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
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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.

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