Miles Davis died in 1991, but his influence on music is still being felt. The new film Miles Ahead, produced, co-written, directed by, and starring Don Cheadle is giving a new audience a fresh take on one period in the musician’s career.
Davis himself wasn’t the most humble about his musical sway. At a White House dinner in 1987, the jazz musician was asked what he’s done to deserve to be there. Davis wrote in his autobiography that he replied, “Well, I’ve changed music five or six times.”
Davis’s career spanned more than 50 years and encompassed everything from bebop to avant-garde to hip-hop. Professor Sean Jones of the Berklee College of Music in Boston teaches a class on Miles Davis.
“It’s kind of controversial,” he tells NPR’s Michel Martin about Davis’ claim to have changed the face of music. “You can make the argument that he indeed did change music a few times, five or six times. But you could also state that he was at the forefront of the change, by putting together bands that were a part of the movements that were going on. And I tend to subscribe to that notion.
“He, having such a unique voice, was able to superimpose his sound on that change, making it seem as if he were the change agent.”
NPR asked Jones to compile some of his favorite Miles Davis songs and albums that showcase how Davis changed — or helped change — musical tastes.
What became Davis’ first album First Miles, featuring recordings from 1945 and 1947, includes the song “Milestones.”
“We hear him taking the bebop language and sort of making it accessible for the listener. Which is basically what hard bop was to do later on,” Jones says. It’s the first time Charlie Parker plays tenor saxophone, instead of his usual alto, on a recording, he says. “Even at the age of 18, he had the foresight to know that he wanted to do something different.”
‘Birth Of The Cool’
Recorded in 1949 and 1950, on Birth of the Cool, “you hear a departure from the language of bebop,” Jones says. On the song “Deception” in particular, “you hear it smoothed out. You hear the smooth sounds of the instrumentation.” The recordings with Davis’ nonet paved the way for his well-known collaborations with Gil Evans, Jones says.
‘Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet’
Two recording sessions in 1956 were enough for four separate albums: Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. “If I Were a Bell” is the lead track off of Relaxin’. “Many people argue that these are the first hard bop recordings ever done,” Jones says. “What you hear is a relaxed style, you hear the rhythm section very relaxed. You don’t hear that up to feel that you get with bebop. And you also hear the American popular songbook expressed magically by Miles.”
“Orbits,” from the 1967 album Miles Smiles, is a showcase of “the Second Great Quintet,” Jones says. The group had totally changed, with the exception of Davis, from the players on the previous decade’s group of Quintet albums. The players: Wayne Shorter,Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, were a part of the avant-garde scene of the early to mid-’60s, he says. “You hear the freedom of rhythm — boundaries are being broken. And there’s arguably no better band to represent what that period was all about than Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.”
The 1970 album Bitches Brew is acclaimed as one of the great works in jazz fusion. “John McLaughlin” is the shortest of the six songs on the double LP, two of which run more than 20 minutes. The electric guitar, electric bass, and electric piano on the album all represent a departure from earlier instrumentation. “The freedom, the exploration in sounds of the day. You can tell that Miles was checking out what was going on on the radio,” Jones says. “He was checking out Sly [and the Family Stone] and he was checking out what the young cats were listening to. And so he wanted to again be the face of that change and he incorporated musicians that were making that change happen in their own music. And like a great leader, he put them in his band.”
You can hear the 1980s in “Perfect Way” from the 1986 album Tutu. The song is a cover of the song by the new wave band Scritti Politti. It features heavy use of synthesizers and drum machines. “Miles again was taking the music of the day and putting it at the forefront of his own sounds — and superimposing his sound on that,” says Jones. The album and 1989’sAmandla feature the production work of Marcus Miller, who also wrote most of the music on both records. “Marcus Miller definitely knows the ’80s sound,” he says. “He was a big part of what was happening in the ’80s in many different genres. So what you’re hearing is Miles sort of saying, ‘Marcus, do what you want to do. I’m going to follow and be a part of it.'”