I’m embarrassed to admit that as a middle school trumpet player, I didn’t think much of Miles Davis. Living in the music desert of western Maryland, I had access to chain stores, disc jockeys, and Camelot, but they carried whatever was popular, not necessarily what was good. Both were more likely to sell Kenny G than John Coltrane, and as a result, I only knew Davis’s work through forgettable albums like You’re Under Arrest and Tutu. Even someone who owned multiple CDs by the fusion group Spyro Gyra couldn’t find enough to get excited about listening to Amandla, which had too much atmospheric synth and electric bass, not to mention computer-programmed drum beats. Davis’s playing sounded like transcribed guitar licks, not the kind of melodies that could only have been performed by someone so singularly talented. Later, I would learn that Amandla means “power” in several African languages, but in 1989, I found the album too slick. It could have used more of that title for inspiration.
My assessment of his talents changed the night I first heard Kind of Blue.
Every weekend, my friends and I watched bad movies at the mall theater, walked laps around the mall, and flipped through magazines at Waldenbooks. Each night felt the same. Although I never admitted it to my friends, our ride home from the mall was the highlight, when I no longer had to fake my way through awkward interactions with acquaintances and could instead relax while listening to the cassettes one friend’s father played on the drive home. The Modern Jazz Quartet stands out as a favorite, but one night, he chose to play Miles instead. Never outgoing enough to ask about the selections, this time I leaned forward to see the cover of the case. Kind of Blue. How could this be the same musician I’d heard cover Cyndi Lauper?
While my friends discussed the upcoming baseball season and our classmates’ latest middle-school romances, I sat stunned at the music coming out of the speakers. I knew nothing of the album’s other musicians, but by the end of our trip around town, I wanted to dedicate the rest of my adolescence to their performances.
Admittedly, liking Kind of Blue verges on the clichéd. In Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, author Ashley Kahn describes the album as “one of [jazz’s] holy relics. Critics revere it as a stylistic milestone, one of a very few in the long tradition of jazz performance, on equal footing with seminal recordings by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Charlie Parker’s bebop quintets.” Miles biographer John Szwed explains that it is “the jazz record everyone had to have and is the best-selling Columbia jazz record of all time, one record that defines what jazz is for many people.” Davis, himself, said it was one of the albums of his that Jimi Hendrix praised upon their meeting.
I didn’t know any of this at fourteen. But I knew I’d never heard anything like it. I ordered the CD through my mail-order music club, but the lag-time before it arrived felt interminable. Nothing I owned could substitute for a long hit of “Freddie Freeloader,” not even the contemporary Wynton Marsalis albums I’d been absorbing up to that point. While Kind of Blue would be the first of Miles’s albums to supplant his ’80s output in my collection, I would soon add others. None had the impact of Kind of Blue, but they all displayed his sinewy, crisp horn playing.
That summer, while visiting family, I scoured Seattle — everywhere from the mega-store Tower Records to hole-in-the-wall used shops to a shuttered mom-and-pop specialty store — for more music. I picked up Milestones, featuring a serious-looking Miles on the cover in a green button-down, and Miles Ahead, my introduction to Gil Evans’s majestic arrangements. I discovered the quartet of albums he made at the end of his time with the jazz label Prestige — Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ — which I would later learn he and his band churned out in two incredible recording sessions to fulfill their contract and make the leap to major label Columbia. Soon after, I saved paper route money to buy a large print of Miles from that same era, signed by the photographer, Jeff Sedlik. I’ve hung it on the wall in every place I’ve lived since, including above the fireplace in the first house my wife and I owned. When I had to limit the number of CDs I took to college due to space, I still brought a dozen by Miles. I displayed as many as I could face out, establishing my room as Miles Territory. Anyone who walked in saw images of him staring, smoking, holding his horn. No matter the cover, he always seemed to be brooding. How could someone so serious make such tender, gorgeous music?
Being a Miles fan became part of my identity. A friend said he thought of me when he heard of Miles’s death on the news in 1991. I skipped the social events during my college orientation to finish reading Miles: The Autobiography. Junior year, a neighbor invited me on his radio show to spin my favorite cuts, spanning Birth of the Cool through In a Silent Way, as far as I’ve successfully ventured into the electric period. When I read Szwed’s biography in my 30s, I regaled my wife with choice anecdotes and Miles’s creative cursing. In 1979, for instance, during his self-imposed reclusive period, Miles called the Columbia University radio station repeatedly to interrupt a six-day tribute to his music. Phil Schaap, who worked at the studio, tried to score an interview with the trumpeter, but when Miles called in, he reportedly said, “I’m a tough guy and I know tougher people. I’ll kill you if you [record my phone calls].” Schaap continues the story, explaining, “This was the first of over seventy-five calls from Miles. He called persistently, alternating between rage and commentary.” Oh, to be cursed at by Miles Davis. Scary as hell, but what a story!
Even now, I own all of the recently released Bootleg Series box sets, including those from his last European tour with Coltrane and from his controversial electric period, which I don’t particularly enjoy. I’m not a completist, but I scrutinize each new archival release and reissue in search of a justification for adding it to my collection. Now that I own a turntable, I think, Wouldn’t it be great to hear Gil Evans’ arrangements for Miles Ahead on vinyl? I’m not far gone enough on Miles to purchase a mediocre album for the sake of one or two blazing solos. I’m not far off, however. I still have my copies of Amandla and Tutu.
Miles’s impact transcended my music collection. He infected my playing as well. As a high-school freshman, I ordered famed jazz educator Jamey Aebersold’s Miles Davis play-along book, which consisted of basic sheet music for a dozen tunes made famous by Miles, along with chord changes, and a record of the rhythm section’s backing tracks. I diligently studied “Tune Up,” “The Theme,” and “Solar,” and spent so much time on “Four” that I still catch myself running the notes in my mind, and through my fingers, when I’m bored. I played them with my straight mute — for as much of a Davis fan as I am, I never shelled out for his preferred Harmon mute — stumbling through the chord changes the best I could. Whenever I was alone in the house, I’d go to the living room and put the record on my parents’ stereo and jam. Miles’s solos were too intricate to copy, but I did my best to play in his style, discovering just how difficult that actually is. He complained about copycats all the time, especially Chet Baker, but even being a second-rate version of Miles Davis takes a lot of work.
The same went for my senior year in high school, when I was the featured soloist during my band’s performance of “Round Midnight.” The director wanted me to play it on flugelhorn, but that’s not how Miles did it, so I refused. Decades before streaming, I only had access to one of his versions of the tune, a live recording from 1960. He plays it so differently from the simplified, reductive sheet music my high school band used that I found him almost impossible to follow. He bends the melody to such a degree that it sounds like a different tune at times. I played it relatively “straight,” adding only the slightest embellishments to the score. In hindsight, I wish I’d spent more time listening to that CD, if only so that I could have given it my best shot. Maybe I could have become a third-rate imitator.
One thing troubles me about my devotion to Miles: has liking him become the same kind of cliché as liking his most famous album? Dozens of documentaries have been made recounting his life and music. Columbia Records releases and re-releases albums routinely. He’s been portrayed by Don Cheadle in the movie Miles Ahead. Apple even used a photo of him — along with Picasso, Thomas Edison, and Gandhi, among others — as a symbol of out-of-the-box creativity in their “Think Different” campaign. Is it possible to be too well-known? If so, Miles is the one jazz musician to accomplish this feat. Not even Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Charlie Parker can match his hold on popular culture.
Every jazz fan strives to find hidden gems — albums, artists, venues — that only they know about. That has never been possible for Miles fans, not since his days with Parker, more than seventy-five years ago. But, in this case, so much music exists that if you can’t be the one to discover him, you can at least stake out your turf. Cool School, first great quintet, Gil Evans–orchestrated, second great quartet, electric, even, God forbid, 1980s. Any or all periods and styles are available to obsess over. Give me Miles and Trane, with any other instrumentation, and I’m a happy man. The two of them together is the height of obviousness — the cliché of clichés — but I don’t care. The same way some adore Bach and Beethoven, the Beatles and Elvis Presley, I’ll forever be in Miles’s 1950s camp. Like so many before me, I see Miles as my gateway into serious, classic jazz, not the slick 1980s equivalent put out by labels like GRP or even the more palatable, marketing-driven Young Lions movement. Miles led to Coltrane and Bill Evans led to Cannonball Adderly and on to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, eventually. Many other obsessions have since come along, but Miles has remained.
Being a Miles fan also comes with the benefit of being able to relate to those unaware of the music on a deeper level. I’ve rarely met people who like jazz to the same extent I do, but if someone asks who I like and I say Miles Davis — as opposed to even other seemingly obvious choices like Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, or Charles Mingus, for instance — they’ll nod or say, Do you know Kind of Blue? My college roommate had that album. I’m typically the only person in whatever conversation I’m a part of who has a deeper knowledge than this, but being able to talk about this shared experience saves me from confused looks or defensiveness. It’s the same when I tell people I’m a vegetarian. They’re either puzzled by how someone could forego a steak or concerned I’m judging them for their carnivorous ways. Saying I share a neophyte’s frame of reference when it comes to jazz makes such interactions easier.
I’ve begun duplicating my collection on vinyl, I must admit. I’ve tried to span several of the periods I listed above, buying Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain, and Miles Smiles. And, of course, I purchased Kind of Blue. I’ve had to be careful, though, in my enthusiasm, as I’ve discovered a trove of low-quality imports that claim to be the real thing. These albums are typically created by copying the digital files back onto record, losing a great deal in the transfer. This goes to show what a sales boon Miles is. Even fly-by-night companies with no connection to him want to get in on his popularity. I don’t expect I’ll go so far as to purchase each of my forty CDs on vinyl. But whenever I listen to one of the four I do own, I appreciate the playing anew. Something about the care and attention it takes to play an album on even my basic turntable makes Miles and his compatriots sound fresh. Perhaps this is the way to transcend the cliché. It’s not about liking Miles but about understanding him. As he said in his autobiography, “I’ve changed music five or six times.” These changes had dramatic consequences for jazz, but at the center of each of them is Miles, the musician. I may not always follow where these changes led him, but in striving to understand why he made them, and my reaction to them, I’ve deepened my interest in his playing and come to learn more about myself. Listening to Miles has shaped my taste in music and, thanks to his evolution, helped me follow various developments in jazz. To know Miles’s music is to understand the history of jazz.
Ultimately, it’s not about liking Miles as a pose or an identity but about keeping the music in the forefront. I can’t help it that everyone knows who Miles Davis is. I can only make sure that I know more than just his name. •