One thing is certain: No one on the planet played the trumpet like Miles Davis, and no one who ever heard him in concert or at a club ever forgot his lyricism or his ever-shifting sonic textures. He would have turned 75 on May 25, and today he remains one of the most beloved and besieged figures in modern jazz. Against all odds, he has influenced every generation since bebop hit Minton's, and this summer he is very much with us again. New boxed sets of his recordings (some previously unreleased) have materialized, commentators of all stripes are weighing in on his legacy, and there's a spate of new books. So lengthy is this dead jazzman's reach that two of these volumes address nothing but the history of his landmark 1959 record, Kind of Blue.
I first saw Miles Davis in 1962, at the fabled Village Vanguard in New York. A boarding-school kid in a dark suit, trying to look grown up behind a Dewars and soda, I was drawn deep down into the music -- the quintet played classic versions of "Walkin'" and "Round Midnight" that evening -- but was just as intrigued by Davis's aura. When he suddenly turned his back on the audience, it was not disdain but an expression of the inviolable space surrounding him, a gesture as eloquent as a pause in a great actor's delivery or a welterweight's feint before flicking a right cross. When Miles rejoined the out chorus with tenor saxophonist George Coleman, it was pure release. Meanwhile, my date couldn't take her eyes off of him. Every note, every gesture, intrigued her. This wasn't Elvis or Bobby Rydell up there. It wasn't Dave Brubeck, either. An hour before, she'd never heard of Miles Davis, but suddenly we were plunged into real life and high art amid the dark beauty of the city. After the set, we walked upstairs into the rain, blissed out and spellbound.
Davis has had similarly profound effects on many, of course. Denver jazz trumpeter Ron Miles (whose upcoming CD, Heaven, is a collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell) remembers being an East High school student in the mid-'70s, jumping on his bike and racing over to the Malt Shop record store to grab The Man With the Horn. Davis had just ended a troubled, five-year retirement and now he was recording again. "I didn't know what to think," Ron recalls. "What the heck was this stuff? What had happened to Miles at Carnegie Hall, with Gil Evans?" After a few listens, though, the young trumpet player came to love Davis's electronic music. "Some don't agree, but I think he kept his integrity and always kept evolving as a musician. He produced one of the most beautiful sounds you can imagine, and he was always trying to push the envelope and help the music move forward. Only at the very end was he imprisoned by his own influence." Davis, Miles believes, was also one of the first musicians to make great jazz LPs, because he understood thematic cohesion, and he afforded his sidemen -- from John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock -- much greater freedom to experiment because of who he was -- an established innovator.
Ron Miles's short list of favorite Davis recordings spans the decades: Porgy and Bess, Nefertiti, Star People and, of course, Kind of Blue.
Miles Davis's detractors say his technique and range were always limited -- he favored the lower and middle registers -- and that his latter-day excursions into rock, funk and hip-hop (beginning with the shocking 1969 release of Bitches Brew) were not just panderings to the pop crowd but the anxiety-ridden refusal of a middle-aged man to grow old gracefully. "He is like my uncle wearing bellbottoms," one writer scoffed. But Davis's penchant for reinventing himself may not have been what it first seemed -- not in an era when Wynton Marsalis and the neo-conservatives are intent on keeping jazz in its honored past. Listened to carefully, even Davis's most radical experiments with electrification and stabs of trumpet color reveal a continuum of style: He never abandoned lyricism or his own brand of complexity. "His '70s stuff was not pop music," Ron Miles points out. "It was very difficult stuff." Meanwhile, students in Miles's jazz-history classes at Metropolitan State College are continually amazed to hear how the trumpeter's later work anticipated today's techno grooves or European dance tracks. "That's Miles Davis in 1973, I tell them, and they can't believe it."
For many jazz fans, the most fruitful period of Davis's career was 1964-68, when he deployed a youthful quintet featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and the then-teenaged drummer, Tony Williams. While exponents of the avant garde, like Ornette Coleman and Davis alumnus John Coltrane, were busy transgressing the music's previous harmonic and structural limits, Davis's group practiced a kind of controlled fury that created a template and set a style for the polyrhythmic, polytonal modern jazz that continues today. As in the era of Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, Davis's late-'60s sidemen became jazz stars in their own rights, and their influence, too, has been vast. Listen to Greg Osby or Kenny Garrett and you'll hear the vocabulary of the Davis quintet that recorded Miles Smiles and Nefertiti 35 years ago. Listen to the Philadelphia-born trumpeter Wallace Roney, and you'll hear a spooky echo of Davis himself -- although charges that Roney is nothing more than a Miles clone are patently unfair.
Over the years, Davis's personal style -- forward-looking, aloof, coolly self-dramatizing -- alienated as many people as it intrigued. A May story in the Sunday New York Times speculated that his restless seduction of three generations of listeners grew from a collision between authentic musical genius and his lifelong obsession with the stylish, potentially violent street pimps he first encountered as a teenager in the clubs of East St. Louis. Who knows? But even now we are entranced by Miles Davis's heartbreakingly beautiful version of "My Funny Valentine," recorded in concert in 1964. And by the angular frenzies of "Orbits," from 1966. Critics and fans are still yearning to figure out the most enigmatic musician jazz ever produced, but at the end of the day -- call it 'Round Midnight -- he continues to elude us all. That may even represent the pinnacle of his art.