Miles Davis: Black Yin, Black Yang
Black music is paradigmatic of how Black persons have best dealt with their humanity, their complexity — their good and bad, negative and positive aspects, without being obsessively preoccupied with whites. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Coltrane were just being themselves. And for whites interested in the humanity of the “other,” jazz provides them with examples of sheer and rare genius — a purely American form of artistic grace and elegance emanating from its subjugated people, exiled people, degraded people. […] Jazz is the middle road between invisibility and anger. It is where self-confident creativity resides.
— Cornel West, “Charlie Parker Didn’t Give a Damn,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1991
Miles is not a very strong player — not like some trumpet players we could think of — but his sound is so intense that it seems stronger than it is. It’s incredible man!
— Ron Carter, Notes and Tones, 1969
In his early music, Miles Davis’s quiet, minimalist expression of Black masculinity was revolutionary. Vulnerability, intimate disclosure, prayer, and supplication became hallmarks of a style based on his faults — or at least what the world would have him believe were failings. They were, in fact, resources of great strength and fortitude. To be available and submissive to his own feelings and their complexity was an act of great courage. An important lesson for all of us. Miles could not succeed at the flashy pyrotechnics then in vogue among his bebop trumpet peers. Instead, he offered a new definition of a Black man’s soul in music.
His method of interpreting the traditional ballad, of which he would later become a master, can be found on one of his earliest dates as a leader with Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean?” Berlin’s lyric is composed almost entirely of questions, and Miles’s answers are as naked as they are mercurial. Coming through the ecstatic fire of Charlie Parker, of whose quintet he had been a member, Miles began a fragile awakening of something very lonely and enigmatic in character. In an unheard-of maneuver, Miles employed his technical limitations to conjure elegantly introspective moods of deeply conflicting emotions, creating a highly personal style. The tenderness and fragility of his inner life were disclosed yet remained entirely unresolved. These qualities can also be heard explicitly on his recording of Charles Mingus’s “Weird Nightmare,” titled “Smooch” at this particular session, and the ethereal “Nature Boy.”
It was a similar turn that was taking place contemporaneously in the writings of Black men such as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and John A. Williams. James Baldwin, who was influenced by all three older writers, would later carry on a lifelong friendship with Miles. Their work spoke of a tremendous, profound inner conflict that could not be easily be resolved. The same transformation was happening on stage and screen in the form of method acting. Students of Lee Strasberg were leaving Broadway and landing in Hollywood. Actors like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean became similarly tonal minimalists of dialogue, expressing visceral tensions in simple physical language and movement, keeping one eye of the audience always focused on the inner life of their characters.
Breaking New Ground
The penultimate example of this new expression of Black masculinity, at least for many jazz historians, came with Miles’s interpretation of “It Never Entered My Mind” in its earliest incarnation with pianist Horace Silver. In a quartet recording that would be the first of many comebacks, Miles brings in bassist Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet and drum genius Art Blakey. The result is disarmingly gentle and sincere. The emotional authority is striking, with an undeniable sense of intimacy. As a listener, the feeling is as if you are hearing something being told to you in great privacy and confidence. It is uncanny. A Zen-like simplicity prevails.
For Miles, the music of Rodgers and Hart creates the play he steps into as actor. His use of silence and space, characteristics that would define Miles’s legacy, are heard in their fullest sense of grace. In his autobiography with Quincy Troupe, Miles would cite Orson Welles as an influence on his ballad interpretations. As Miles takes on the form of a thespian, the sense of drama is astonishing.
The Harvest Afield
But it is the profound sense of intimate trust — one that can be heard later in the music of Black men like Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On), Al Green (I’m Still in Love with You), and Stevie Wonder (Songs in the Key of Life) — that is our concern here. There is a wellspring of healing potential, a laying on of hands for the wounded and broken. The power of empathy to bring comfort and to release the potential for joy is one of the great gifts of Black music in America. It is also among its most exploited aspects. The often simultaneous worship and poisoning of Black male culture in America is one our nation’s great paradoxes. This Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario continues to lead to inhumanity.
Jack Kerouac correctly intuits the magnitude of the revolutionary changes forecast by Miles’s stylistic departures in his novel On the Road, prompting his own desire to recreate himself.
At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellas at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis. And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night that bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about. And for the first time in my life, the following afternoon, I went into the West.
It was the first of four distinct periods in the music of Miles Davis that would transform the worlds of jazz and popular song, and thus international art.
Poet Gregory Corso also discovered Miles as a muse, recalling his witnessing early morning jam sessions in the 1950s, he writes in the poem “For Miles.”
Your sound is faultless
pure & round
Your sound is your sound
true & from within
soulful & lovely
Poet whose sound is played
lost or recorded
can you recall that 54 night at the Open Door
when you & bird
wailed five in the morning some wondrous
yet unimaginable score?
The keys to unlocking the poem can be found in the words pure, holy, and confession, but it is the unimaginable score that reveals the true import of its meaning.
For many artists creating in the fallout of the years immediately after World War II, rediscovery of the divine within nature was paramount. The opening of concentration camps throughout Europe and the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan had shaken the central pillars of Western Civilization. The most exalted principles of the Enlightenment, the benevolence of God’s will as manifest in human endeavor, could do nothing to answer the horror of industrialized mass murder in the name of a Christianity. Only new aesthetic forms, new language, and possibly even a new society could begin to address the reality emerging from this post-war period.
Miles’s unimaginable score, an improvised tapestry of sound, illuminated previously unheard possibilities. This worship of spontaneous creation, in-the-moment, is of an urgently moral character and relies on an unmediated intention — one that is clearly based on courage, faith, and goodwill. An abiding belief in the natural intelligence and goodness that exists in all becomes essential. There are no calculated machinations, no hidden agendas, and most importantly, no subterfuge. It is this point of view that crystallizes all jazz improvisation. A music that demands the discipline of virtuosity, but practiced with an open and submissive heart. This is the genius Miles offered.
Sowing the Sacred Garden
As mentioned, the ideas of prayer and supplication that characterize Miles’s radical gestures reveal Black masculinity in a new aspect. But it should be emphasized that these disclosures were also at the time stark evidence of tremendous internal development and a rich spiritual life — characteristics that were, more often than not, denied by the West to Black men. To a great extent they continue to be negated, save for their usefulness in commodification of Black culture and its appropriation. Representation of Black men still is too often confined and constrained to athletes, criminals, and entertainers. American commercial media occasionally scores a bonus by conflating all three, as with O.J. Simpson or Tiger Woods. But it is the strength of a Black man’s emotional life — his care, love, and intelligence — that is most consistently left out of the equation. Miles’s supple, yielding, gentleness historically destabilized a pernicious racist stereotype that remains all too common, undercutting its validity while offering a pathway out of its violent, bilious rancor.
In an era long before the slogan “Black is Beautiful,” Miles’s tender evocations of the heart gave voice to a Black man’s desire and understanding of love.
The political, ethical, and moral dimensions of these facts have never been properly addressed in formal Art History. Pioneering scholarship by philosopher Alain Locke has begun to change that. More recent examples can be found in the work of the late Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (Blues People), A.B. Spellman (Four Jazz Lives), and Angela Y. Davis (Blues Legacies and Black Feminism). This was made excruciatingly clear, with prodigious understanding, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964 while addressing the Berlin Jazz Festival:
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.
Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.
King’s description of a life which offers no order and meaning is an explicit reference to those crumbling pillars of the Enlightenment mentioned earlier. He follows with a salient gloss from Black existentialists such as Richard Wright, casting artists in the heroic vocation of ones who create an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through [their] instrument. All of which form King’s central thrust: that jazz helped create and define the moral center, and thus the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States.
The struggle of oppressed peoples for self-determination contains, even relies upon, an aesthetic dimension reflected in art. This is a reality that has never been lost on the institutions enforcing the oppression. From the very beginning of legal slavery in the United States, keeping Africans away from their musical instruments was among the highest priorities in maintaining order. The firefight over access to public education today is not dissimilar. While it is no secret that jazz remains one of the most vivid illustrations of African cultural retention in American art, the challenges that fact poses to the Western canon have remained elusive due to a dearth of scholarship.
Sharing Silence: An Encounter with the High Priest of Be-Bop
As Miles started developing strategies of political and social resistance through art, silence became the rule. Though most of us are surely aware that silence exists, few of us can say with any real confidence that we have ever heard it. For Miles, silence became the primary conception behind his improvising genius. Like Thelonious Monk, to whom Miles owed a great debt in this regard, silence itself became a set of tools with which to sculpt sound. The astonishing, persuasive, and imposing edifice created by Monk’s singular genius laid the blueprint for the minimalism that informed Miles’s best-known early improvisations. Less was not only more, it was no thing in the right place that said it all by being quite possibly wrong.
This technique could bend and displace time while creating phantom rhythms that seemed to arrive out of nowhere. It could also create the explicit brevity of a voice overwhelmed with feeling. The unresolved harmony, unfinished phrase, provoking the imagination of the listener in its seeming incompleteness, starts here.
The infamous Christmas Eve recording session of 1954 lays out the entire picture in brilliant, unabashed detail. It is the first time that Miles and Monk record together, and it would prove to be their last. The other members of the group are three quarters of the Modern Jazz Quartet: Milt Jackson, vibes; Percy Heath, bass; and the most innovative drummer of the era, Kenny Clarke. With musical director and composer John Lewis on piano, they had just recorded one of their great masterpieces, “Django,” the night before. Now it was Miles’s turn; with Monk at piano, the music recorded that day would become among the most fabled in jazz history.
The program was assembled of mostly original compositions and a single standard, George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. There are two takes of Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove,” a recent piece from Monk, “Bemsha Swing,” and a new one from Miles, “Swing Spring.” The use of space, employing silence to almost supernatural effect, by both Miles and Monk, is mind-bending on first listen.
The suspense of “Bag’s Groove” is hidden in its laid-back walk, but twisting and by each turn stunning when the soloists go to work. The drive and propulsive nature of “Swing Spring” overflows with bebop effervescence. “Bemsha Swing” brings prophecy of the coming decades of Free Jazz and the New Thing. But it is the first take of “The Man I Love” that is transcendent, sublime, and mysterious in ways that defy ordinary language, tempting poetry with each measure. Arranged at varying tempos — fast in swing, slow in free time — the recording begins with sharp verbal exchanges within the band. All that is cut short when Miles calls to sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder: “Hey, Rudy, put this on the record. All of it.” What happens next evolves into exposition of intuitive balance and telepathic communication that leaves the listener in awe. Life itself has become all the more mysterious for having heard it again, as if for the first time.
To understand the full impact of this performance, it is critical to have some semblance of what the song is about, and why Miles’s delicate reading of the lyric is so powerful. Remember, this was a time when the value of an improviser was often measured by their unique take on a familiar song. “The Man I Love” is but one example, and in this case a very important one.
Someday he’ll come along,
The man I love
And he’ll be big and strong,
The man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay.
He’ll look at me and smile
And in a little while,
He’ll take my hand;
And though it seems absurd,
I know we both won’t say a word
Maybe I shall meet him Sunday
Maybe Monday, maybe not;
Still I’m sure to meet him one day
Maybe Tuesday will be my good-news day
He’ll build a little home
Just meant for two,
From which I’ll never roam,
Who would — would you?
And so all else above
I’m waiting for the man I love.
The patience expressed by the narrator is one thing, a thing of waiting, but also an abiding faith in the miracle of love to bring freedom and joy, no matter how long the wait. And when at last the miracle arrives, it happens in silence, where lovers who have longed to find one another achieve a perfect and wordless understanding — one that might seem absurd to those who stand outside their circle of compassion.
It serves as a poetic allegory for the long wait for a freedom that may never come to all Black Americans. One that will be immediately recognized upon arrival, and that is inspired by a divine love.
Miles to Go: One More River to Cross
Miles’s belief in romance as a driving force in all of life continued through the next decades. By 1955, when John Coltrane entered the band, the fragility in Miles’s ballad interpretations began to give way to a more mature self-confidence. The delicacy and the minimalism, however, became even more extreme, reaching their apotheosis on the most revered jazz recording in history: Kind of Blue. Beyond the elegance and wit of the famous album is the sense of peace it conveys and calm it brings. This is especially true at the slower tempos of “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches,” a reflection of Miles’s life-long obsession with duende and the “Spanish tinge,” as Jelly Roll Morton called it.
By the early 1960s, Miles’s minimalist approach becomes so drastic that he can be heard in live performances, such as those at The Blackhawk in San Francisco, barely stating the themes that introduce a song.
Before the decade was out, Miles would take another unpredictable direction, hiring a group of musicians almost half his age (Wayne Shorter, saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; and Tony Williams, drums) and quickly charting unforeseen territory in the music.
Reflecting the changes happening in Black America, the newly assembled quintet gave up on standards as a vehicle for expression, demanding instead new and increasingly challenging original work to navigate. Tony Williams even convinced Miles to start practicing — something he admits in his autobiography he had given up on years before. The fire and energy was of a Black community in transition.
The tragedies suffered in the coming years delivered heavy setbacks to the Freedom Struggle, the one so eloquently described earlier by King as a movement inspired by jazz. The assassination of Malcolm X, quickly followed by that of King and later, Bobby Kennedy, shifted the ground beneath America’s ever-changing self-image. Younger Blacks, not yet inured to the oppression experienced by their elders, increasingly abandoned the older tactics of civil disobedience in favor of direct action.
The Beginning of the End
When people consider the meaning of genocide, they might only think of corpses being pushed into the mass graves. But a person can be genocided — can have every connection to his past severed — and live to be an old man whose ribcage is a haunted house built around his heart.
— Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Miles’s last ballads in the intimate style he had created in the late 1940s are recorded during this time with the new quintet, beginning with the immaculate “Circle” and ending with a Wayne Shorter composition based on “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” titled “Sanctuary,” with the larger ensemble from Bitches Brew.
Within a short time, in 1975, Miles would lapse into silence entirely, breaking off all communication with the outside world, not playing music, staying home without leaving for stretches of months, even years. His unexpected return in the 1980s notwithstanding, it was the end of an era.
Miles’s gift to his people and to the world can be best understood by his vision of a sacred Black masculinity — one that is yielding, empathetic, loving, gentle, and above all honest in its depiction of our shared lives. His reputation as one who was tough, even mean and occasionally cruel, should really be tempered by a clear depiction of the America in which he evolved and the wounded he knew would never be attended to because of racism.
The image of a Black man as a tender, thoughtful, nuanced human being is all but alien in American popular culture, even today. It is this absence in the so-called mainstream that has created the conditions that supply the spurious legal reasoning for racial profiling, and the disproportionate sentencing that accompanies it, in our nation’s courts. All of which has led to the epic crisis of police murder and mass incarceration of Black men and boys.
Miles understood that and so should we. His music, as an optic through which to view our collective history, is one way to begin.