be a major threat to U.S. capitalism, so he escaped the governmental harassment that haunted Robeson throughout much of his life.)
Saxophonist Carl Grubbs, who was Coltrane’s nephew by marriage, recalls of Miles Davis, "We were not trying to be like Pops. Nobody wanted to be that guy sweating with the handkerchief. We wanted to be musicians because of people like Miles. Miles was hip. The music was hot and he was clean, standing there in a suit... not even a suit, but a sports jacket. And he would look like this—" (Grubbs strikes a pose where Miles looks askance in an enigmatic way.) Davis biographer Quincy Troupe once admitted to the Chief that he and others in his generation who participated in the protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations of the civil rights movement looked to Miles as a model for how to think and behave under pressure. Troupe’s fellow St. Louisian saxophonist Oliver Lake, himself an innovative and stylish musician, recalls, "I wanted to dress like Miles; be cool like Miles."1
Even in our own time, through advertising campaigns for products as various as Gap clothing, Hennessy, and Apple computers, we can see Miles Davis’s image used as a symbol for innovation and the courage to follow one’s conviction. All the ads emphasize Miles’s uniqueness as an artist and persona. In the Gap series, he joins James Dean, Chet Baker, Marilyn Monroe, and Steve McQueen—nostalgic icons of a cool sexiness. The Hennessy series features strikingly beautiful African American celebrities such as Pam Grier and Marvin Gaye, with the caption "Never Blend In." The computer ad is part of a 1998 print and television campaign featuring portraits of cultural icons known for brilliance, creativity, originality, and courage; these include Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Ted Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Thomas Edison, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, Maria Callas, and others. The figures are not identified by name; the simple, if ungrammatical caption "Think Different" accompanies each image. According to Allen Olivo, senior director for worldwide marketing communications at Apple, "The premise is that people who use Apple computers are different and that we make computers for those creative people who believe that one person can change the world." By not identifying the figures in the striking black-and-white images, Apple executives also sought to establish their consumers as people in the know, as part of the "cognoscenti."2
Although mainstream culture may have taken to flattening out his persona for such ends, the Chief is still revered today among musicians as one of the people whose music and attitude really matter. Saxophonist Lake asserts, "Miles was always stretching... that has been an inspiration for me throughout my career: electric Miles, acoustic Miles, straight-ahead Miles, experimenting Miles....The wealth of all his recorded music has been and will be an inspiration to the world."3
Likewise, John Coltrane is revered not only for his prodigious musicianship, but also for who he was as a person and for the example he set for anyone in pursuit of mastery at his craft. He stands as a premier example of black creative genius and as a spiritual mentor who brought a decidedly secular music to the realm of the sublime. Once Trane reached his mature stages, it was as if he were dealing directly in spirit matter, with the medium of music serving as a material expression of a higher force. Like his mentor, the Chief, Trane was courageous enough to constantly experiment and grow beyond what he had done before. While Miles, in his changing musical styles, seemed to be exercising his savvy for music and for trendsetting, Trane was clearly on a mission from God. He wanted his music to worship the Creator and to bear witness for his listeners about the beauty of life and creation. While Miles set trends for ways to play the music, Trane consistently risked critical and popular rejection of his music through his relentless expansion and experimentation. His courage and his sheer mastery of the technical rigors of the saxophone changed the way young musicians saw their life’s mission; his example inspired generations of musicians to push themselves harder to discover new possibilities through diligence and dedication. Two generations later, saxophonist Joshua Redman would say of Trane’s music: "At certain times in my life this music has kind of swept me up and transported me to a place where I can sense that there is something greater than the material existence of things. And a fabric that binds the material world together and offers an escape from that world."4 For Redman, as for a number of other musicians, the deep spirituality of Trane’s music is also evidence of his artistic integrity. In another context, Redman comments:
Coltrane, in a certain way, is a paradox, because he is one of the most elusive and one of the most uncompromising artists—one of the purist [sic] artists in the history of jazz. You can’t get purer than Coltrane. Everything that he did was all about music and all about the artistry and spiritual quest. No concessions were made to commercial issues or even performance issues—issues of audience satisfaction. Yet, at the same time, he is one of the most compelling and in some ways one of the most accessible artists in the history of jazz....I think he was accessible and compelling precisely because he was so uncompromising. The integrity and purity that he had was so apparent to people. You could hear it in the music; you could see it in photographs. It’s beautiful and accessible in its intensity, and the sense of resolve and devotion is so visible on his face.5
In addition to musicians, a generation of painters, poets, and activists heard in Trane’s music a call to action. The poet Michael Harper tells us Coltrane’s energy and passion was "the kind of energy it takes to break oppressive conditions, oppressive musical strictures, and oppressive societal situations."6Consequently, for many others like Harper, Trane came to exemplify the revolutionary tenor of the 1960s.
Coltrane, like Davis, was born into a literate, middle-class family that exercised courageous leadership and high achievement. As Trane would put it, his maternal grandfather, Reverend Blair, "was the dominant cat" in his family. Both of his grandfathers, however, were ministers. While Coltrane’s religious upbringing was not overly strict, he was not a stranger to the power of God or the notion of sanctified living, and both would prove important to his personal and musical development in later years. Coltrane’s father, a tailor who played and sang music for his own enjoyment, was a quiet, humble man. These were traits that John Coltrane embodied as well.
Despite the influence of the male father figures in his life, it was ultimately extraordinary women who raised and nurtured the young Coltrane. His father and grandfather died before his teenage years, so for his entire adolescence and part of his young adulthood he lived with his mother and aunt. The protective environment that these women provided was crucial for his development. From the very beginning, Coltrane was an indefatigable worker at his saxophone, spending hours upon hours practicing every day. He was able to do so long before he was gainfully employed as a musician. And although he worked briefly for the Campbell Soup Company as a young man in Philadelphia, for the most part, the women in his life provided for him in such a way that he could devote himself almost entirely to music.
This, perhaps, is one of the most significant differences in the way that the two men were raised. While Coltrane’s household experienced working-class poverty following the death of his father and grandfather, the Davis household was upper middle class, replete with servants and stylish clothes. And Dr. Miles Davis II was particularly indulgent of his namesake and favorite son. Miles was protected by his father, who spared no money in securing for his son the things he needed and wanted. Perhaps this difference played a role in the dissimilar styles of black manhood exhibited by Trane and Miles. Coltrane’s leadership style and personal manner were gentle and compassionate. As a bandleader, he was capable of making decisions and changes and was always willing to lead the way. But he was also a nurturing spirit and never quite traded in his country, down-home ways for the urbane style that many jazz musicians sought and that Davis personified.
It is important to note that Miles, for all of his notorious profaneness, brashness, misogyny, and just plain cold-bloodedness, was also capable of the kind of generosity that has endeared him to band mates. The man who could be cool and confident, and who could play with the openness and vulnerability that Miles did, was a complex, bold, and pioneering version of midcentury masculinity.
Coltrane’s courage and the strength exhibited in his virtuosity and intelligence were just as important an image for blacks, who were often portrayed as lacking in all of these qualities. But along with Trane’s strength came gentleness, and with his brilliance came humility. His love for his people was guided by his love for God. Ultimately, however, it was the music each played that made them both important. And the music they played together was especially fine and crucial to the legacy that each man left behind.
By all accounts, John Coltrane was a gentle, soft-spoken man of few words; Miles Davis, though equally reserved, could be caustic, biting, and harsh. However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid-fifties, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument. Consequently, their methods of playing with their rhythm section were almost diametrically opposed. Trane was more verbose, with an extroverted style that belied his reputation for reticence and shyness. Davis was more economical, playing far fewer notes, thereby outlining a sketch of his message more so than rendering it explicitly. When the two began playing together in 1955, Davis was the clear leader. With a few gestures he set the tone of the music and controlled the band as deftly as Duke Ellington or Count Basie.
Given the stature both men came to hold in the jazz world as two giants—the gates through which subsequent players must come to the music—one might imagine their collaboration as one of competitive, if productive, combat: two musical geniuses battling it out night after night. According to all who knew and observed them, this was not the case. For one thing, Trane was too humble, and Miles, quite simply, was too cool. So the image of two masculine figures duking it out on the bandstand does not even approach the relationship between these two musical powerhouses. Miles and Trane were not like Picasso and Matisse, highly competitive friends whose competition spurred each to greater achievement. Like Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Miles and Trane were of the same generation, but Miles matured as an artist much earlier than did Trane. Their relationship would be one where Trane could stretch and grow artistically. Later, Coltrane would list Miles Davis as one of the two master teachers from whom he learned while playing in their bands (Thelonious Monk was the other). The relationship between Miles and Trane was not one fueled by competition, nor did one musician live enviously in the shadow of the other. Instead, their collaboration was more like an apprenticeship, with Miles as the master artist and Trane as the young, talented, questing acolyte. Drummer Rashied Ali, who saw the two play together on a number of occasions, recalled: "Miles was really the boss, I mean, of that band. Even though John played a lot longer... than Miles sometimes... Miles, I think he was like really the leader."
From Miles, Trane learned important lessons about pacing and how to sculpt memorable solos. Equally important, however, are the lessons that he gained about management, about putting a band together, and about the importance of establishing a unique band sound. An ardent student of music with uncanny discipline and diligence, Coltrane would not remain in Miles’s shadow for long and in many ways would eclipse the trumpeter’s importance in the music.
There is a photograph of the two of them, taken in a recording studio, that speaks volumes about them. Miles stands behind a hanging microphone, muted horn pointing down into the mike. He is in a characteristic Miles stance, graceful, poised, weight on right leg, left hip slightly tilted. Dark glasses—keeping us out—white shirt stark against his dark skin, long sleeves opened at the cuffs but almost echoing the bell of the horn. The shirt is tucked neatly into his pants. He is tight and fit, in full control, in top form. Miles is an aesthetic statement.
Behind him stands Trane. The most obvious thing about him is the horn positioned horizontally across his waist. He stands solidly on both feet, flat, grounded on the floor; there is no dancer’s grace, but a determination that anchors him there. He is wearing an untucked, short-sleeved plaid shirt that fits tightly across a slight beer belly. Even the sleeves are a little tight. He is listening intently to what Miles is playing, hearing his way through his own response. Miles is the sure one, the center of attention, and the focus. For Miles, the music is the central component of a larger aesthetic project that includes fashion, painting, boxing, and self-creation. Trane, even when not playing, seems too focused on the music to be concerned about much else.
In a May 30, 1959, review of the New Miles Davis Quintet in Down Beat, the reviewer (possibly Nat Hentoff) wrote:
Miles is in wonderfully cohesive form here, blowing with characteristically personal, eggshell tone, muted on the standards, open on the originals and he continues to grow in his searching quality of being able to go so inside a song that he makes it fit him as if to order without injuring the essence of the work as first written. Coltrane, as Ira Gitler notes accurately, "is a mixture of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt." But so far there is very little Coltrane.
Miles makes the song fit him in much the same way his tailor alters his clothing to his body. For this reviewer, Trane was working his way through the masters, searching, seeking his own voice. By the end of his tenure with Miles just two years later, no one would ever say there was very little Coltrane in his sound. By then, he had become the standard-bearer for all who would follow him on tenor.
Once it was time for Trane to move on, he did so with Miles’s blessing and his gift of a soprano saxophone. Their relationship had always been conducted primarily on the bandstand and in the studio; there is little evidence of their interaction beyond that arena, so we must listen for their conversations in the music they made. Ali and saxophonist Sonny Fortune are two accomplished musicians in their own right who knew and worked with Trane and Miles, respectively. (The two now often perform mesmerizing duets together, a project they have maintained for two decades.) A conversation between Fortune and Ali best articulates the nature of communication between Miles and Trane:
FORTUNE: My working with Miles would suggest that [their communication] wasn’t extensive. Miles wasn’t a talker and Trane wasn’t a talker. So you got to guess there’s no talking.
ALI: Not with words, anyway.7
Not with words, anyway. It’s in the music. Let’s listen:
IT IS March 22, 1960, and the Miles Davis Quintet is playing at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. It is the last tour in which John Coltrane will play as a permanent member of Davis’s band. On the set that night was a collection of blues and rhythm changes, standard fare for a jazz combo at the time, but also a new piece that would play a role in heralding another era in jazz composition and performance: "So What." Perhaps Miles Davis’s most famous composition, it flows and floats through time in an evocative way, in part because of its modal character. One of a handful of musicians whose silences are always just as important as his played notes, Davis built the composition with a minimum of musical materials—a bass riff, a two-note motif for the horns played over a harmonic framework that itself includes only two chords.
On this occasion, we hear two master musicians giving statements that stand as testaments to the thoughts and feelings of the age—testaments as eloquent as any made in that era of American history, rife with both struggle and optimism. Full of passion and intelligence, simultaneously abounding in both power and subtlety, their performances represent the apotheosis of the Davis/Coltrane collaboration. We have a snapshot of what could happen when the "world’s greatest band" coalesced enough to give voice to the lessons learned by each member over the years of the band’s life. Coltrane had learned from Miles how to pace himself in a solo. Coltrane was always an original and able improviser with a nonpareil technique, a man whose horn spoke to the fundamental passions while simultaneously addressing the most complex thoughts of those striving for higher consciousness. On the songs recorded on the album released of this concert (and others from this tour currently available as bootleg recordings), one can hear some of the things that Trane learned from listening and playing with one of his two master teachers. Miles’s influence is evident in the ways that Coltrane begins his improvisations with relatively concise formulations and reformulates the ideas again and again, gradually teasing out their implications and possibilities. Unlike the Coltrane who had joined the Miles Davis Quintet five years earlier, here Trane has learned to think in larger units, to develop his ideas over entire choruses rather than from chord to chord or from bar to bar. Following his own proclivities, through logical and thorough investigation and development, Coltrane stretches his ideas further during each chorus until it is finally clear that he is pointing toward the future of music and not simply reveling in his mastery of the existing forms. The rhythmic language that Coltrane uses is quite advanced, in that he found a way to swing without relying upon the time-honored string of eighth notes. It sounds jarringly as though he has allowed the full expression of his emotions to surface, not the controlled hip voice, but rather the rough-and-ready voice in which he can express anger, fear, and outrage as well as the more sublime emotions. Similarly, his range, in terms of how high he plays, at points exceeds the normal practice of the day, as does the level of adventurousness between the melodic lines and the harmonic underpinning of his improvisations. No longer does he restrict himself to playing within the bar lines, or limit himself to four-and eight-bar phrases that represented the jazz orthodoxy. Yet Coltrane has not abandoned the blues or the standard song forms from which these conventions arose; he extends their meaning through a sustained investigation of how far he can stretch them in this context.
If he were not moored by the rhythm section, which keeps swinging no matter what bombs he might lob into the mix, Coltrane just might have flown off into completely uncharted territory. As it is, he is clearly knocking at the door of an increased sense of freedom from the melodic and rhythmic conventions of bebop. Miles had given Trane free rein to develop and play as he saw fit. And on this tour, Coltrane played with an abandon and exploratory feeling greater than on any of his recordings to date. It was as if the Muses were announcing to him that he was now ready to make his own way, that he had arrived.
Part of the piquancy of listening to Coltrane at this point in time is the tension that he creates by pulling and stretching the music along new melodic contours and rhythmic configurations, while the context for his improvisations, the accompaniment by the rhythm section of Jimmy Cobb (drums), Wynton Kelly (piano), and Paul Chambers (bass), remains steadily in the mainstream tradition of hard swinging. The contrast between the funkiness of the steady beat and swing that Miles got out of his rhythm section and the almost furious exploration that Trane brought gave the band a powerful yet delicate balance. This band provided the kind of music you could pat your feet to, music signifying hipness. Someone seeking to impress and express urbanity and sexiness might bring a date to hear the Miles Davis group. At the same time, with Coltrane’s contributions, this is also startlingly serious music. His sounds are more likely to induce trancelike attention than finger snapping or head bopping.
Although with hindsight we know that Coltrane was on the verge of becoming one of the great bandleaders in the history of the music, on this outing it is Miles Davis who is the leader, and it is he who sets the tone of the music and provides Trane with the berth adequate to launch his musical flights. Davis’s conception is one that takes the bird’s-eye view; Miles is able to unfold his solo as an organic whole. (Jazz musicians refer to their aesthetic ideas and artistic praxis as their "conception.") With solos like this one, the listener understands the "tell a story" metaphor made famous by Lester Young and held dear by subsequent generations of improvisers. Each chorus builds logically upon the previous and without hurry or wasted motion provides a vast range of ideas and emotions shaped in all the registers of the horn. It is in the newly expanded range of Miles’s trumpet playing that we can hear Coltrane’s influence upon his bandleader. Coltrane’s style included frequent trips to the altissimo register of the saxophone, officially above the classical range of the instrument. The altissimo register is the very high range of an instrument, akin to the falsetto range of the male voice. Like the falsetto voice, the altissimo usually carries an added tension and sometimes a certain coarseness to the sound. Often, Coltrane would punctuate his long, complicated melodies with sharp shrieks and cries at either extreme of the saxophone’s range. With the low growls and honks of the bottom register and the screams of the upper register, Coltrane’s horn combines the rawest sound ideals of the blues tradition right alongside the experimental harmonic and melodic treatments of modern music.
In the early part of Davis’s career, when he was occasionally criticized for not following suit with the pyrotechnical displays expected of trumpet players after Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop revelations, the older trumpeter explained to Miles that in order to play in the upper register, one had to hear in that register. Miles’s increased ability to "hear" in the upper range of the trumpet was due no doubt not only to the exclamations that Coltrane used so meaningfully, but also to the fast, glissandolike scalar passages that he borrowed from Trane while en route to his target pitches. Coltrane sometimes played passages that contained very large intervals, intervals that are not amenable to singing and are therefore a bit removed from the smoothness for which many improvisers strive. Often starting in one register and ending in another, these lines brought the melodic range in excess of one octave in a way that gave hints of the disjointed leaps of which Coltrane had become so fond. It was as if a contralto voice had developed the range of a coloratura soprano. By extending the tonal range of his horn and his melodies, Miles used Coltranesque flourishes as more than ornamental appendages, but as an integral part of his overall aesthetic statement. By allowing for inclusion of the upper and lower ranges of the trumpet, he achieves more than virtuosity. Other trumpeters, such as Clifford Brown and Thad Jones, for instance, were more overtly virtuosic, but Miles added a mysterious personal quality by never allowing the display of his virtuosity to take precedence.
In his reserve, Davis is the opposite of Coltrane. He was poised in his playing and always seemed to know exactly what he wanted. Coltrane, by contrast, always seemed to be searching. He would try out ideas in rapid succession. Significantly, Miles took the risk of allowing Trane to experiment both in public performances and on recordings; in so doing, Miles risked losing the support of critics as well as fans.
In part because of the differences between their instruments, the trumpet and the saxophone, and in part because of their different approaches to improvisation, Coltrane’s and Davis’s styles provided maximum contrast. These traits are full-blown in this example from the band’s last tour with Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb on piano and drums, respectively, but traces of what would be were present in the original Miles Davis Quintet with Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, as can be heard in an example of one of the band’s first recordings, "Round Midnight."
That band was a model of how to structure music and musical aggregations. It possessed the drama that Miles was raised on as a young bebopper standing next to Charlie "Bird" Parker on the bandstand. But Miles built his band around his melodic conception, which was one of the clearest and most beautiful of all time. Having Trane in the second horn chair gave Miles’s front line the kind of balance between minimalist and pyrotechnical voices that Bird’s band had earlier with a teenage Davis in the second horn chair. In the earlier band that had paired Dizzy and Bird, the front line featured two virtuosos whose brilliance was always in evidence. Their rendition of "Leap Frog," for instance, was built upon a friendly game of one-upmanship in that each plays a lot of ultrahip ideas on the changes, making incredibly fast, intricate melodies that fit together seamlessly. The front line of Bird and Miles was different. Rather than two virtuosos battling it out, urging each other on to more fantastic technical feats, Parker and Davis complemented each other and provided contrast. Beyond that, each man brought out the latent qualities of the other: In this combination, Bird became even more melodic, and Miles became a true bebop trumpeter. Miles and Trane’s front line was modeled more after the Bird/Miles lineup than the Bird/Diz combination.
In addition to the front line, Miles’s rhythm section was to die for. The propulsion that Paul Chambers gave the band was phenomenal. His tone was clear and resonant, his note choices intelligent, and his swing powerful and steady. As a bassist, he could solo with the kind of phrasing, articulation, and content that horn players used. And if that were not amazing enough, he could pick up his bow and take care of business there as well. With Philly Joe Jones on drums and Red Garland on piano, the rhythm section became a swinging affair, steady but pliant at the same time. On medium and up-tempo tunes, Jones and Garland regularly played in unison, improvising syncopated accents that added to the fiery sound of the band. The kind of strongly rhythmic comping that Jones and Garland supplied (aided, no doubt, by Garland’s ability to play in block chords) helped to give the quintet a bigger sound. ("Comping" is taken from "accompaniment" and refers to the way that a musician—usually, but not always, the pianist— rhythmically and harmonically improvises a supportive background for another musician’s solo.) It was as if a big band were playing shout choruses behind the soloist. Even though the band followed the small combo format made popular by Charles Parker’s quintet, the Miles Davis band had a sound reminiscent of the big bands. This was achieved largely by the arrangements, but also by the interplay between Jones and Garland. In big bands, the rhythmic accents are normally set and even written into the arrangements, but Philly Joe and Red were able to create equally tight figures on the fly. The improvised nature of their rhythmic counterpoint ensured that none of the suppleness or flexibility of the small combo was sacrificed to achieve the big band features.
Davis’s impact on contemporary music was due both to his vision as a bandleader and to his unique playing style, especially when the tempos were slow. He brought something new to the art of ballad playing. The warmth and uniqueness of his tone are downright haunting. He has an uncanny mastery of time and form. Using only a few notes, exquisitely placed and phrased, he could imply larger ideas. Even when playing ballads, though, this band maintained its rawness. The feeling of going all out combined with superbly arranged presentations made the band seem a perfect emblem of the power and urgency of late 1950s black consciousness. Like the everyday people who valiantly waged the civil rights struggle, the music was dignified and well presented even though it held the hint of rage and turmoil underneath. Miles and Trane were steeped in black, southern traditions, musically and otherwise. As young professionals, both men sharpened their skills in the environs of New York bebop with all of its urbane sophistication. The Miles Davis sound came to maturity in this band; it was controlled and artful, but still hot.
That Miles and Trane were both great musical thinkers is made evident first, of course, by their skillful improvisations. While their approaches to improvisation in some ways were almost polar opposites, both were outstanding and original as soloists. In fact, each man’s sound is recognizable after only one or two notes by any listener familiar with the music. The depth and breadth of their thinking, however, lay not only in the reflexes and instincts honed to perfection through discipline and talent, but also in important innovations in their compositions, arrangements, and conceptual approaches to music and to life.
This intelligence, combined with a passionate delivery and immense power, was something that Coltrane brought to the table when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. But Coltrane’s talent as a musician blossomed during his stint with Davis. In the wry words of multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson (who would later work with Miles through his long association with Gil Evans), Miles’s band was supposed to fail. In the eyes of his detractors, instead of building his band with the accepted leading players like saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins, "Miles had a junkie drummer, a cocktail pianist, a teenage bassist, and an out-of-tune saxophonist. Yet he sold a whole lot of records and made all the musicians eager to hear each one as it came out."8
According to Wallace Roney, Miles’s protégé and apparently the only major trumpeter to be taken under his wing, Miles thought of this band as the greatest in the world not simply because of his alchemy, but also because of the individual talents of the band members. He saw Paul Chambers as the heir to his favorite bassists, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus. He especially admired Chambers’s virtuosity. Miles loved Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as the music’s premier pianists. But Red was like Bud Powell with Nat "King" Cole’s touch, just as Miles himself could be seen as Fats Navarro with Freddie Webster’s tone. Like Miles, Red loved boxing. Garland was a professional and had even fought Sugar Ray Robinson. That he lost to a man that many consider the greatest boxer, pound for pound, was no dishonor. Garland had also played with Bird and played on his Live at St. Nick’s album with Roy Haynes in 1950. Roney said that Miles thought Red was "hip and could play fast with that elegant thing."
The Chief was able to bring out each of these musicians’ unique voice in such a way as to make hard swinging music that also seemed to promise something new. He excelled at bringing together the elements of personalities, talents, and musical concepts to create a band that was familiar and accessible while at the same time forceful and visionary. By adding to the tradition, or rather finding their unique voices within it, they were able to widen the scope of the music’s articulations for future players.
Trane’s and Miles’s abilities to speak to new generations have made them resonate within our culture as more than just great or even innovative musicians. Trane’s relentless development as a musician was astounding, and his courage was singular. He represented the triumph of black genius through discipline and integrity. His horn playing seemed visionary while he spoke to the spirits, and his humility made it seem possible for others to aspire to such. Poet, essayist, playwright, and jazz critic Amiri Baraka says of him, "Coltrane was the most humble person I ever met. You know, a person who is truly great with such humility."9 Trane’s music simultaneously made calls for radical change and for acknowledging the beauty and gravity of God’s creation. It was complex and eventful enough to provide musical sustenance for a generation that was experiencing a concurrence of political struggle, cultural flowering, and social reconstruction. It captured a moment when the fate of black people was absolutely central to the future of the modern world.
There are times when two people come together for a moment to produce something extraordinary, a gift, so to speak, for the rest of us: an organization that aids the disenfranchised, a business, a piece of art, or—as is the case with Miles Davis and John Coltrane—a body of work. If the relationship is one in which each participant is pushed to his best while helping to create an atmosphere where the other shines as well, then the results often appear magical, and the collaboration seems to accomplish something that moves us all, listeners and players, to the next level. Such was the moment when these two gifted men came together in the mid-1950s. Both were formed by and helped to inform the burgeoning civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And both emerged as global icons for generations to follow.
LIKE ALL other biographers to date, we have no access to the conversations that took place between them. There is no known recorded dialogue between the two. In the beginning, when
Coltrane felt keenly his need to bring up his game and meet the expectations that attended being in such select company, he would ply the master with questions about music and about his methods and choices. This inquisitiveness was something that Miles admired in Trane’s musical statements, but he found the fact that "Trane was always asking those motherfucking questions" a turnoff. But Miles admired his seriousness and the fact that he was always practicing. There was some musical instruction, but it turned out to be a two-way lesson conducted primarily in the medium of music. After a while, Miles would write things speciacally for Trane, especially during his second tenure with the band. Roney tells us that Miles believed that "Trane was a genius." He would write little things for Trane, who "would turn it upside down and play it five or six different ways." When Miles heard what his saxophonist had done with his ideas, he would be inspired to go even further. But Miles spoke to his band primarily through his horn. Roney attests to the various ways that Miles could signal to his band what he wanted by the way he phrased his ideas. Also, when it came to arranging, Miles could, with just a few changes and decisions, alter the character of a song. He could direct any other aspect of the music, but he did not interfere with how a musician soloed. By the time Coltrane was himself a master bandleader, he would rebuff his sidemen for asking what they should do: "I can just about play my horn; I can’t tell you how to find your own way." As leaders, both men certainly set the musical direction of their groups, but they also valued band mates who could find their own voice and contribute originality as well as technical mastery.
Most of those who knew or worked with them cannot recall much of their verbal interaction. It is as though they led parallel lives, in the same time—indeed, next to each other—but crossed only in the music, on the bandstand, in the studio.
This book will focus on the historical and political times they shared and, more important, on the music they made. Yes, there will be personal details, but the music sits center. Hopefully by the end, we will have helped you to really listen, to hear their statements, conversations, and innovations. In seeking to understand the music they made, by joining them in their pursuits, we learn more about art, history, this music we call jazz, and human possibility as well.
Excerpted from Clawing at the Limits of Cool by Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington
Copyright © 2008 by Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington
Published in 2008 by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher