Sketches of Miles

By Nordell, Roderick | The Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 1991 | Go to article overview

Sketches of Miles


Nordell, Roderick, The Christian Science Monitor


MILES DAVIS came as a shock.

When he and I were in our Midwestern high schools 50 years ago, jazz had the grin of Louis Armstrong, the tousled hair of Gene Krupa, and the zoot suits with the draped shapes and reet pleats of musicians who looked as if they were having fun.

When I finally got inside a New York jazz club in the next decade, Miles was on the bandstand, dark suit tailored for Wall Street, not a hair out of place, certainly no grin, and no hint of trying to please the crowd that was hanging on his every parsimonious note. At least he was holding his trumpet straight ahead, not pointing it at the floor as he often did in later years, avoiding eye contact entirely.

"It was as if Einstein had been asked to lecture on the quantum theory to a class of backward teenagers," to quote British critic Kenneth Tynan on another Miles moment at the microphone.

But here he was more like someone with a job to do who knew he was doing it well and would let it speak for itself - as it did, causing a future jazz chronicler to call his trumpet style the most widely, if vainly, imitated one in history. Just the music, please. No sales talk. No amiable bopping around like Dizzy Gillespie, whom Miles succeeded in superstar Charlie Parker's band. No show biz.

Or was it show biz in spite of itself? This cat was cool. Soon cool was the thing to be, and on some bandstands cool was hard to distinguish from ordinary contempt.

If cool conduct, why not cool music? Hot jazz was for the mouldy figs. Soon came Miles's short-lived Nonet, a nine-piece band whose smooth unhackneyed sound included a French horn and a tuba playing with the saxes instead of doing oom-pahs. The Nonet's recordings were gathered as "The Birth of the Cool." Their legacy was a whole West Coast school of cool jazz.

"They called it cool, but we were just trying to do some new things," said pianist and composer John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet when I asked him about his days with Miles and the Nonet. "We were all young and running around to Gil Evans's basement apartment."

Evans was the innovative arranger who went on from the Nonet to such landmark Davis recordings as "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess," virtually recomposing the source material from classical guitar music and George Gershwin's opera.

Miles had called John Lewis back from a stay in Paris to join in the new musical explorations. Lewis recalled Miles as his oldest friend in New York. It was through Davis that Lewis got his first date playing with Charlie Parker. "Miles was a catalyst," said Lewis. "He made wonderful things come out of the people who worked with him."

Among those people were saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, drummer Philly Joe Jones, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and the young virtuosos Miles had recruited by the next time I heard him live, now at a jazz club outside of Boston in the '60s. The sober suit had given way to more casual elegance, the existence of the audience was recognized, and the news was the title of a recording called "Miles Smiles a wry apology perhaps for the scowls and epithets and Prince of Darkness image known around the world. The new team: Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums; Wayne Shorter, saxophone. Before long they all had their own bands, and it was time for Miles to make wonderful things come out of another crew.

Not that everybody praised all of Miles's work It's mouse music, man," said Roy Eldridge, who played hot, high, and happy in the lineage of great trumpeters traced back from Davis to Gillespie to Eldridge to Armstrong to King Oliver to New Orleans's legendary Buddy Bolden whose horn could be heard across Lake Pontchartrain before there were microphones. A second trumpet line branches off from Bolden and Oliver and comes down through the Ellington trumpeters Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart in a family tree prepared by composer and musicologist Gunther Schuller - who happened to play French horn in Miles's Nonet. …

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