The Question of Miles Davis

Jim Merod

“It’s hard to get musicians to realize they don’t have to play perfect. It’s the feeling that counts.” — Miles Davis (1960)

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

The recent publication of the Complete Miles Davis & John Coltrane Sessions 1955- 1961 by Columbia / Sony Records formally annotates the permanent significance of an iconoclastic artistic partnership. Davis’s anecdotal, putatively “autobiographical,” musings about his relationship to Coltrane lend cartoonish caricature to a seven year musical collaboration that, quite literally, redefined the course of jazz. Davis, it seems, was fond of complaining that Coltrane scratched and poked and grunted somewhat too unctiously on the bandstand. Apparently ’Trane’s behavior embarrassed the otherwise impervious Davis.

Storytelling, of course, celebrates the survivor’s longevity and cunning purpose. History, as Voltaire insisted, is “a pack of lies the living play upon the dead.” Good reason, thus, to become intimate with original texts if you wish to know what an artist said and thought. The difficulty appears when you squeeze such texts for meaning.

Original texts, in the world of music, are recordings. The history of jazz is defined by instruments and voices, once alive with improbable cheer and sorrow, now lost except for the mercy that recording lends them. Miles Davis holds a place of special honor in that history. His legacy is somewhat tattered by the stories his partners and biographers now put forward. And yet, with pride and precision, the implacable trumpeter’s music escapes with its own lyrical tales intact. Davis’s fastidious distress at Coltrane’s close public inspection of his nostrils notwithstanding, the great tenor saxophonist’s place in the pantheon of Miles Davis’s career is impregnable, a fact denoted obliquely by Davis’s visual tribute: a solitary picture, enlarged, placed in the living room of his big house in midtown Manhattan. For years, John Coltrane’s photo was the only one that decorated Miles Davis’s walls.

The republication of the Davis-Coltrane musical partnership suggests that fresh critical energy may be brought to these sonic texts. These recordings are special documents in the history of jazz. The Davis-Coltrane collaboration is of interest not only for the importance of its provocative explorations of individual songs, of quintet and sextet formats, and of the launching of modal improvisation. The seductiveness of the music that these two inimitable players crafted is without equal. To listen now — forty years after two young men, in their early thirties, tossed off gorgeous, often extraordinarily complex (long) musical phrases, session after session, year after year, as if the most elegant laws of nature breathed within them — is to be as close, in spirit and person, to an “original” text of haunting beauty as our postmodern era’s digital inauthenticity will allow.

I was a child during the Second World War. My first years were defined by the informational delight of the first commercially marketed Victrola record players. The ice man still rode through the streets of St Louis and delivered big blocks of frozen water for home refrigeration. Stan Musial was in his rookie seasons for the Cardinals. Ted Williams had just hit .403 in 1941 and, three years later, when I was two, the Cardinals played the Browns in an all-St.Louis world series. The nostalgia in remembering such events is not negligible. Such memories orient our past and futures.

Victrolas sometimes included radios. They reproduced 78-rpm vinyl discs. I still remember the sudden pops and the not so disturbing hiss of big steel needles in wide wavey grooves. The experience of looking and listening to that magic music box was enchanting. No mere sizzle of a clumsy needle in the banged up grooves could dissolve one’s joy and amazement. A child who owned his own Victrola controlled a certain part of the world.

My first seven years of life had no television to interrupt its musical bliss. Like Proust, or perhaps Montaigne, I look back on those days of fuzzed sonic reproduction and see how cluttered with noise was the world my children inherited only two decades later. For those who have lived only with compact discs to give them instant musical access, the glory of vinyl reproduction in the ’50s and ’60s is at best a rumor, in fact, an unknown experience. Even though digital sound is seldom as tactile as the best vinyl reproduction (including its forgivable pops and scratches), the republication of masterpieces from the Miles Davis archive addresses an entirely new generation of listeners.

Those without hint of the mysteries awaiting them, lacking suspicion of their own vulnerability, may be surprised at the outcome. Given sufficient preparation — good ears, a yen for the poetry of individual instruments, and a willingness to submit to an experience somewhat akin to dawning religious feeling (one thinks, in contrast here, of Henry Adams meditating on St Francis) — new initiates to the Davis-Coltrane inner sanctum are likely. One wonders if their amazement at the high-spirited collaboration between these two young men will catch a glimpse of the mystery it delivers.

The world of music has never been a simple place. It is a business that often defeats its greatest practitioners. The relationship between musicians and their audience grows more perplexing, less direct, more etherealized perhaps, in a cultural era defined by the swapping of cyber-files. Music is now more ubiquitous than ever, its audience dispersed beyond the imagination of anyone recording music forty or fifty years ago. The most that any musician in an earlier era could hope for, publishing studio material, was to find an audience of several thousand devoted record buyers. Radio reached millions of listeners and the use of recording was not archival or for purposes of prestige. It was to enhance job prospects and, therefore, the income that live performances brought. Recordings created work.

Most musicians still work-for-hire, without long term contracts or employment arrangements. In the absence of union help, with the emergence of internet music distribution and promotion, the lives of most musicians have entered the world of entrepreneurship. Nonetheless, the relationship between an ever-enlarging virtual audience and musicians who entertain them is still mediated by word of mouth, live performance work, infrequent radio airplay, the search for attention on internet radio, and promotional sound-bites. It is an uncertain, highly-competitive realm. Even strong bands and musicians become lost in the shuffle. There are many cyber- and media-blurbs to attract notice, but few historical and reflective documents to frame an intelligent reception of commercial music. The days of vinyl album covers holding short biographical and interpretive statements that orient expectation, add anecdotal nowledge, are gone. Most telling of all, music is increasingly detached from instances of undivided witness, explicit attention, the focus of an undistracted, singularly engaged person.

The entire enterprise of aesthetic immersion — music as an indelible experience of personal intensity, an experience of what we might think of (regressively, nostalgically or, more likely, lamentably) as emotional and intellectual aesthetic gluttony — has come under seige by competing stimuli. One need not spell out the change of cultural pace and logic. Is it surprising, therefore, that popular music appears more and more to express many guises of personal torment and dismay? The art of the romantic ballad, so central to the maturing of Miles Davis’s art, a bedrock of unreflected but sweetly compensatory aesthetic gratification for the major portion of the last century, now falls under the general commercial rubric “classic oldies.”

Contemporary anesthetic uses of assault, crudeness for its own sake, insult, and interpersonal degradation have triumphed. Nostalgia, the fantastic privilege of those who have lived well, a superior exertion of ignorance in a world without any sense of history’s tactile pressure, seems innocent and useful within such a context.

Within this swamp, a reissue of classic musical texts such as Miles Davis’s old Columbia sessions speaks to the annointed few. A growing number of recent converts to the jazz canon will find these musical texts to be a brilliant starting place. An old guard, raised within years of high musical excitement (between 1958 and 1972 or so) while important issues in jazz and the surrounding culture were in ferment, may view the exchange of technological speed and informational ubiquity for a once convincing illusion of less mediated experiential depth to be a loss of partnership with musicians … a loss of the sense of sonic intimacy.

An alteration of personal “space,” fracturing a once naïve sense of direct involvement in dramatic issues of contemporary culture, now confronts the youthful witness to every kind of art. One thinks of the emergence of Fellini’s and Truffault’s films, as well as the publication of each Davis album for nearly two decades, as examples of naïve complicity with the illusion of an important and authentic “here and now.” The illusion was, in each, stunningly personal. The postmodern experience, as Pierre Bordieu, Michel deCerteau, and others mull its derivations, is increasingly an experience of noise against more noise …electronic information (sounds, digits, images) posed against the background of infinitely retreating information. Little or no silence seems possible. The cultural background is now lit in neon. It wears the glow of a computer monitor.

One may pose an earlier experience of apparent cultural immediacy not only as naïve in its expectations of meaningfulness, but delighted by the tactility of an analog experience. With music, at any rate, “analog immediacy” — despite an inflexibility that does not allow radical manipulation of the sonic field once a recording has been set down on tape — was, and is, a sublime invitation to the illusion of being close to glorious, originary sound . . . sound produced once only and rendered ever after precisely as it is heard now (over and over, unaltered). Digital remastering that gives us Miles Davis and John Coltrane with new sonic sparkle can, of course, outflank Glenn Gould’s marathon analog splicing sessions in search of artistic perfection. In the home studio any musician now can become Glenn Gould. With enough patience and dexterity with mastering software, the average player can tinker endlessly to create music that was never played sequentially in actual time and space. Music today is frequently a hodge podge of snippets and lyrical (or merely sonic) fragments. The last stage of Miles Davis’s recording career was invested in “dumping” tracks on multi-track tape and editing pieces together, an exercise of musical “cherry picking,” wholly illusory in its creative outcome.

The illusion of analog immediacy, of textual or musical “authenticity,” stands at odds to the illusion of digital “wholeness,” texts and songs cobbled together as so many seamless bits. The emotional consequences of losing the illusion of an original musical moment of creation and inspiration no doubt varies among people. One of its general cultural consequences is an enlarging sense that every act of human expression is open to technological revision. We live in an era of cultural “secondariness.” Receiving and altering now supercede creating and inventing. The twenty-first century begins with the weight of ideas giving way to the speed of their constantly enhanced transfer. The era of secondary things and experiences is, thus, an era defined by the ransacking of images and once vibrant ideas. Every visual, literary and musical “text” is now converted to an imagistic citation. There it finds its de-realized after-life like Wallace Stevens’ snow man, nothing itself, the nothing that is.

Miles Davis career may serve, nonetheless, as an emblemfor the journey across these changes. One must decode his complex figure of caution and enlightenment. If we start (arbitrarily perhaps) with the scope and weight of the Davis-Coltrane partnership for Columbia, we inherit a cultural figure large enough to pose questions about the significance of artistic achievement across the final decades of the last century. We inherit, also, a place to plot what it meant to be a witness to events — events in jazz, at any rate — that define an enormous body of artistic hope that may be read as the final spasm of two hundred years of romantic lyric self-assertiveness.

Henry Adams, you’ll remember, thought that “Nothing is sadder than the catastrophe of Gothic art, religion, and hope.” Sadness visits other generations, as well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s narratives, it seems to me, embody an extra-ordinary commitment to a sense of social and historical finality. Art is often a monument to a twilight view of cultural loss. The generation that Miles Davis addressed directly may take sorrow from the long romantic era his achievement culminates or, more hopeful, sad cheer from the musical perfection of its tragic utterance.

Exploring the question of Miles Davis, a question (among other things) about the significance of individual artistic achievement at the close of the twentieth century, an issue defined by the agony of Davis’s career, I want to note a simple index of the artistic register that defines the terms of this issue. It may surprise us to think how much our life’s experience, for intelligent or merely distractive purposes, is mediated by sound. It may seem odd to note, as well, the aural illiteracy of our culture — a topic that deserves its own examination. But the index I point to here operates among such facts and musical textures. I am calling attention to the reception that greeted Davis’s work in the ’50s, the sense of sonic intrique created by the first publication of Miles Davis’s work on Columbia “six-eye” vinyl discs.

There, at the outset of this unsurpassable musical material, at the central moment of analog sound engineering, we have splendid testimony to Davis’s power as an isolated musical figure. If you pursue the six-disc Columbia/Sony reissue, you will be taken by the exactness of Davis’s personal form of address. He speaks, instrumentally, directly to your ear. Davis insinuates himself into your aural space. Rather, he is inserted there, speaking with amorous proximity. It is not an utterance without risk. And, as we see and hear as we pursue the entire set of reissued albums, the risk runs two ways at once.

From the outset, Davis’s trumpet leaps at you with unredeemed abandoned. Coltrane, somewhat to the side (Davis full center, facing you), is hardly less restrained. Coltrane’s horn is awe-struck, awe-inspiring. Seldom has a tenor saxophone seemed to incorporate the whole dynamic force of an orchestra. My exaggeration is slight. At the apex of this recorded partnership, when their colleague Cannonball Adderly surges forward on alto sax, you are sure, precisely then and there, that you are in the pesence of monuments as forbidding emotionally as the cathedral at Chartres seemed to Henry Adams near the turn of the last century. Adams’s nostalgia for the gothic seems reasonable once we follow his careful self-excavation of its aesthetic and philosophical impact on him.

Miles Davis may have the same impact for some of us. The beauty and sad dignity of his music, at its height, are no less significant. They signify vast, unspoken human resources and large (wordless) cultural energies that speak through his horn. The years intrude upon what can be said and known about our ancestors. We know too little about those we love. About ourselves self-deception no doubt prevails. More than any other jazz artist, I believe, Davis gives us an image of human thought in multiples of its deepest hopes and anxieties. No desire seems to escape his expressive horn. Lust licks at its mouthpiece. Contempt is a syllable away. Agony appears surprisingly alongside his comic statements. Listen to “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” from his Porgy and Bess Suite. Through his trumpet, Davis lives in a stratosphere of spiritual weightlessness. Only Tom Harrell, still alive, and Kenny Dorham touch such rarefied mountain tops.

You hear, at such moments, a physical being in conflict with mortality. The trumpet owns a rare capacity to argue with life and death. Its voice is the closest of all instruments to the conditions of a sustained cry. Each outburst is a sculptured shout or groan. A trumpeter in touch with his own physical and spiritual circumstance stands at the nterface between articulation and garbled expressive ejaculation.

All through the years these Columbia albums document, Davis seems always about to utter the single, lean note that distills in a whisper all the yearning we find in Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” None of its defended allusions to things and thought mar that one note’s instant ecstacy. As we hear his private breaths barely escape the thrust of his instrument, we are sure that Davis lives in a world utterly his own — closed from the larger world, much too open to its claims, willing to share his tentative precision as an excess of nonverbal consciousness. His thin sound, his perfect pitch that slurs across intervals, is a sign of our own inwardness. You hear this sharing of inwardness, his and ours coinciding, if you listen caringly. It is not an illusion. Listening to Miles Davis play “Stella By Starlight,” Bill Evans on piano nearby, you overhear yourself think.

One writes, no doubt as Davis and others “write” (improvisa-tionally but purposively in music), to defend oneself against birds who drop their filth on us as we walk. One writes to have the sense that something got said worth saying. Just that. If we succeed in going back as Adams does, who journeys paradoxically forward to the eleventh century, his nearest era, the years melt before us. Earlier moments of grandeur remain. Most of what is ugly or defiled is forgotten. Grandeur remains, or its memory, the stories and images that tell of it. And that is what I think we find in going back these few short years to Miles Davis’s enchanting accomplishment in sound.

Davis’s music is sonic exploration as much as it is lyric and harmonic experimentation. That fact is important for his career, for what he leaves us, and for the question of his artistic significance. If, as someone noted about Walden, a new look at old masterpieces gives them fresh appeal, stirring wonder at their neglect, then the music that Miles Davis crafted with John Coltrane falls squarely into that view.

[There were several footnotes connected to this excerpt, the most significant of which we’ve included. Ed.]

Recently, poll-winning baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola sent me an unedited transcript of singer/song writer Courtney Love’s address to the “Digital Hollywood” online entertainment conference, in New York,on May 16, 2000. Here are highlights that frame the issue of fair compensation to musicians.

“I want to talk about piracy and music,” Love began. “What is piracy? Piracy is the act of stealing an artist’s work without any intention of paying for it. I’m not talking about Napster-type software. I’m talking about major label recording contracts. I want to start with a story about rock bands and record companies, and do some recording-contract math. This story is about a bidding-war and a band that gets a huge deal with a 20 percent royalty rate and a million-dollar advance. No bidding-war band ever got a 20 percent royalty (but whatever). This is my “funny” math based on reality and I want to qualify it by saying I’m positive it’s better math than Edgar Bronfman Jr. [the president and CEO of Seagram, which owns Polygram] provides.

What happens to the million dollars? [The record company] spend half a million to record the album. That leaves the band with $500,000. They [in turn] pay $100,000 to their manager for 20 percent commission. They pay $25,000 each to their lawyer and business manager. That leaves $350,000 for the four band members to split. After $170,000 in taxes, there’s $180,000 left. That comes out to $45,000 per person. That’s $45,000 to live on for a year until the record gets released. [Let’s assume that] the record is a big hit and sells a million copies . . . {thus] this band releases two singles and makes two videos. The two videos cost a million dollars to make and 50 percent of the video production costs are recouped out of the band’s royalties. The band gets $200,000 in tour support, which is 100 percent recoupable [by the company]. The record company spends $300,000 on independent radio promotion…. Independent promotion is a system where the record companies use middlemen so they can pretend not to know that radio stations — the unified broadcast system — are getting paid to play their records. All of those independent promotion costs are charged to the band. Since the original million-dollar advance is also recoupable, the band owes $2 million to the record company (!).

If all of the million records are sold at full price with no discounts or record clubs, the band earns $2 million in royalties, since their 20 percent royalty works out to $2 a record. Two million dollars in royalties minus $2 million in recoupable expenses equals … zero!

How much does the record company make? They grossed $11 million. It costs $500,000 to manufacture the CDs and they advanced the band $1 million. Plus there were $1 million in video costs, $300,000 in radio promotion and $200,000 in tour support. The company also paid $750,000 in music publishing royalties. They spent $2.2 million on marketing. That’s mostly retail advertising . . . . Add it up and the record company has spent about $4.4 million. [And] their profit is $6.6 million; the band may as well be working at a 7-Eleven . . . Worst of all, after all this, the band owns none of its work … The system’s set up so almost nobody [among the musicians] gets paid.”