Happy Birthday, Miles Davis

In my haste to keep an eye on eBay this week, I somehow missed Miles Davis’ birthday, which was Tuesday. He would have been 78. Here are some random riffs on Miles. You’re all welcome to share your thoughts.

Here’s the thing about Miles. He was a great musician, a true pioneer and innovator. He produced some of the finest music of the 20th Century and discovered and nurtured many of jazz’s best musicians. But even more than that, Miles may have been the coolest man who ever lived. I don’t say that lightly, for there is perhaps no quality I admire more than cool.

Cool is one of those things you can’t define, but you know it when you see it. Miles embodied it. The music was a piece of it, but not all. He was always with beautiful women, who seemed to hang on his every movement. He set the style for clothes for generations of men. He had that rasp of a voice, which he only seemed to share in small doses. He was always outspoken, his own man, answering to no one. He boxed, he fought, he had troubles with the law and the press. He kicked heroine. He turned his back on audiences, walked off the stage, did his own thing without worrying about the consequences. He played with Bird as a teenager. He defined jazz for all the years he was on the scene, from the mid-1940s until he died on Sept. 28, 1991.

 I’ll never forget the day Miles died. I had been on the road on business and out of touch: Hadn’t listened to the radio or even spoken to anybody that day. I didn’t know. That night I went to a concert at the Colden Auditorium at Queens College in New York. It was Dizzy Gillespie plus the Modern Jazz Quartet. Dizzy was always fun and effusive in concert. Not this night. I remember turning to my wife about halfway through and telling her that something was wrong, maybe Dizzy was sick. At the end of the concert Dizzy stood center stage at the microphone. I didn’t write down the exact words, but he said something like this: “We lost a true giant today. My friend Miles Davis died. Miles was an innovator and leader. We’ll never see another one like him.” Dizzy’s voice cracked and you could see tears streaking down the world’s most famous cheeks. I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. With musicians like Miles or Dizzy or Coltrane, they share so much of themselves in the music, you feel as if you know them personally. When they die it’s like losing someone in your family.

Okay, what are your favorite Miles records?

 I’m an early Miles fan, so my Top Five isn’t going to be very interesting, probably nothing later than the early sixties, even though I liked the Shorter-Hancock-Williams-Carter band and even the later Bitches Brew era.

 Here goes, my Miles Top Five:

 

  1. Kind of Blue, Columbia. What can I say? It’s a classic for a reason. The music is great, it’s innovative, you can listen to it over and over and over and it still sounds fresh and amazing.
  2. Porgy and Bess, Columbia. Miles and Gil Evans captured the essence of the music. There’s a great lyric early in the show sung by Porgy: “When God make cripple, he make him to be alone. Nighttime, daytime, he’s got to travel that lonesome road.” Miles brings those words to life in the plaintive cry of his tone. I still get goose bumps whenever I hear it.
  3. The Musings of Miles, Prestige. Miles didn’t often record in a quartet setting. This is a great one, with Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Oscar Pettiford. I especially like “Will You Still Be Mine” and “I See Your Face Before Me.”
  4. Steamin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige. I had to pick one of the Coltrane/Prestige records and this is my favorite. Listen to the relaxed tempo on “Diane” and the beautiful “When I Fall in Love.”
  5. Round About Midnight, Columbia. Okay, my tastes are very standard and plebian. Sue me. I grew up with this one. My father loved “Bye Bye Blackbird” and played it on the hi-fi in the living room all the time. I remember him sitting me down to listen to it and telling me one of the things he loved was the cool, spare playing of Miles, contrasted to the harsh, intense playing of Coltrane. That was an interesting early lesson for me in jazz.

 That’s it for today. Send us some Miles memories. See you tomorrow with a newsletter. — Al

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