It was 4.30 am, early morning, I was driving to North Portland. The local jazz station was playing an extended piece by Miles Davis and it seemed to provide a soundtrack for the foggy and rainy conditions that were outside my moving car.
One of the first records that I ever purchased, it was records or LPs back then, was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I was a teenager but I officially felt like an adult after my initiation into that seminal recording.
Miles Davis, or Miles, would have been 90 years old this year, if he was currently living, and for our generation, that is, the baby-boomers, he was enormously influential. Miles was important, and he still is important, for a variety of reasons but perhaps most importantly he represented a musical metaphor for the transition of the American Culture from its status in the 1950’s and into the 1990’s; this was through the constant transformation of his musical styles. He was a consummate musician, an innovator band leader, a pop culture icon, and he left a rich legacy of groundbreaking musical work; this includes the recordings: Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), and Aura (1989) among others. His craft, popularity, and influence allowed him to reflect back to us, or to mirror back to us, several periods of American social and musical change.
Technically his career began in the late 1940’s with the hard bop sound as characterized by Charlie Parker and others (he did play with Parker). The bop Jazz style was in consonance with the kinetic energy/atmosphere of the early Post WW2 United States. In the 1950s & early 1960s, Miles’ musical style was predominately a Cool Jazz style, whether in a small group setting or a larger Jazz Orchestra setting (the Gil Evans collaborations, for example), which one could argue, was consistent with a nation during an extended period of settled peace-time. Finally, Miles’ music emulated the cultural turbulence of the mid-1960s through the 1980s with his synthesis of contemporary jazz with healthy elements of electronics, rock, pop, and world music.
The only occasion that I had to see Miles in concert was a few years before he died (he passed in 1991, 25 years ago). It was a concert in Albuquerque and he did not speak one word during the entire musical set, he only played; he played trumpet and some keyboards. The first part of the concert featured mostly pop/jazz/fusion while the second half of the concert showcased longer more experimental pieces; with lots of extended solos by various band members. Occasionally during one of his own solos, Miles would slip into a few bars of a traditional jazz classic, from the American songbook, then segue smoothly back into electronic jazz fusion. During the very last piece that he played, that memorable night, he walked off stage halfway through that final musical number, waving goodbye to the audience, while his band continued to play on.