Journey of Miles
By Clifford ThompsonAugust 29, 2016
Don Cheadle seems to have had a couple of these thoughts in mind when he co-wrote, directed, and starred in Miles Ahead, his fictionalized treatment of the musician’s life, which is less a biopic than a sensationalized meditation on one period of his life — ironically, the one in which he played no music. For four years, beginning in the mid-1970s, Miles holed up in his house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, retreating into his own mind, down a pathway made slick and dark by drugs. If his life is viewed in terms of music, this would be his most pronounced silence, one in which the vibrations and echoes of his jazz-rock fusion and jazz-funk efforts of the late 1960s and early 1970s were being absorbed by musicians too numerous to name, while fans waited, and waited some more, to hear what he would do next. And while the action sequences in Miles Ahead are a product of Cheadle’s imagination, they correspond to the notion of Miles as adventurer. Classic heroes of literature, folklore, and film, from Homer’s Odysseus to Indiana Jones, have never stayed in one place. That trait was Miles’s hallmark as a musician, beginning in the 1940s, when he joined the bebop movement led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and continuing on into the “cool” school Miles spearheaded later in the decade; the “stretched-out” sound and lengthy solos he pioneered in the mid-1950s; the modal period beginning in the late 1950s and culminating in the transcendent album Kind of Blue; the tightly woven musical threads of his second “great” quintet of the mid-1960s; and the aforementioned fusion and funk projects.
But to return for a moment to the concept of space: it is contained even in the musician’s own first name. Most fans refer to him as “Miles” rather than “Davis,” for much the same reason people refer to “Hemingway” rather than “Ernest”: it just fits better. “Miles” has one syllable, but it is a long syllable, its pronunciation difficult to rush, its sound both spare and demanding of time and room, like Miles’s music, like the man himself.
The concept of space pertains to Miles’s origins as well as his music, and the first, I would argue, greatly influenced the second. Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, a small town on the Mississippi River. The nearest city was East St. Louis, Illinois, 25 miles to the north. At that time the Midwest (or “Middle West”) had just recently come into its own, as both a region unto itself and a destination for blacks moving north in search of economic opportunity and eager to escape the racist South, where slavery was still, for some, a living memory. Blacks in the Midwest enjoyed greater freedom than their southern and more urban counterparts, mentally and emotionally as well as physically; relatively free of the burden of oppression, their thoughts, feelings, and bodies had more opportunity to explore. As Gerald Early puts it in One Nation Under a Groove, his 1995 book about Motown, in the Midwest blacks “learned how to feel truly what they were instead of how they should feel or pretend to feel for whites. It was as if life in the slave quarters had finally been given space to expand and air to breathe.” In his introduction to his first essay collection, the 1964 volume Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison, who was born in 1913, describes his own experience of growing up in what many blacks called “the Territory” (in his case, Oklahoma):
[O]urs was a chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes and by that strange mixture of the naïve and sophisticated, the benign and malignant, which makes the American past so puzzling and its present so confusing; that mixture which often affords the minds of the young who grow up in the far provinces such wide and unstructured latitude, and which encourages the individual’s imagination — up to the moment “reality” closes in upon him — to range widely and sometimes even to soar.
Miles grew up in comfort: his father had a successful dental practice and was even involved in local politics. It was from his father that Miles learned not to fear whites, or anyone, for that matter. In his famous autobiography, written with Quincy Troupe and published in 1989, two years before his death, Miles writes:
I knew even way back then that you’ve got to fight to protect who you are. So, I’d fight a lot. But I was never in no gangs. And I don’t think I’m arrogant, I think I’m confident of myself. Know what I want, always have known what I wanted for as long as I can remember. I can’t be intimidated. But back then, when I was growing up, everybody seemed to like me, even though I didn’t talk too much; I still don’t like to talk too much now.
Here, in a nutshell, is the Miles ethos, both personal and musical: independence of mind (“I was never in no gangs”); self-confidence and a determination to stand up for himself, often taken as arrogance or even rudeness; and the tendency to say what needed saying and little more, be it in words or notes on the trumpet.
To these bedrock elements two others were joined. One had to do with the time Miles spent on his maternal grandfather’s fish farm in Arkansas, where the boy’s mother sometimes sent him and his two siblings, putting them on a bus with nametags on their shirts. In his autobiography, he recalls walking the region’s back roads at night when he was six and seven, hearing hooting owls and the music in nearby churches — music that combined gospel and blues and that became linked in the boy’s imagination to the great open land. The other element was introduced by a radio show, Harlem Rhythms, which first introduced young Miles to the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Lionel Hampton, and many others. Soon Miles began taking private music lessons, and his personal determination found a focus.
In 1944, at the age of 18, Miles already had something of a local reputation on the trumpet when Billy Eckstine’s band came to play in St. Louis. Miles went to the club to see if he could sit in with the band. And it turned out they did indeed need another trumpeter. The man who told him was himself a trumpeter in Eckstine’s band, one John Birks Gillespie, better known as Dizzy. In the band, too, was the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, also known as Bird. In his autobiography, Miles refers to his experience that night as “the greatest feeling I ever had in my life — with my clothes on,” despite barely being able to play because he was so entranced by the solos of Bird and Diz.
Miles already knew of these two men, who would be remembered as the central figures of bebop. When he left the Midwest the same year for New York City, in search of Bird and Diz, Miles entered history, embarking on the first of his voyages that would mirror the adventures of the classic storybook hero.
While Miles would remain physically based in New York for the rest of his life, bebop was only the first of the musical landscapes on which he would leave his mark. Bebop grew out of jazz musicians’ “cutting” sessions, after-hours jams at uptown clubs in which rapid tempos, shifting chords, and breakneck solos separated the truly gifted players — newcomers and veterans alike — from their lesser brethren. Imagine you’re walking down the street and someone is outpacing you while going up the front fire escape, across the roof, and down the back fire escape of every building you pass; you’re the traditional jazz musician and the other person is the bebop player, improvising solos that explore harmonies, rapidly incorporating notes of chords that change numerous times in the course of a tune.
This was the landscape in which the young Miles not only found but distinguished himself. After Diz left Bird’s band, no longer able to tolerate his friend’s unreliable drug-addict ways, Miles replaced him on trumpet. He couldn’t match Dizzy’s velocity or range, but he came close enough, and, just as importantly, he gave Bird something Diz hadn’t: space in which Bird’s own solos could resonate. True to his nature as both a musician and a person, Miles found ways to add breathing space into those short, two- and three-minute bebop tunes. In his autobiography, Miles explains that he did not play every note of every chord, but rather chose the most important notes: “I used to hear all them musicians playing all them scales and notes and never nothing you could remember.” Miles played solos that set anchors in listeners’ memories, solos pared down to their essence.
In the years after Miles left Bird’s band — for much the same reason as Diz had earlier — and joined or rejoined other bands, including Billy Eckstine’s and Oscar Pettiford’s, he displayed the stylistic restlessness that would define the rest of his career. In the late 1940s, he began the periodic collaborations with the composer and arranger Gil Evans that would lead to some of the most significant work of both men’s careers. In 1949 and 1950, the nonet that Miles and Evans formed with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto player Lee Konitz, drummer Max Roach, and other top sidemen recorded the landmark album Birth of the Cool (released in 1957). Miles’s group created “cool” melodies as distinctive as those of Bird and Diz, but less intense and more accessible than bebop. Miles envisioned the nonet as a choir, with one horn (Miles’s) representing the tenor, another (Konitz’s) the alto, and so on; and the performances are indeed choir-like, with the various voices interwoven in a way they had never been in bebop, a soloist often playing over other horns as well as over the rhythm section. On these tunes we can also hear Miles not only playing notes in his highly selective fashion but also creating space for his sound to resonate in other ways. On “Jeru,” for example, Miles plays individual phrases that are separated by silence, as other horns play in unison behind him.
Among the more than three dozen recordings Miles made between 1949 and 1954, none were more important than Dig, from 1951, and two recorded in 1954: Walkin’ and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. His work on Dig, for which he wrote all the tunes, benefitted from a technological advance, the invention of the long-playing record (LP), which allowed musicians to extend solos the way they would in live performances. Dig, which featured the tenor of Sonny Rollins and the alto of Jackie McLean, found Miles doing just that. In his first solo on the title track, he plays for 32 bars of music in 4/4 time — compare that with the eight breakneck bars of a typical Bird solo (if “a typical Bird solo” can be said to exist). In this marathon of a solo, Miles, our storybook hero, becomes a storyteller as well, spinning a tale with a beginning, middle, and end. He would keep telling such stories throughout his career, in vastly different musical settings. Dig also hints at another direction Miles would take. His sound on trumpet had differed from Dizzy’s in part because the latter worked in a higher register, where Miles, as he once put it, simply didn’t hear the music. But in a passage from “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Miles inserts one of his characteristic pauses, then reenters the fray on a note significantly higher than those he had usually played.
On the album Walkin’ (which was a 1957 compilation of tracks originally released in 1954), Miles set out to recapture some of the intensity of his bebop period while infusing the music with the blues he loved. By now Miles had begun habitually playing trumpet with a mute, which lent his sound a wiry quality — as wiry as his physical presence — that inspired countless imitators and yet, six decades later, remains distinctive.
Around this time, Miles also found confirmation of his own tendencies in the music of pianists Thelonious Monk and, particularly, Ahmad Jamal: their playing made full use of space, inspiring the trumpeter to continue experimenting in the same vein. Ironically, in applying that approach to his late-1954 recording Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, the trumpeter created the space he desired by largely leaving out the piano (played by Monk!), giving the rest of his rhythm section — consisting of the luminaries Percy Heath on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and Milt Jackson on vibes — room to “stroll,” as he put it.
Taken together, these records mark the emergence of 28-year-old Miles Davis as a mature artist.
Of course, no artist, not even one as innovative and independent-minded as Miles, can exist in isolation or without influences. Often enough, those influences come from outside the artist’s chosen discipline. Miles, a lifelong devotee of boxing, found his own hero in the great middleweight fighter Sugar Ray Robinson. “Ray was cold and he was the best and he was everything I wanted to be in 1954,” the musician recalled. It was a telling, and not very surprising, choice of role model. The boxer, that most solitary of athletes, fits well into the heroic tradition: a figure who learns from others, including younger versions of himself, but who performs his most important acts alone, in real time, relying solely on his own powers and judgment, bringing them to bear on every new situation — like a jazz soloist.
Not all of the challenges Miles faced in his hero’s journey were of a musical nature. He endured mistreatment by bigoted white police; he already had a family by the time he fell in love with the actress Juliette Gréco in Paris; and having to return to the United States, which was long on racism and short on Gréco, put Miles in a state of mind that helped lead to his nearly fatal four-year heroin addiction. That habit, in turn, led him to steal and even pimp, turning him into the kind of person he himself despised. With his father’s help, Miles kicked his addiction, and it was in that restored condition that he found the discipline that Sugar Ray Robinson represented for him.
Miles admired the respect that Sugar Ray commanded, and in his own quiet but effective way he insisted on that respect for himself. While performing, he refused to compromise his dignity by clowning like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie; he would seldom, in fact, communicate with his audience in any way, except through his music. Once, while traveling with Bird’s band to Chicago, he sat down to eat in a restaurant with his friend Max Roach. Four drunken white men began talking to Miles and Roach, referring to them as “boys,” and on learning that the two black men were musicians, one of the white men said, “Why don’t you play something for us if y’all so good?” Miles recalls in his autobiography, “I knew what was coming next, so I just picked up the whole tablecloth with everything on it and threw it all over the motherfuckers before they could say or do anything.” Miles, the classic American hero, did not speak; he acted.
The next couple of years would find Miles assembling and leading one of his most celebrated groups. This quintet included the young bassist Paul Chambers and the pianist Red Garland (himself a onetime boxer, who even fought Sugar Ray!). The group’s sound was largely driven, as Miles’s groups tended to be, by its drummer (in this case, Philly Joe Jones), and featured a tenor saxophonist — John Coltrane — who would become a storybook hero in his own right, a figure whose increasingly note-y sound contrasted interestingly with Miles’s spare playing. He was the perfect foil for Miles, as Miles had once been for the by-then departed Charlie Parker.
That quintet won Miles great acclaim, but he was never one to rest on his laurels. Instead, he set off for new musical territory. Miles Ahead, the first of his three highly celebrated album-length collaborations with Gil Evans, appeared in 1957. Those records found Miles playing trumpet in front of an entire orchestra; paradoxically, the sounds of all those musicians formed a background that only served to isolate Miles’s solos. Miles is, in effect, alone with his horn, bringing to mind once more the image of the archetypal tough-guy loner, the haunted gunslinger or private eye. In this case, the hauntedness finds full expression in beautiful sad passages.
To chronicle Miles’s career is to fight the constant temptation to repeat the phrase “explored new territory,” for that is what he continued to do. On Milestones, from 1958, he added alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley to his group. The six tunes on that record find the six musicians playing in a modal style, which largely dispensed with chord changes, giving them still more space to roam in a single direction; the challenge, as Miles put it, was to “see how inventive you can become melodically.” Miles’s solos had become stories years earlier, but here, on Milestones, they approach the weight of novels. In addition, the sweet-sounding alto work of Cannonball, whose velocity rivaled Coltrane’s, created even more of a contrast with Miles’s generally spare sound. While the solos by Coltrane and Cannonball impress the listener with their pyrotechnics, Miles’s resonate in the memory; imagine a hunter who has two dogs much faster than he is — but who, in the end, is the one to bag the game.
The modal style of Milestones laid the groundwork for what would become not only the most celebrated album of Miles’s career but also the best-selling jazz record of all time: Kind of Blue (1959). The album’s relaxed tempos, the solos that stretch on and on without chord changes, affect the listener somewhat like hypnosis, neither overriding thought (like heavy metal) nor staying out of thought’s way (like elevator music), but transporting the mind to another plane, one of contemplation and beauty, one of contemplation of beauty.
Miles’s working band had different configurations as he moved into the 1960s, reaching its most stable and celebrated lineup of that decade with another quintet, featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, tenor man Wayne Shorter — who composed many of the tunes the group recorded — and, in some ways most importantly, the very young but profoundly gifted drummer Tony Williams. However, by the middle of the decade, jazz was all but eclipsed by rock. Our hero Miles found himself at the proverbial fork in the road: one direction might have led to irrelevance, the other — to accusations of selling out. Miles took the second road. Imagine if that mythic hero, the steel drivin’ John Henry, had encountered the steam drill and, instead of dying in the act of defeating it, had seen the future and hopped aboard. To hear Miles tell it, though, his embrace of rock — and partial spearheading of jazz-rock fusion — represented not an act of surrender but just another fresh development in the career of a man who never stopped exploring. In his autobiography, Miles expresses disdain for musicians who still play music in the style that he, Bird, and Diz perfected in the 1940s. Why not move on? With regard to playing jazz fusion and adding guitars to his sound, Miles claimed to have been inspired not by white rock musicians but by the black soul legend James Brown. But even Miles admitted that embracing electronica wasn’t simply a matter of testing new musical possibilities; he hoped it would bring him more listeners — and he saw nothing wrong with that. Miles in the Sky (1968), Filles de Kilimanjaro, and In a Silent Way (both 1969) added new elements to Miles’s sound, but it was Bitches Brew (1970) that placed our hero in a whole new aural landscape. Yet, as always, he remains true to himself.
Amid the chugging sound produced by electric piano, electric bass, bass clarinet, and not one but two drummers, Miles retains the spare quality of his playing, but, in order to be heard over the fray, rises to the higher register he had been investigating over the years. In its layering of instrumentation, the record also echoes Miles’s work from as far back as Birth of the Cool; if Miles had envisioned the nonet of Birth of the Cool as a choir, then Bitches Brew might be seen as the work of an electronic choir. These echoes indicate that Miles maintained his integrity even in the face of new situations. In some ways, the electronic sound was particularly well suited for Miles’s trumpet style: his instrument needed amplification, which tends to work less well with rapid trumpet lines, and so the sparseness of his playing was ideal for the setting.
Get Up with It (1974) may provide an even better demonstration of Miles’s commitment to his musical principles. On that record, Miles’s band infuses the rock-inspired “Honky Tonk” with the blues sound he had always loved, reminding the listener of rock’s blues roots and testifying to the connectedness of all homegrown American music.
Miles’s jazz-fusion period tested his musical limits. In the years that followed, Miles reached a kind of personal limit as well. In 1975, the silences that characterized his music overtook it completely; due to health issues and personal demons, Miles did not touch his horn for four years.
This is where Cheadle’s film picks up the story. While Miles Ahead is set during the 1970s, its beautifully shot sequences take us back into the 1950s and ’60s, to Miles’s princely elegance during his nightclub years, to the romance and chauvinism that marked his relationship with dancer Frances Taylor (the first or second of his three or four wives, depending on where you start counting), and to a lot of wonderful music. As if there were not enough drama in the ongoing saga of Miles’s illnesses, addictions, and other personal troubles, and in his having apparently lost his way as an artist, the story adds a more immediate conflict: his contract battle with Columbia Records, which descends into a fictional — and, frankly, silly — shootout over a stolen tape. What makes this sequence disappointing is that Cheadle, who as an actor does a marvelous job of capturing Miles’s crustiness and the vulnerable soul underneath, could have given a riveting performance by simply sticking to the facts.
The film ends with Miles returning in triumph to the music scene, though in fact he emerged from his hiatus a somewhat diminished musician, at least at first. Over the next few years he gradually regained his strength as a trumpeter. Some took issue with his choice during this period to record versions of contemporary pop tunes, such as his covers of material by Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper on his 1985 record You’re Under Arrest; those critics perhaps did not remember that jazz musicians had been playing instrumental versions of pop hits since at least as far back as the heyday of Coleman Hawkins. By the release of his 1986 album Tutu, named for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Miles was again playing fine trumpet lines. His work with a muted horn on that album is strong, though some were put off by the synthesizer-created sounds on this and later records; whatever one’s feelings about the sound of Miles’s jazz/fusion period, that electronic music had at least been played by human beings, whereas now his signature trumpet came to us through a filter of technology. Miles, our storybook hero, had once again ventured into new territory, which always presents its dangers.
Miles Davis had, as he once put it, changed music four or five times, charting an artistic journey perhaps matched in his era only by that of Picasso. But his was a particularly American journey, exemplifying those classic traits that his countrymen have always treasured in their heroes — adaptability, fearlessness, doing rather than talking. Miles’s life spanned most of what has been called the American Century, and it mirrored that century’s relentless drive, its spirit of exploration, its perpetual openness to the new.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing.
Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His upcoming book, What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man's Blues, will be published in the fall.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.