Miles Davis and His M3

Miles Davis and Leica

Miles Davis At Newport 1958. Miles with his Leica M3.

Miles Davis was a musical genius. ‘Genius’ is one of those designations that gets massively overused ( I just read a book on Garry Winogrand wherein he’s repeatedly referred to as a “genius”). It applies to Davis. He single-handily created a number of jazz idioms- cool jazz, bebop, fusion, and mentored many quartet era jazz greats – Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter. Like all geniuses, he wasn’t afraid to fail, and some of his stuff, especially his later ’70s era fusion work, seemed strained on arrival, a repudiation of much he had done in the ’40s through the brilliance of the ’60s, although in hindsight, some of it works in a way hard to recognize at the time. But the best of it – The late ’50s Coltrane Quintets, the early ’60s Shorter Quintets, the brilliant fusion of his 1970 Bitches Brew– is transcendently sui generous, stunningly one-of-a-kind in a way unlike anything else produced before or since.

If you buy one ‘real’ jazz album in your life ( as opposed to the dumbed-down muzik played on elevators and restaurants), I suggest his 1959 Kind of Blue, featuring Davis’s ensemble sextet of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. So beautiful it will make you weep. In 2003 it was ranked #12 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in any musical genre, a list compiled by influential 20th-century musicians, critics and producers. You know you’re good when your peers universally recognize your genius.

Miles Davis and Leica

His autobiography. Miles, is a remarkable read. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a jazz fan. It’s a fascinating study of the artistic psyche. Davis was raised in an upper-class black family – his father was a medical doctor – and Miles was classically educated both in music and the humanities. He was a man of great talent but also an elegant man of great style and sophistication, supremely confident in himself and his ability, as he should have been. But the shit he put up with as a black man in a white man’s world beggars belief. Conventional ’40s and ’50s white America treated him as an “uppity nigger” who didn’t recognize his place; Davis refused to play the game. Throughout, he coupled smoldering anger at ignorant, self-important white critics with a detached dignity that infuriated much of the jazz public. While relentlessly criticized for constant innovation, in retrospect he moved the jazz idiom along in necessary ways. He was both a fascinating artist and human being.

When asked about his Leica Miles claimed he knew little about it; as for his technical acumen, he just used the settings the man in the shop had shown him. I love that. Like his music, straight to the essence, no pretense.

7 thoughts on “Miles Davis and His M3

  1. Stephen J

    That bloke was capable of producing some unbelievable sequences. A couple that come to mind for me would be the somewhat disjointed but soaring phrases of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, and weirdly perhaps the final tune from “Sketches of Spain”, called Solea in what is also a wonderful record, even if not typical.

    But then I am a fan of single instruments, so I tend to pick such pieces.

    Mind you, I am not putting your choice of “Kind of Blue” down, when that drum splashes all over the place during the opening of “So What”… OMG (as they say).

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Stephen: If you’re feeling really adventurous, give 1970’s Bitches Brew a listen. Bitches Brew is one of those albums that you usually can’t play around jazz people without getting the mile long stare. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is amazing – Kinda Blue on acid.

      Reply
  2. Dogman

    I love Miles. I grew up listening to country, rock and soul music but I discovered jazz just about the time I graduated high school and started college. I still recall the three great jazz players I idolized as a young fellow–Miles, Monk and Dave Brubeck. Today I still think these three guys pretty much covered every sound in jazz I love.

    I’m one of those Jazz guys who used to give the long stare when someone mentioned Miles’ fusion music. I’ve since learned to like it…sometimes. But I still give a long stare when someone brings up Ornette Coleman.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Yeah, Coleman is a bridge too far for me. As is Monk. Too much dissonance in the music. Music shouldn’t give you a headache. IMHO, Coleman, and to a lesser extent Monk, took what was unique and interesting about jazz in small, measured doses, and expanded it into the thing itself. Moderation in everything is the key. That’s why I love Miles – he walks that fine line without stepping over it into incoherence. Listen, for example, to Nefertiti from the album of the same name. He gets right up to the melodic edge but always pulls back, the song a fascinating puzzle while also being enjoyable to listen to. I listened to it yesterday while sitting at my computer, and ended up with an “ear-worm”, you know, listening to it repeat in my head all night. Hell, I’m still hearing it.

      Reply
      1. Dogman

        Monk is…well, Monk. Nobody before or after him. For me he embodies the off-kilter in jazz without making it unlistenable. Just unpredictable.

        Miles was always the most melodic. Nobody played frickin’ prettier than Miles. He was also innovative but I never really appreciated his innovations as much as his ability to define beauty.

        And Brubeck was the paradox for me. Inventive rhythms along with superb tight instrumentals. Hot and cool jazz simultaneously. Was Paul Desmond really the best sax man in jazz at the time? Many thought so. I dunno, there were so many great ones but Desmond played his best for Brubeck.

        Reply
        1. Leicaphila Post author

          I will say this: Monk’s Dream (1962) is wonderful. Not so much dissonance. I also love the big production, bass up front, horns loud and crisp, Monk stompin on the piano. Great stuff.

          Reply
    2. Rob Campbell

      I got into jazz round about 1953/4 in school.

      For us, it was New Orleans. I saw Armstrong and his Allstars in Glasgow. Also for us kids, “modern” jazz was a rude word at that time. Did you see Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the Bert Stern documentary on the Newport Jazz Festival (’58?) with Mr Monk playing his eponymous Blue? The title music was good: The Train and the River… a lot of trombone. For me, I’m afraid to say, I went back to see that film six times for one guy: Chuck Berry. By the sound of the ovation he got, the folks there agreed with me. The applause wasn’t the polite kind some of the jazz greats got – it was thunderously fantastic!

      Anita O’Day sang Sweet Georgia Brown, wearing an unexpected hat – Anita, that is. She seemed to be enjoying herself a lot. Maybe one needs to be a musician too, in order to appreciate moden jazz. I tried, but can’t play a goddam thing. During those 50s, I could remember the names of the people in many bands; today, I might get the folks in the Hot Five, but probably not the Hot Seven. The Brits had a couple of good bands: I liked Chris Barber best of those; shot him at a local jazz club and he asked me to send him some pix. He may still be alive, but he’d be pretty old by now.

      Brings back my youth… pity it didn’t last a bit longer, maybe fifty years longer. Oh, our jazz bible at the time was a book titled Jazz, by Rex Stewart (I think that’s the right form, and not Stuart, but hey, it was the 50s, so how could I be sure of that now?).

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *