To get in the mood to go see Don Cheadle’s much anticipated big-screen feature Miles Ahead, it seemed appropriate to dust off all the well-used early Miles Davis CDs from the archives to offer some background on a man who straddled the world of 20th-century jazz like a mythical titan. So here’s a stroll through Davis’ early career, before he went on to retool his sound with such crackling, latter-day works as In A Silent Way, Tribute To Jack Johnson, On The Corner, Someday My Prince Will Come, Bitches Brew and others.
The earliest tracks with Davis in the band must have been the 1945 bebop sides he cut with Charlie Parker for the Savoy label. You get the feeling that Miles, just a 19-year-old kid out of St. Louis at the time, was an occasional substitute for Parker’s primary trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie, whose upbeat style was more in tune with bop’s often frenzied pace.
Someone at the time referred to Miles’ work back then as “lugubrious.” Hopefully, this moron’s record-reviewing credentials were revoked long ago. The best early Parker/Davis collaboration was a tune called “Now’s The Time,” which was meaty enough to serve as fuel for a later scat version by vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
By 1949, Davis was heading a groundbreaking nine-man lineup that included tuba and french horn along with the more conventional jazz instrumentation, for a 78-rpm album (LPs hadn’t made the scene yet) called Birth Of The Cool. No idea who tagged these sessions as “cool,” but it probably wasn’t Davis, who never thought much of the term “jazz,” let alone cutting something dubbed as “cool.” Some of the spacious, at times lush, arrangements for these sessions were penned by Gil Evans (no relation to pianist Bill Evans, who would contribute heavily in a melodic-yet-moody way to Davis’ fabled 1959 LP Kind Of Blue, 10 years later). Gil Evans, whose NYC apartment would be used for Davis’ band to hang out, would add similar framing for later LPs Miles would cut for Columbia, including Miles Ahead and Sketches Of Spain.
The earliest Miles Davis Quintet records are essential to understanding the man’s genius. Going by titles like Cookin’, Steamin’, and Workin’, they were all tracked in 1956 by the same band: Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano with bass and drums handled by Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones, respectively. The material ranges from Broadway ballads (“Surrey With The Fringe On Top”) and bebop re-imagined (“Salt Peanuts”) to angular flights (Thelonoius Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”) and lacy revelations (“It Never Entered My Mind” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”), the latter pair with Miles on his trademark Harmon mute.
Davis was advised by a few dimwits to fire Garland, whom they derided as a “cocktail pianist.” True enough, Garland frequently employed block chords—you’ll know when you hear them—in his improvisations, but he was the perfect fit for Davis’ ear for melody. A budding young tenor sax man who was just beginning to reach his potential, Coltrane had a few awkward moments on the sweeter ballad treatments, but he could play with anybody on more up-tempo material, such as jazz standard “Four.”
When Davis left Prestige for the more prestigious Columbia imprint in the late ’50s, it broadened his audience considerably. And it was the label that would release what is generally considered Davis’ most impressive longplayer in 1959, Kind Of Blue. Questioned many times about it over the years, Davis always ranked it as just another stop along the way, nothing out of the ordinary. But there is something special about it, under heavy play over the years.
It probably has something to do with it being one of the horn legend’s first LPs where he and his band—Coltrane, alto sax man Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Evans and Wynton Kelly, along with Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums—tried something new to jazz. The modal system, first popularized by George Russell, relied less on employing a song’s original chord progression and more on a certain minor or major scale, giving the player more choices on which to improvise.
And this is where I come in. I was fortunate enough to get myself up to San Francisco’s Blackhawk Club at the corner of Turk and Hyde in the spring of ’59 where the Davis sextet was booked for one week. As a young kid, I had no idea who was playing with him. I hit the jackpot. It was Coltrane, Adderley, Kelly, Chambers and Cobb—the same personnel (with the omission of Bill Evans) that had just recorded Kind Of Blue, an album I hadn’t heard yet. The cover charge to get in was something like $1.50, and you had to buy two drinks per set at 85 cents each. That meant you were expected to give the waitress a dollar and tell her to keep the change. I know, I know, hard to believe.
The first set started at 8 p.m. on the dot. They would play for 45 minutes, then get 15 minutes off. Last set, of the six they would play, began at 1 a.m., but I was long gone by then. Miles and Coltrane never said a word, and Davis played most of the time facing the back of the tiny stage. Introductions to the material were left up to Cannonball, a genial sort who seemed to enjoy the task.
Like most of the audience, Davis was dressed in a sports jacket and tie. You wouldn’t think of going to an S.F. club in Levi’s. Just wouldn’t do. Not that the Blackhawk was anything fancy. The owner was quoted, back then, as saying he’d “labored for years to keep his place a sewer.” I don’t know—it seemed like the coolest joint I’d ever been in.
In the mid-’60s, I lived 25 miles south of San Francisco’s North Beach nightclub district. Which meant I was able to catch great performances by the original Coltrane Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Jackie McLean, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, Shelly Manne, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson, John Handy, Art Pepper, Mose Allison, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and Coltrane’s new band with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali.
Wouldn’t trade those early jazz days for anything.