WELCOME TO "GOING MILES," A STUDY OF THE TRUMPET LEGEND, MILES DAVIS. FEEL FREE TO SUBMIT TUNES, PHOTOS, OR YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE JAZZ GREAT.
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Alan Goldsher is the author of 11 novels, including "Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion" (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), "A Game of Groans" (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books, as George R.R. Washington), and "My Favorite Fangs: The Story of the von Trapp Family Vampires" (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books). Written as A.M. Goldsher, his chicklit books "The True Naomi Story," "Reality Check," "Today’s Special," and No Ordinary Girl were released by Little Black Dress Books in the U.K. and Marabout in France between 2008-2011. His non-fiction titles include "Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" and "Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read." And he’s the host of "Book It with Alan Goldsher," the first interactive talk show about writing, reading, and publishing.
As a ghostwriter, he has collaborated on projects with numerous celebrities and public figures, including actor/comedian Kevin Pollak ("A Few Good Men," "The Usual Suspects"), film director Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), and jazz guitarist/vocalist George Benson.
Alan lives and writes in Chicago. Visit him at http://www.AlanGoldsher.com.
When it came my jazz education, I lurched from era to era, with no regard for time, place, or style. No logical chronological path for young Alan Goldsher: I didn’t start in New Orleans with trumpet great Louis Armstrong, then go into the big band era with pianist/composer Duke Ellington, then join alto saxophone genius Charlie Parker in the land of bebop and beyond. The first jazz I remember hearing came from the smooth and smart guitar of Pat Metheny…not that there’s anything wrong with that. Ya gotta start somewhere.
In some ways, a guy like Metheny—a savvy melodocist who blends a contempo-pop sensibility with a more-than-solid jazz background—is the perfect place for a kid who’d been weaned on the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind & Fire to start. His band’s eponymously-named 1978 outing Pat Metheny Group is a fusion gem, loaded with memorable compositions and intelligent solos, the kind of record that would meet with the approval of even the snobbiest jazz elitist. (And I’m allowed to call out snobby jazz elitists on their often obnoxiously exclusionary attitude, because I myself used to be a snobby jazz elitist par excellence.)
Musically speaking, the backwards leap from Metheny to Chick Corea’s 1972 set Light as a Feather made perfect sense. Utilizing rock grooves, Latin-esque tinges, and a cheery Fender Rhodes, Chick came up with something that a newbie could wrap his head around. After that came Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. Between, say, 1978-1982—an in-flux musical period that open for the taking—Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul’s multi-culti fusion unit was arguably one of the most important bands of its era, dominating the jazz landscape with an arena-rock-band-like vibe. Their anthemic “Birdland” was a crossover hit of sorts, garnering airplay on mainstream AM radio stations, something that few, if any true jazz ensembles have experienced since. (This probably tells us that had I stumbled upon Weather Report before Metheny, I would’ve been sucked into the jazz abyss. It was inevitable.) From there, it was an easy hop, skip, and jump to Herbie Hancock, whose funk-drenched 1973 set Head Hunters appealed to my Parliament-Funkadelic-loving side. What differentiated Head Hunters from my previous jazz discovery was the length of the tunes; aside from Led Zeppelin’s more meandering (read: wanky) stuff, I hadn’t had much exposure to songs that were more than six minutes. “Chameleon,” the best-known, and best cut on Head Hunters, clocked in at over 15 minutes, and if I could sit through, absorb, and enjoy a 15-minute instrumental, I was ready to dig deeper.
In the spirit of further exploration, I went to my school library and picked up the coolest-looking jazz book I could find—Julie Coryell’s 1978 Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music. Written by the wife of guitarist Larry Coryell, Jazz-Rock Fusion is a compilation of interviews with the likes of new heroes Shorter, Hancock, and Corea, as well as guitarist George Benson, and bassist Ron Carter, among many others. The one thing that the majority of these wide-ranging, engaging interviews had in common was a collective love for trumpeter Miles Davis.
But it actually went beyond love—it was more like reverence. When asked about his three desert island albums, drummer Lenny White cited Miles’ 1959 Columbia Records set, Milestones. “I think that’s the best of any of them,” Lenny said. “If I had that one, I wouldn’t need anything else.” After noting that Davis was one of his boyhood heroes, guitarist John McLaughlin described playing with his idol as nerve-wracking: “I found myself after two days in the same recording studio as Miles very nervous, simply because this man had lived inside of my imagination, inside of my record player for so many years. Suddenly, to be confronted with the actual reality, it was quite disturbing emotionally, but not in an unpleasant way.” Drummer Billy Cobham called Miles, “…a unifying spirit. [Playing with Davis] was an education, a school of higher learning.” Fortunately for a curious soul such as yours truly, the centerpiece of the book was a ten-page interview with the man himself, a candid, wide-ranging, profane interview that, I found out much later, was a rarity, as Miles wasn’t a big fan of being interviewed, and when he actually bothered to speak to the press, he was hardly ever candid or wide-ranging. (He was, however, almost always profane.) I read that chapter at least five times before I ever heard the man play a single note.
This was 1980, soon before Davis was about to make his semi-triumphant return to public life, thus the music press was buzzing with Miles Mania, and music retailers followed suit, meaning that the jazz bins at my local record emporiums were overflowing with Miles vinyl. The question was, where to start? It was overwhelming, flipping through the dozens of titles—to that point, of all the bands in my record collection, the Beatles probably sported the largest discography, and at any given time, there were only about 15 different Fab Four records at those aforementioned local record emporiums—so I grabbed the first album that made some sense: Miles Davis Greatest Hits. (The incongruity of there being a Miles Davis “greatest hits” album was lost on me, as I didn’t know that Miles didn’t do hits.)
Fortunately for those of you who are reading this blog, it was the perfect choice. Had I grabbed an abstract album like Miles Smiles, or a rambling album like Bitches Brew, or a messy album like Dark Magus, I might not have become the Miles obsessive that we know and love. But the Columbia compilation had eight user-friendly cuts, the ideal introduction not only to Davis specifically, but to acoustic jazz in general. I listened to the album’s opener, “Seven Steps to Heaven,” incessantly, marveling at such little things as the transition from the skipping 3/4-time bass intro to the punchy 4/4-time melody, and Tony Williams’ two-bar drum fills that punctuated the song, and the ease with which the soloists navigated what, to my relatively untrained ears, sounded like a complex set of chord changes. Greatest Hits contained two classic ballad performances (“My Funny Valentine” and “’Round Midnight”), a couple tunes from what I was told was the greatest album in jazz history, Kind of Blue (“All Blues” and “So What”), two up-tempo swingers (“Walkin’” and “E.S.P.”), and a song from my the film soundtrack childhood (“Someday My Prince Will Come”). A diverse batch of material, no doubt, but it somehow made sense.
And then there was the cover. The jackets of all the albums in tiny jazz collection didn’t feature photos of the artists, but rather semi-abstract photographs or illustrations. (Light as a Feather was the only album whose cover reflected its title—it was a simple blue background with, you guessed it, a feather.) But this Miles cover was as in-your-face and defiant as any cover I’d ever seen. You have Miles from the shoulders-up, wearing a purple velvet turtleneck, staring/glaring at the camera, as if to say, “Buy this record, muthafucka, or don’t…but if you don’t, it’s your loss.” In the upper left corner, you had the Columbia logo, more prominently displayed than any other label logo I’d ever seen, and in the upper right, the album title, and, underneath that, a list of song titles. That was another first for me—the only one of my records that featured a tune title on the cover was the Beatles Please Please Me, and that read, “with “Love Me Do” and 12 other songs,” as if the label or the band didn’t have the balls to mention the rest of the material. Balls were one thing (or two things, I suppose) that Miles Davis was not lacking.
Staying true to my topsy-turvy, anti-chronological way of seeking out new music, I plowed through Miles’ discography in a haphazard fashion, grabbing a “best of” collection culling some stuff from his 1950s association with Prestige Records, then a Charlie Parker box set featuring his earliest work from the 1940s, then some of his electric-soaked albums from the late-1960s. The one thing I learned from all these albums, and the armful of Miles records I acquired over the next few years, was that I had a lot to learn. Hearing this wide range of styles during my formative listening years opened up my ears to, well, everything. Because of Miles, I was comfortable with an avant garde-ist like Ornette Coleman, a hard bopper like Art Blakey, and an electric-based guitar noodler like Al DiMeola. If Miles said through his music that avant garde, hard bop, and electricity were okay with him, then they were okay with me. (Little did I know that Miles would probably be loathe to explicitly associate himself with any of those musical movements…or, for that matter, any musical movement in general.)
There are a zillion reasons why, decades after his death, Miles Davis remains such an important figure both musically and culturally, but I believe it was his innate sense of restless diversity—his ability to float on top of the curve while simultaneously staying ahead of the curve—that makes him such an influence to this day. Hell, you can pick almost any contemporary artist and successfully play “Six Degrees of Miles Davis”:
-Madonna recorded with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (Bedtime Stories)
-Babyface recorded with Eric Clapton (“If I Could Change the World”)
-Eric Clapton recorded with Jack Bruce (Every Cream album)
-Jack Bruce recorded with John McLaughlin (Things We Like)
-John McLaughlin recorded with Miles Davis (In a Silent Way)
-Kenny G recorded Jeff Lorber (Wizard Island)
-Jeff Lorber recorded with Freddie Hubbard (Water Sign)
-Freddie Hubbard recorded with Art Blakey (Caravan)
-Art Blakey recorded with Miles Davis (Dig)
-Jay-Z recorded with Mariah Carey (“Heartbreaker”)
-Maria Carey recorded with Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Fantasy”)
-Ol’ Dirty Bastard recorded with Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the 36 Chambers)
-Wu-Tang Clan performed with A Tribe Called Quest (“Rock the Bells”)
-A Tribe Called Quest recorded with Ron Carter (The Low End Theory) Ron Carter recorded with Miles Davis (virtually every Miles album in the 1960s)
Pop, lite jazz, and hip-hop. Miles Davis, whether he wanted to or not, had his fingerprint on everything.
This blog is not a biography, because, frankly, thanks to authors Jack Chambers (Milestones 1 and Milestones 2) and Ian Carr (Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography) another Miles bio isn’t necessary. Collectively, those three books are untouchable, detailed, respectful, and even-handed, the kind of titles that any biographer tackling any subject in any genre should take note of.
Nor is this project a picayune, complete overview of Miles’s work. Any artist who’s lucky enough to have the public’s ear for five years, let alone five decades, is bound to record and release a clinker or two—it’s the law of averages, after all—so for your sake, I’ll cherry pick, because, let’s be honest, there’s no reason to spend as much time on Agartha as on Filles de Kilimanjaro.
What this is, is a labor of love, a celebration, and an introduction. Yes, there will be biographical information—because, no matter how much he protested, Miles’ life informed his music, and knowing about said life will enhance listening to said music—but there will also be trivia about Miles’ sidemen, and best of/worst of lists, and random bits of information that’ll hopefully appeal to both newcomers and longtime inhabitants of Miles’s world.
My ultimate goal is to compel you, the reader, to fire up your iTunes, or to go to your local record emporium and pick up a couple of new Miles records, whether it be something like Kind of Blue to pop your Miles cherry, or a live rarity with the Chick Corea/Dave Holland/Jack DeJohnette rhythm section from early-70s that’ll round out your collection. I want you to have that same feeling I had when purchased that greatest hits package and stared at jazz’s Prince of Darkness staring back at me, that feeling of, “Buy this record, muthafucka, or don’t…but if you don’t, it’s your loss.”