I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle. If I can't get that sound I can't play anything. Those old trumpet players used to tell me "Little Davis! Play with a straight tone."
Miles Davis, 1989
SOME CONTEND THAT they can hear Kind of Blue in a solo Miles recorded fifteen years earlier on "Now's the Time," a Charlie Parker 78 from 1946. It is indeed possible in those mere forty-five seconds to discern the kernel of the trumpeter's mature, late fifties sound: the nineteen-year-old trumpeter solos with halting, economical phrasing free of flourish or embellishment, staying close to a blues scale as he invents a lyrical line. Most noticeable is his tone. In his other recordings of that era, Davis strains to copy the brash intensity of contemporaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro. But in a sign of things to come Davis delivers a firm sound, clearly stated, remaining within the trumpet's middle range.
An examination of Miles's work reveals a musical visionary balancing personal limitations with an expansive, intrepid spirit. Miles could not launch into the virtuosic, high-register fury of a Dizzy Gillespie, but he could plumb the emotional depths of a melody with economy and intensity. He was an autodidact and could not call on a background of formal musical theory or extensive conservatory training like that of jazz composer George Russell and pianist Bill Evans, but he learned from them and from many others. He lacked the compositional talent of Duke Ellington, but he knew how to assemble a great band, how to play one outstanding sideman off another. (And he had Gil Evans.) While others opted for the security and comfort of playing the same old same old Davis plowed ahead, cocksure that inspiration, value and musical discovery lay somewhere ahead.
Miles opens his autobiography with his earliest memory: concentrating on a steady, blue gas flame and experiencing fear for the first time. The feeling evoked in him was not flight, but "almost like an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about." Long after the recording of Kind of Blue, Bill Evans would express the inspiration he found in that same tenacious, fear-defying spirit:
Miles is ... more or less a late arriver. You could hear him building his abilities from the beginning, very consciously, very aware of every note he played, theoretically, motifically and everything. I know Miles has spoken about how he didn't have the kind of facility that a lot of other trumpet players had for fast tempos and all this stuff and Bird would tell him, "Just get out there and do it!" There are always a lot of early-arrivers who have great facility. [Miles] had to go through a longer, laborious, digging, analytical process, finally arriving at something which is far more precious
Miles Davis was the second son of a well-to-do dentist in East St. Louis. He was seduced by jazz at an early age:
I was in the sixth grade and before we went to school there was a program on the radio called "Harlem Rhythm" and I listened to it for fifteen minutesthat's all it was. So I said, "I want to play music like that."
Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie and other swing-era luminaries led the big bands that caught the ear of the precocious youngster, who soon started playing on a surprise gift from his uncle: a used trumpet. Several years later, music lessons at his high school provided him enough training and confidence to call a local bandleader needing a trumpet player. By fifteen, Miles was holding down the third-trumpet position in Eddie Randle's Rhumboogie Orchestra.
Miles discovered that his hometown had a vibrant and fertile jazz scene"St. Louis then was like a conservatory," he recalledfilled with talented musicians like trumpeter Clark Terry, under whose spell Miles fell. His trumpet playing improved as fellow musicians taught him the value of a vibrato-less tone and stressed the need for sight-reading.
But when, in 1944, a big band led by vocalist Billy Eckstine and featuring alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie hit town, Miles was awestruck. The sounds he heard from Bird and Diz were the earliest rumblings of the bebop revolutionintense, unbridled solos rife with harmonic invention. Miles's future was sealed. Before the year was out he headed for New York City, ostensibly to get a musical education at Juilliard. But when he arrived, he made a beeline for the bebop scene on 52nd Street and uptown in Harlem; that world had been his destination from the start. "I spent my first week in New York looking for Bird and Dizzy," Davis recalled.
The brashness was typical of Miles. He forged the shield of a tough, outer persona to pursue the extremely public and financially insecure profession of a musician. "Miles talks roughyou hear him use all kinds of rough words," Dizzy Gillespie told jazz historian Dan Morgenstern years after meeting Davis. "[But] his music reflects his true character ... Miles is shy. He is super-shy. A lot of people don't believe that, but I have known him for a long, long time." Miles maintained the front throughout his life. Quincy Jones recalls, "He had that little cold exterior, you know. But he was the sweetest dude in the world."
Another trait that came to identify Davis, even in these early years, was his contradictory nature. In conversationat times, in the same conversationhe might emphatically argue two entirely opposite viewpoints. Davis's autobiography provides a characteristic example from his first few months in New York. He had located his bebop heroes and begun to perform with them regularly. At the start of his second year at Juilliard he had also decided to drop out, complaining of the school's limited, classical approach to music education: "The shit they was talking about was too white for me." Yet, Miles thought less of his idols for ignoring the same music.
I couldn't believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez [Lester Young], Bean [Coleman Hawkins], all them cats wouldn't go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores so they could check out what was happening. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev.
Miles arrived in New York with one other distinctive attribute: a truly cosmopolitan sense of art and style. In his music, his attire, his women, and his automobiles, "his taste was just world-class, innate," remembers Quincy Jones. "The way he carried himselfhe had a thing going on," McCoy Tyner recalls. Early photos reveal a well-attired, smartly posed Miles, serious and a little self-conscious but confident.
He may have been on his own at first as he combed through classical music scores, but Miles was not alone for long. He soon had company in the person of a young drummer-turned-composer who arrived in 1945 from Cincinnati, George Russell. They met that year and shared a passion for modern European music: "Composers Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky and Stefan Wolpe are just a few ... who shaped my thinking," Russell recalled. Russell would eventually influence Davis's musical approach through a theory of musical scales and modes he would title the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization when it was published in book form in 1953. It was an approach that sought freedom of musical expression through a deep understanding of scales and their interrelationships. Russell's own compositions were among the first, noteworthy steps toward "modal jazz."
Russell began writing his Chromatic Concept during a year-and-a-half-long convalescence from tuberculosis. He recuperated first with Max Roach, then later roomed with Gillespie Big Band pianist (and future leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet) John Lewis. Lewis had been a neighbor of Davis's. "We were very close friends when he first came to New York, we lived close by to each other," Lewis recalled. "Then George and I were roommates together and then all of us got busy."
Like Russell and Davis, Lewis was a devotee of classical music, though it would be a few years before he would seek to fuse jazz and classical influences in what he and French horn player Gunther Schuller termed the "Third Stream." But during the 1940s, Davis, Lewis and Russell were still the students, woodshedding, crossing paths and sharing influences, performing and working with their chosen instructors, soaking up a wide range of sounds.
Meanwhile, Davis's career was taking off. He went from new kid sitting in with the giants to trusted bandmember touring and recording with Bird, sharing the spotlight and reaping the honors it brought. But his personal sound was still imitative of his bebop fathers. Lacking the technical prowess of soloists like trumpeter Fats Navarro, Miles kept up as best he could but his recorded performances from that period reveal a sometimes wavering, still developing tone.
Miles constantly questioned his ability. "It was so bad I thought I'll go study dentistry," he recalled. Onstage, he would often be so intimidated that he would half-seriously inform Max Roach that his next solo would not last long:
I wanted to quit every night because Bird would leave me on stage. So Max would get done with his solo and I'd say "Give me one bar and two beats" ... but Bird would make you playI mean you would have to play or else die up there. Every night I'd be saying "Goddam!"
Years later, Miles would relate to composer David Amram some advice from Parker that helped him through the worst moments. Amram recalls:
He said, "Bird told me, when I was real young, and just getting out of Juilliard, that if you play something that seems to be wrong, play it again, then play the same thing a third time. Then Bird gave a great smile and said, 'Then they'll think that you meant it.'"
Parker's sink-or-swim strategy meshed well with Miles's philosophy of fear-as-challenge. Amram adds:
Miles was quoted later on as saying, "There are no wrong notes in jazz." What he obviously meant was that you could take one particular thing that might sound incorrect or jarring, and build something beautiful. He felt that that was a way of improvising: to get out of what seems to be a terrible situation was a challenge. "To me, it's all like a high-wire act," he said and moved his arms like a bird, just for a minute.
If Miles was on a tightrope, at least he had the advantage of a cheering crowd below. But the glory wasn't only because Parker's band and bebop in general had a devoted following. In 1947, Davis tied with Gillespie as top trumpeter in Down Beat's critics' poll. Night after night of pushing himself, and he began proving himself in the studio as well. Drummer Roy Porter recalls a moment from Bird's historic 1946 recording of Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia":
Now on that break that Bird made, man, it was so hard for us to count it because we weren't used to listening and everybody wasn't coming in right. So Miles said "I tell you what, I'll go over here by the piano, I'll put my finger in my ear and on the first beat of the seventeenth bar when you're supposed to come in, I'll bring my hand down." That's how it was made.
But there was trouble in bebop paradise. Parker's penchant for the high life in generaland his heroin addiction in particularled to a series of irksome problems. Insufficient rehearsals, miscues and general foolish behavior onstage, and having to chase after his pay were Miles's biggest complaints. By the end of 1948, as Parker's drug habit deepened and his mid-performance antics increased, Miles had quit Bird's band.
Davis was resolved never to play the attention-grabbing entertainer, even in the more professional manner of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway or Dizzy Gillespie. He would not allow himself to descend to that level. "I love Dizzy, but I hated that clowning shit he did for them white folks ... I decided ... when people came to hear me, they were going to be coming to hear my music, only."
Davis's outlookfierce, determined, proudwas becoming common in the jazz world. A wave of jazz musicians were striving not just to be listened to attentively, but to receive the respect and rewards appropriate to the highest forms of artistic expression. In the clubs, they demanded attention and silence from their fans. "For the younger musicians," John Lewis told critic Nat Hentoff, "this was the way to react against the attitude that Negroes were supposed to entertain people. The new attitude was ... 'Either you listen to me on the basis of what I actually do or forget it.'"
Miles was at the forefront of this group, and with the advantage of his tenure with Charlie Parker earned the respect of jazz fans and fellow musicians alike for his stance. Quincy Jones was a young trumpeter from Seattle who first worshipped the members of the bebop vanguard from afar and eventually became an integral part of the jazz scene during the fifties. But even before moving to New York in 1951, he was acutely aware of the mentality of the new breed of jazz musicians and Miles's stature within that pack:
There was something about the times then where it was so unhip to be accepted. [TV comedian and former jazz musician] Sid Caesar used to do this parody of a bebop band"We got a nine-piece band where the ninth member plays radar to let us know if we get too close to the melody." That's where we were.... You just wanted to know the tunes that Miles knew and Bird knew. That's all you cared about.
When Miles departed Parker's band, he already had other projects cooking. He, George Russell and John Lewis had intersected again, and were hanging with a circle of like-minded musicians and composers. A small basement apartment on Fifty-Fifth Street belonging to Gil Evans, the former arranger for big band leader Claude Thornhill, became their meeting place. Miles and Gil had already run across each other:
I first met Gil when I was with Bird, and he was asking for a release on my tune "Donna Lee" ... I told him he could have it and asked him to teach me some chords and let me study some of the scores he was doing for Claude Thornhill.
The quid pro quo arrangement again revealed Davis's singular focus on his musical education, and his early interest in Thornhill's music. Thornhill was a pianist and arranger who worked with a number of major swing orchestras during the thirties, including Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. In 1940 Thornhill pulled together his own band, nurturing a distinct sound that relied on slower tempos, long tones and subdued energy. Of Thornhill's music, Gil Evans, who arranged for the band leader in the early and mid-forties, once commented: "The sound hung like a cloud." In the industry parlance of the day, Thornhill was pigeonholed in the "sweet" (versus "swing") band category; in addition to Evans, his orchestra later included such future jazz legends as saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeter Red Rodney, and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.
Thornhill's spirit and influence certainly hung cloud-like in Gil Evans's basement as the musicians explored a more arranged, contemplative jazz sound that they had been hearing in their heads. Experimenting with different instrumental groupings, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and Davis started coaxing forth a consistent sound. The nine-man group they finally settled on was a reduced version of the jazz-band-cum-orchestra-brass Thornhill model: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, piano, bass and drums. "We wanted that sound but ... as small as possible," Davis noted, adding: "I looked at the group like it was a choir ... I wanted the instruments to sound like human voices."
The restrained, understated music Davis sought to create reflected an oncoming change in the jazzman's code of behavior and way of being. Whereas bebop had defined a particular estheticzoot-suited, extroverted, rapid-fireDavis's new style heralded the coming of "cool." Trombonist Mike Zwerinrecruited to join the Fifty-Fifth Street cadre by Davis himselfoffers a snapshot of that time:
When I noticed Miles Davis standing in a dark corner, I tried [playing] harder because Miles was playing with Bird. Miles always seemed to be standing in dark corners. He came over as I packed up around three. I slunk into a cool slouch. I used to practice cool slouches. We were both wearing shades. No eyes to be seen. "You got eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" Miles asked me. "I guess so." I acted as though I didn't give a shift for his stupid rehearsal. "Nola's [Studio]. Four" Miles made it absolutely clear that he could not care less if I showed up or not.
The musicians who popped in and out of that band during its rehearsal period represented the cream of the next generation of jazz modernists. Besides Davis's old friends George Russell and John Lewis, they included Lee Konitz, trombonist Kai Winding, pianist Al Haig, Max Roach, French hornist Gunther Schuller, and bassist Al McKibbon.
The Fifty-Fifth Street project saw Davis taking on a leader's chores: making the calls, arranging rehearsals, landing the gigs, even dealing with the scorn he received from fellow black jazzmen for hiring Lee Konitz and other white musicians. At first, Davis was "unsure of how to be boss," recalls trombonist/writer Mike Zwerin. "He relied quite a bit on Gil Evans to give musical instructions to the players." But soon he had "cracked the whip" and "dominated the band completely," according to Mulligan.
In September 1948, the marquee at the Royal Roost at Broadway and Forty-Seventh Street announced the band's first engagement, alternating with Count Basie. The sign's wording, which Davis pushed for, accurately reflected the inner dynamics of the band: "Miles Davis's Nonet; Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis."
The nonet's residency lasted two weeks. It played only one other gig, but by the time it disbanded a year later it had made twelve recordings for Capitol Records. With Miles credited as leader on the record label, the music was released over the next few years as a series of influentialif not best-selling78s. In 1950, Down Beat was impressed enough to devote four columns to analysis of the nonet sides. But their lasting impact would not be accurately gauged until after 1954, when the sides were collected and released as a single LP dubbed The Birth of the Cool. By decade's end, the critical consensus was that The Birth of the Cool sessions constituted a seismic shift in jazz.
Davis had earned the right to have the music released under his name. "Left to our own devices, Gil, [trumpeter and composer] John Carisi, and I would probably have procrastinated and maybe never gotten the rehearsals togetherMiles was the prime mover," Mulligan admitted. Leading one loose-knit group through a dozen recordings, Miles had effectively introduced the first major movement in jazz since the bebop revolution.
The young trumpeter's bold effort came with a price. While planning the nonet recordings, Davis had received the call of a lifetime: the invitation to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra, arguably the jazz world's most established and respected outfit. Years later, Miles recalled his reaction: "[Duke] tells me I'm in his plans for the fall [of 1948], musically speaking, and he wants me in his band. Man that knocked me right out ... But I had to tell him that I couldn't make it, because I was finishing up The Birth of the Cool." Even at twenty-two, Davis had the presence of mind and sense of commitment to turn down the security and boost in stature of a seat in Duke's band.
Excerpted from Kind of Blue by Ashley Kahn. Copyright © 2000 by Ashley Kahn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.