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Miles Davis – “So What” – The Top 25 icons in Jazz history

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Maybe the most influential jazz musician of the second half of the 20th century was Miles Davis. He shed his musical skin more often than a snake, and so it is a difficult decision which of his many styles and periods to go for — but in the end it has to be the biggest selling jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue, and one of its signature tracks.

Miles Davis: The Most Influential Musician in Jazz

Since its beginnings in the early 1900s, jazz music has evolved under the influence of musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery, Lester Young, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, and Dave Brubeck; to name a few. Jazz aficionados and musicians alike often debate the level of influence of one or another jazz artist on the genre as a whole. Many are deserving of consideration, but only Miles Davis can claim the title of “most influential” outright.

One writer called Miles Davis “the single most successful crossover artist in jazz history” (Gabbard). Davis’ status in rock and roll certainly supports that assertion. He is the only predominantly jazz artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame explicitly for his direct contribution to rock and roll, although that decision was not without controversy (Ratliff).

That fact alone could effectively serve to demonstrate the extent to which Davis pushed the boundaries of jazz. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Davis never played rock or rhythm & blues, though he experimented with funk grooves on 1972’s On the Corner and in some of his later bands. However, his work intrigued a sizable segment of rock’s more ambitious fans in a way that no other serious jazz figure had ever done” (“Miles Davis Biography”).

While that acknowledgement is significant, Davis’ contribution to rock and roll pales in comparison to the influence he had on jazz. His recording career spanned nearly 45 years (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame., “Miles Davis Timeline”), including such pivotal recordings as The Birth of the Cool, Bitch’s Brew (Rolf and Watts), and arguably Davis’ best and most influential recording, his 1959 record, Kind of Blue.

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Renowned jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock recalled that Kind of Blue “turned the jazz world on its ear, with improvisation using scales and modes instead of chords” (`Miles followed his heart.’). Musicians and aficionados alike now know that type of improvisation as modal jazz, and Davis cemented its popularity with Kind of Blue. Reviewer, Stephen Thomas Erlewine called Kind of Blue “the Citizen Kane of jazz,” and “a universally acknowledged standard of excellence” (Erlewine). NPR broadcaster, Murray Horwitz went so far as to claim that Kind of Blue is “everything that jazz should be and it’s everything America should be” (“Miles Davis: ‘Kind of Blue’.”).

Jimmy Cobb, Davis’ drummer on Kind of Blue said that “it must have been made in heaven” (qtd. in Ward and Burns 408). In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a jazz musician who doesn’t hold Davis’ Kind of Blue in high regard or a jazz fan who doesn’t gush with superlatives when describing it. Given the abundant admiration for Davis’ Kind of Blue, it’s no surprise that it is the “best-selling jazz record of all time” (Rolling Stone).

The success of Kind of Blue can rightfully be attributed to Davis’ productive creativity which extended beyond his musical compositions and his understated elegance on the trumpet. Possibly of equal importance was how Davis’ creative vision was displayed in his selection of sidemen. Throughout his career Davis had a knack for recognizing talent, and he “launched the careers” (Rolf and Watts 203) of many notable jazz musicians.

As writer, Francis Davis put it, “his [Davis’] favorite strategy involved bringing together sidemen who were fundamentally different from one another in temperament and musical sensibility, and leaving the rest to chemistry” (F. Davis n. pag). Kind of Blue was no exception. Davis’ carefully selected sextet at the time included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, and while it is true that each of these musicians had already achieved some level of esteem in jazz circles, it wasn’t until Davis brought out the best of each musician’s unique creative individuality that the careers of each began to take off.

Davis also brought in pianist Bill Evans who took the place of Wynton Kelly on all but one of the tracks on Kind of Blue (F. Davis). There’s no doubt that the experience playing and recording with Davis had a positive impact on the careers of Evans, Cobb, Chambers, Kelly, Adderley, and Coltrane. All but the newest jazz fan has some familiarity with the work of all of these musicians, and they each have earned respect and admiration from musicians, fans, and critics. Another of Davis’ works that spawned several successful careers is his 1970 record, Bitches Brew (Rolf and Watts).

The liner notes for Bitches Brew make an extraordinary but true claim about Davis; “What is so incredible about what Miles does is whoever comes after him, whenever, wherever, they have to take him into consideration” (Gleason). In the first year of its release, Bitches Brew sold 400,000 copies, a feat that no Miles Davis record had ever done at the time (Ward and Burns). With its extensive use of electric instruments, Bitches Brew is considered the foundation of jazz-rock fusion (Rolf and Watts) as well as a launch pad for some of the most successful musicians to emerge in the genre.

For example, the highly revered fusion group, Weather Report was cofounded the same year as the release of Bitches Brew by two of Davis’ sidemen, saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, and pianist, Joe Zawinul (Ward and Burns). Guitarist, John McLaughlin, drummer, Jack DeJohnette, and pianist Chick Corea would all go on to have productive careers in various forms of fusion and other forms of jazz after their involvement in Bitches Brew (Rolf and Watts).

Bitches Brew and the jazz-rock fusion that it inspired is not without controversy. As Veal astutely pointed out; musicians, critics, and scholars still debate whether it is “possible to take the small-band jazz conception as it existed in 1968, reconcile it with the influences of musicians such as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Ravi Shankar, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and arrive at a result that can still be considered part of the jazz tradition”.

As that debate rages on, Davis’ innovative approach on Bitches Brew continues to influence and entertain. Many credit the album with a resurgence in jazz popularity and commercial sales throughout the ‘70s (Segell). It was certified platinum (1 million copies sold) by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2003 (RIAA), and upon completion of this research, March 27, 2016 Bitches Brew ranked 1st in jazz fusion CD sales on Amazon (Amazon.com).

Davis’ career began to take off in the mid-1940s when he played alongside two giants of jazz; saxophonist, Charlie Parker, and trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie (Rolf and Watts). Parker and Gillespie were heralded for playing with speed and virtuosity on their respective instruments, an improvisation-centric style the two created known as bebop; but Davis brought a more mellowed and introspective element to the music (“Miles Davis: Miles’ Styles”).

Following his stint with Parker and Gillespie, Davis formed an ensemble, and in collaboration with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan produced a groundbreaking new style that combined elements of bebop with orchestral-like arrangements. Their three recording sessions in 1949 and 1950 resulted in The Birth of the Cool (Rolf and Watts). This new style became known as “cool jazz,” and is sometimes referred to as “west coast jazz”; indicative of where its popularity took hold (“Miles Davis: Miles’ Styles”; Rolf and Watts).

While the west coast was becoming dominated by the “school of cool,” Davis did what he was so good at doing; he moved on to develop new and influential forms of jazz. Excluding a period of seclusion between 1975 and 1981, Davis recorded, performed, and evolved jazz with consistent regularity during the five decades preceding his death on September 28, 1991 (“Biography”).

History provides us with several examples of jazz artists with a great deal of musical influence. Arguments can be made — and have been — on behalf of a few of these artists to be named the most influential jazz musician in history. For example, many consider cornetist, trumpet player, and vocalist, Louis Armstrong to deserve this title. That claim is not without merit. According to esteemed contemporary trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis, “Louis Armstrong invented a new style of playing.

He created the coherent solo, fused the sound of the blues with the American popular song, [and] extended the range of the trumpet. . . . created the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary that all the big bands wrote music out of” (Ward and Burns). Armstrong’s music in the 1920s, in particular on his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from 1925-1929, is considered by some to be “the most exciting and influential in jazz music” (Rolf and Watts 46).

While Armstrong continued to play jazz trumpet with masterful skill after the ‘20s, he turned his productive efforts to being a singer and entertainer for which he gained enormous international popularity and even appeared in several movies (George and Baker). While Armstrong is considered “jazz’s first great soloist” (George and Baker), and his 1920s recordings had a profound impact on jazz, he didn’t exhibit the diverse creative vision of Miles Davis. Armstrong did, however, pave the way for Davis to do what he did, and for that reason one might argue that Armstrong deserves even more credit as a great influencer.

Another one of many musicians who picked up the musical torch lit by Armstrong was saxophonist, Charlie Parker. Prior to Parker’s bebop explosion in the early 1940s, jazz soloists emphasized swing and melody, and they stuck to a straight-forward rhythm while being strong adherents to blues traditions (Considine). The short life of Parker, who died at 34 years old, was like a bolt of lightning breaching a cloud cover of jazz and igniting a fire of instrumental virtuosos. But like Armstrong, Parker’s influence is not obvious to the casual listener because it has become engrained into the jazz language over time.

As London’s Daily Telegraph published in a 2005 article commemorating the 50th anniversary of Parker’s death, “like some trace element in the atmosphere, Parker’s sound is almost everywhere and, for the same reason, virtually invisible” (Gayford). Rather than a devaluation of Parker’s influence, this should serve as proof that he, and likewise, Armstrong, have permeated the fabric of what we consider to be jazz today.

No discussion of influential jazz musicians would be complete without inclusion of another Armstrong inspired figure, Duke Ellington. American historian and music critic, Nat Hentoff, referred to Ellington as “the most original and wide-ranging composer in American history” (Hentoff). Known to loathe the idea of being categorized by the term, “jazz,” Ellington preferred, instead, to refer to innovative and influential musicians as individualists (Hentoff).

In that regard, Ellington was perhaps the quintessential individualist as his creative strength lied not in his instrumental prowess, but in his compositional talents. He, like Davis, was also a keen observer of the unique talents of his musicians, and he masterfully integrated that skill into his compositions (Rolf and Watts). Some of Ellington’s most well-known compositions include “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Rolf and Watts).

Volumes have been written about each, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, and each is deserving of admiration, respect, and recognition for his significant contribution to jazz. But only one can claim the designation, “most influential,” and that belongs solely to Miles Davis. Davis influenced, innovated, and instigated multiple styles of jazz during his lifetime.

Beginning with the personal introspective touch he brought to bebop, to igniting the west coast jazz scene with The Birth of the Cool; his explorations in modal jazz and its eventual rise to prominence with Kind of Blue followed more than a decade later by the creation and popularization of jazz fusion with Bitches Brew; Davis was consistently branching jazz in directions it had not yet traveled. There are musicians who have devoted an entire career following the influence of Davis down only one of the multitude of roads that he paved.

It is true that Davis credited other musicians for their contributions. For example, Davis said of Armstrong, “You can’t play anything on your horn that Louis hasn’t already played” (qtd. In Rolf and Watts 44), and of Ellington, “I think all the musicians in jazz should get together on one certain day and get down on their knees to thank Duke” (qtd. in Hentoff).

It has also been acknowledged that Davis was very much inspired by Parker, whom he began his career playing with (Ward and Burns). These acknowledgements do not serve, however, as proof that Davis is undeserving of the “most influential” moniker. There are those who will make an argument against Davis based on primacy; Davis was influenced by musicians that came before him and thus owes any credit of influencing others to his own influences.

By that theory only Buddy Bolden, the cornetist credited with inventing jazz (Perry), can be given the title, “most influential,” and no argument — short of proof that Bolden wasn’t the first jazz musician — can be made.
Whether or not it applies justice to the legacies of Armstrong, Parker, Ellington, and others, the fact of reality is that for many musicians and listeners, both casual and avid, the music of Miles Davis provides a welcoming introduction to the enriching world of jazz.

While it’s true that popularity does not necessarily equate to influence, in Davis’ case his influence is matched by his popularity. There are no parallels in other genres of music to the degree of influence Davis has had on jazz. Imagine if one artist had single-handedly popularized or created the rock and roll styles of folk-rock, pop-rock, and alternative. He would be heralded as the most influential musician in rock and roll. He would be to rock and roll what Miles Davis is to jazz.

Miles Davis: biography

Miles Davis, in full Miles Dewey Davis III, (born May 26, 1926, Alton, Illinois, U.S.—died September 28, 1991, Santa Monica, California), American jazz musician, a great trumpeter who as a bandleader and composer was one of the major influences on the art from the late 1940s.

Starting out

Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, where his father was a prosperous dental surgeon. (In later years he often spoke of his comfortable upbringing, sometimes to rebuke critics who assumed that a background of poverty and suffering was common to all great jazz artists.) He began studying trumpet in his early teens; fortuitously, in light of his later stylistic development, his first teacher advised him to play without vibrato.

Davis played with jazz bands in the St. Louis area before moving to New York City in 1944 to study at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School)—although he skipped many classes and instead was schooled through jam sessions with masters such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Davis and Parker recorded together often during the years 1945–48.

Davis’s early playing was sometimes tentative and not always fully in tune, but his unique, intimate tone and his fertile musical imagination outweighed his technical shortcomings. By the early 1950s Davis had turned his limitations into considerable assets. Rather than emulate the busy, wailing style of such bebop pioneers as Gillespie, Davis explored the trumpet’s middle register, experimenting with harmonies and rhythms and varying the phrasing of his improvisations. With the occasional exception of multinote flurries, his melodic style was direct and unornamented, based on quarter notes and rich with inflections. The deliberation, pacing, and lyricism in his improvisations are striking.

Cool Jazz and Modal Jazz

In the summer of 1948, Davis formed a nonet that included the renowned jazz artists Gerry Mulligan, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Clarke, and Lee Konitz, as well as players on French horn and tuba, instruments rarely heard in a jazz context. Mulligan, Gil Evans, and pianist John Lewis did most of the band’s arrangements, which juxtaposed the flexible, improvisatory nature of bebop with a thickly textured orchestral sound.

The group was short-lived but during its brief history recorded a dozen tracks that were originally released as singles (1949–50). These recordings changed the course of modern jazz and paved the way for the West Coast styles of the 1950s. The tracks were later collected in the album Birth of the Cool (1957).

During the early 1950s Davis struggled with a drug addiction that affected his playing, yet he still managed to record albums that rank among his best, including several with such jazz notables as Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, and Thelonious Monk. In 1954, having overcome the addiction, Davis embarked on a two-decade period during which he was considered the most innovative musician in jazz.

He formed classic small groups in the 1950s that featured saxophone legends John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummers “Philly” Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. Davis’s albums recorded during this era, including ’Round About Midnight (1956), Workin’ (1956), Steamin’ (1956), Relaxin’ (1956), and Milestones (1958), affected the work of numerous other artists. He capped this period of his career with Kind of Blue (1959), perhaps the most celebrated album in the history of jazz.

A mellow, relaxed collection, the album includes the finest recorded examples of modal jazz, a style in which improvisations are based upon sparse chords and nonstandard scales rather than on complex, frequently changing chords. The modal style lends itself to solos that are focused on melody; this accessible quality ensured Kind of Blue’s popularity with jazz fans.

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Released concurrently with the small-group recordings, Davis’s albums with pieces arranged and conducted by Gil EvansMiles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960)—were also monuments of the genre. The Davis-Evans collaborations were marked by complex arrangements, a near-equal emphasis on orchestra and soloist, and some of Davis’s most soulful and emotionally powerful playing. Davis and Evans occasionally collaborated in later years, but never again so memorably as on these three masterful albums.

Free jazz and fusion

The early 1960s were transitional, less-innovative years for Davis, although his music and his playing remained top-calibre. He began forming another soon-to-be-classic small group in late 1962 with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and teenage drummer Tony Williams; tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined the lineup in 1964. Davis’s new quintet was characterized by a light, free sound and a repertoire that extended from the blues to avant-garde and free jazz.

Compared with the innovations of other modern jazz groups of the 1960s, the Davis quintet’s experimentations in polyrhythm and polytonality were more subtle but equally daring. Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965), E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), and Nefertiti (1967) were among the quintet’s timeless, influential recordings. About the time of Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro (both 1968), Davis began experimenting with electronic instruments. With other musicians, including keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul and guitarist John McLaughlin, Davis cut In a Silent Way (1969), regarded as the seminal album of the jazz fusion movement. It was considered by purists to be Davis’s last true jazz album.

Davis won new fans and alienated old ones with the release of Bitches Brew (1969), an album on which he fully embraced the rhythms, electronic instrumentation, and studio effects of rock music. A cacophonous kaleidoscope of layered sounds, rhythms, and textures, the album’s influence was heard in such 1970s fusion groups as Weather Report and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Davis continued in this style for a few years, with the album Live-Evil (1970) and the film soundtrack A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970) being particular highlights.

three masterful albums.

Free jazz and fusion

The early 1960s were transitional, less-innovative years for Davis, although his music and his playing remained top-calibre. He began forming another soon-to-be-classic small group in late 1962 with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and teenage drummer Tony Williams; tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined the lineup in 1964.

Davis’s new quintet was characterized by a light, free sound and a repertoire that extended from the blues to avant-garde and free jazz. Compared with the innovations of other modern jazz groups of the 1960s, the Davis quintet’s experimentations in polyrhythm and polytonality were more subtle but equally daring. Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965), E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), and Nefertiti (1967) were among the quintet’s timeless, influential recordings. About the time of Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro (both 1968), Davis began experimenting with electronic instruments.

With other musicians, including keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul and guitarist John McLaughlin, Davis cut In a Silent Way (1969), regarded as the seminal album of the jazz fusion movement. It was considered by purists to be Davis’s last true jazz album.

Davis won new fans and alienated old ones with the release of Bitches Brew (1969), an album on which he fully embraced the rhythms, electronic instrumentation, and studio effects of rock music. A cacophonous kaleidoscope of layered sounds, rhythms, and textures, the album’s influence was heard in such 1970s fusion groups as Weather Report and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Davis continued in this style for a few years, with the album Live-Evil (1970) and the film soundtrack A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970) being particular highlights.

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M I L E S D A V I S – Kind Of Blue [Legacy Edition]

Track listing

No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1.So WhatMiles Davis9:22
2.Freddie FreeloaderDavis9:34
3.Blue in GreenDavis, Bill Evans5:27
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1.All BluesDavis11:33
2.Flamenco SketchesDavis, Evans9:26
  • Sides one and two were combined as tracks 1–5 on CD reissues.
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
6.“Flamenco Sketches” (alternate take)Miles Davis, Bill Evans9:32
No.TitleLength
7.“Freddie Freeloader” (studio sequence 1)0:53
8.“Freddie Freeloader” (false start)1:27
9.“Freddie Freeloader” (studio sequence 2)1:30
10.“So What” (studio sequence 1)1:55
11.“So What” (studio sequence 2)0:13
12.“Blue in Green” (studio sequence)1:58
13.“Flamenco Sketches” (studio sequence 1)0:45
14.“Flamenco Sketches” (studio sequence 2)1:12
15.“All Blues” (studio sequence)0:18
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1.On Green Dolphin StreetBronislaw Kaper, Ned Washington9:50
2.“Fran-Dance”Miles Davis5:49
3.Stella by StarlightVictor Young, Ned Washington4:46
4.Love for SaleCole Porter11:49
5.“Fran-Dance” (alternate take)Miles Davis5:53
6.“So What” (recorded at Kurhaus, The Hague, April 9, 1960)Miles Davis17:29

Personnel

Credits are taken from the album’s liner notes.