Perhaps a bit timely that we turn our archival attention to an essay about race and American culture — in this instance as it pertains to Miles Davis. Today we have a great article from Martha Bayles that appeared in the New York Times in May 2001.
At the heart of Bayles insightful appreciation is a narrative centered around Davis’ ‘ lifelong struggle to achieve three goals: high musical art, commercial success and a deep connection with his fellow African-Americans.’
Miles Davis: The Chameleon of Cool; An Innovator With Dueling Ambitions
As cool grew “whiter” in the hands of West Coast musicians like Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, the dense percussive style known as hard bop became the “black” alternative. Yet this racial divide did not affect Davis, because as Gary Giddins notes, “The warring subcultures, West Coast jazz (cool) and East Coast jazz (hard bop) had the same Midwestern parent: one Miles Dewey Davis.” To the yin of cool, Davis brought rich sonority, blues feeling and swing; to the yang of hard bop, he brought stillness, melodic beauty and understatement. By refusing to color-code either his music or his audience, he rose at the age of 34 to the summit of artistic excellence.
Next came the upheavals of the 1960’s. The first was in jazz. Since the 1930’s, jazz musicians had been exploiting such modernist ideas as chromatic harmony, modal scales and electronics. But in the 1960’s the New Thing, led by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, went further: expanding the sound vocabulary of instruments, eliminating cadential harmony and the modal system, exploring polytonality and atonality, adopting irregular meter, and finally abolishing metric time. The goal, turbo-boosted by black political activism, was total improvisatory freedom.
Click here to read the full essay.