MILES DAVIS: HAIR-BRAINED ROCK STAR



The composer and philosopher John Cage described creativity in post-modern times when he said: “First we had the Mona Lisa, now we also have the Mona Lisa with a moustache." So it is totally ecological that Miles Davis, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month, had a hair weave when he became a rock star.

When Davis recorded the recently-released six-CD box, “Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970" (Legacy), it was at the dawn of his rock incarnation, and he did not yet need a weave. So despite Michael Henderson’s booming R&B bass-guitar, Keith Jarrett’s electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette’s backbeat (a backbeat by DeJohnette is more than meets the ear), the rock still did not pass the hair-on-the-head test.

All of this bald banter, by the way, is not just hair-brained. In 1970, Davis was experimenting with such unrocky esoteric textures as electric cello, electric sitar, tablas, and a bass-clarinet. It also needs to be mentioned that while they were divorcing in the 1980s, one of the grounds was that his wife, the actress Cicely Tyson, once pulled out his hair weave.

“Miles hadn’t yet really embraced the more aggressive side of the jazz-rock equation," writes Adam Holzman, who would later become his synthesist, in a “Cellar Door Overview" in the liner notes of the new box. “But this music lays the foundation for what would later become the most enduring aspects of electric jazz and contemporary music."

Davis’s new electric sextet performed at the Cellar Door, a club in Washington, December 16-19, 1970. John McLaughlin joined them on the 19th , and that night forms the essence of an already released album called “Live-Evil" - the other four nights are now released for the first time.

He would have probably had something controversial, witty, and expletive – he did not suffer fools easily – to say about the Cellar Door box’s jacket blurb: “Over four hours of newly-discovered music of Miles’s last great band." Who the heck gets to decide what’s the greatest?

The blurb dismisses his first-rate, if more fearlessly rock and roll, mid-1980s band with Al Foster, drums, Darryl Jones, bass, John Scofield, guitar, and Bob Berg on saxophones, which played tunes by Cindy Lauper and Scritti Politti. That was about the time when Davis joked that he’d had a “personality lift." (He should have said a “personality transplant" – sorry.)

Halls of fame are multiplying alarmingly. If there were such a thing as a Contemporary Music Hall of Fame, would Davis be allowed in there with Giorgy Ligetti, Steve Reich, and the other “serious" contemporary composers? The electric music Davis made during the last 20 years of his life was more or less considered too contemporary for its own good after he died in 1991. He’d obviously sold-out plain and simple.

Recently, books like “The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991" by George Cole (University of Michigan Press), and such new CD packages as “The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991 (Warner Music/20CDs) have turned the subject into the flavor of the day.

In “Running The Voodoo Down –The Electric Music of Miles Davis" (Backbeat Books), Peter Freeman writes: “The work Miles released between 1968-1971 represented a single phase of artistic development. He was feeling his way, finding his feet in this new sonic universe of amplifiers, ring modulators, and pedals."

Over the years, Davis had increasingly filtered his big warm open trumpet sound of yore through a Harmon mute, and in 1970 he added a wah-wah peddle. Maybe it was getting to be too much trouble to produce a big open sound. Maybe he was just getting tired of listening to it. Who really cares? Davis’s music can arguably be separated into his 78RPM, LP, and CD periods. Three different sounds - fortunately, we don’t have to choose between them.

Listening to the Cellar Door concerts, it becomes obvious that the last thing these musicians are doing is selling-out. The risks they take to make the sophisticated, modal, minimal, funk and jazz-based electric music they are creating are too big. They’re flying without a net, creating the form as they go. Davis said in his autobiography, that he “threw out the chord sheets," and “told everyone to play just the melody, just to play off that."

Peter Freeman writes that the “production techniques Miles and producer Teo Macero pioneered were adapted later in jazz, rock, and even rap and dance music. Truly, Miles Davis’s electric music has been one of the most important catalytic forces in twentieth century music, regardless of genre."

Induct it into rock and roll if you will.