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.
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.