Defining the Realities of the Late, Great Miles Davis

By Renner, Michael J. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 19, 1996 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Defining the Realities of the Late, Great Miles Davis

Renner, Michael J., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

"The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real."

- Herbert Marcuse

IN THE FIVE years since the death of trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz aficionados are still discussing and debating his life, his music and the realities he defined. What is rapidly emerging as the best forum for such discourse occurred last weekend at Washington University.

"Miles Davis and American Culture," the second annual conference, was organized by Gerald Early and Elizabeth Kellerman of the University's American Culture Studies Institute and the African and Afro-American Studies Program.

Davis' creativity and innovations cut across the major development periods of jazz, forever changing its soundscape and breaking the musical monopolies of each decade.

Davis was part of the bebop revolution, founded the "cool" school and the nonet band configuration, introduced modal improvisation, collaborated with Gil Evans on experimental orchestrations and ushered in the jazz-rock-funk fusion era. His quintets and sextets set the standard for group interplay that is still followed today. For this, his impact on American culture cannot be ignored.

For both the casual listener and the ardent fan, the conference offered - aside from the legitimate pursuit of academic criticism - rare glimpses into Davis' life and music from a distinguished cadre of musicians who played with Davis, national and international scholars and writers, music critics and record producers.

This year's conference, which was more of a tribute than last year, when controversy and conflict reigned, focused on Davis' first electric pha se, from 1969 to 1975.

Those were the years when he plugged in, forged his harmonic abstractions with rock-funk rhythms and was either revered or vilified, depending upon your taste.

While some jazz Luddites consider this electric period a radical ab out-face for Davis, panelists argued that Davis merely did what he always did: listen and evolve. Davis himself said of the period: "I had seen the way to the future with my music and I was going for it like I had always done."

Early's introductory comments conveyed the importance of another gathering dedicated to Davis' memory and meaning. Early said that we ignore Davis at our peril: "Civic duty demands that we treat this brilliant artist and very complex man with the same respect and caring, detailed study that we would reserve for T.S. Eliot or Tennessee Williams."

In the larger human context, Early said that "Davis was a black man - an African-American - meaning that his art is touched with a political and social importance. He was something of a genius, which means, as a black man, he was likely to be, even more so than most geniuses, deeply misunderstood."

Musicians rarely have the opportunity to gauge the significance of their work at the time of its creation; only through the lens of time can the product be fully understood.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Defining the Realities of the Late, Great Miles Davis


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?