Miles Davis: “The most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz”?

Miles Davis, The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, Columbia C3K 65362 (3 CDs) £34.99; Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time, Columbia C2K 85191, (2 CDs) £16.99

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

THE CAREER of trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis (1926-1991) spanned five decades, beginning in obscure jazz clubs in his birthplace of East St Louis and ending with Miles as a major international star, whose musical appeal extended well beyond the jazz scene. In between, Miles played an active (if secondary) role in the bebop revolution of the 1940s as a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet, launched “cool jazz” with his Birth of the Cool recordings at the end of that decade, and initiated the “hard bop” reaction to the increasingly insipid cool school with his 1954 recording of “Walkin’”. He gave a whole new perspective to big band jazz with a series of albums (starting with Miles Ahead in 1957) featuring the orchestrations of Gil Evans, set the fashion for modal improvisation with the 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue, and recorded a classic series of albums in the mid-’60s with a group that featured Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, before moving on to launch the jazz-rock fusion movement at the end of that decade with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. After a five-year hiatus in the late ’70s, he returned to musical activity in 1980 to spend the last decade of his life performing music which drew on the latest styles in African-American popular music – his last recording, the posthumously released Doo Bop, featured Miles duetting with rapper Easy Mo Bee. The result was a body of recorded work the breadth of which is without parallel in the history of jazz.

To cover the whole of Miles’ career would require a book-length study. In this article I want to examine the origins of his fusion period of 1969-75, which is one of the most contentious episodes in Miles’ musical evolution. It brought him a new, younger audience, put him back at the cutting edge of developments in popular music, and at the same time provoked angry denunciations from many of those who had until then followed him loyally through the twists and turns of his development as a jazz musician. Indeed, the fury with which some former fans rounded on Miles was almost on a level with that directed against Bob Dylan when he made his mid-1960s turn from acoustic “folk” music to electrified rock. So far as I know, dissent never quite reached the point where anyone shouted “Judas!” at one of Miles’ concerts, but the main charge against him was the same – that he had “sold out” by abandoning artistic principles in pursuit of commercial success.

The most sustained and bitter attack on Miles’ post-’68 work came from US jazz critic Stanley Crouch. In an article headed “Miles Davis, the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz”, published in the New Republic in 1990, Crouch accused Miles of “an abject surrender to popular trends” at the end of the 1960s which had launched him on a downward spiral into “youth culture vulgarity”. Crouch denounced In A Silent Way as “long, maudlin … little more than droning wallpaper music”, and found in Bitches Brew only “static beats and clutter”. After this, in Crouch’s estimation, Miles’ music became “progressively trendy and dismal, as did his attire; at one point in the early 1970s, with his wraparound dark glasses and his puffed shoulders, the erstwhile master of cool looked like an extra from a science fiction B-movie”. The musical degeneration had continued to the point, Crouch declared, where Miles ended up with “a sound so decadent that it can no longer disguise the shrivelling of its maker’s soul”. (I mean, c’mon, lighten up Stanley! Nobody died.)

In his excellent book Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, Ian Carr rejects Crouch’s attack as “an ill-tempered rant, giving vent to the bile that has addled his critical faculties”. But Crouch was only expressing, even if in a rather more extreme form, opinions held by a number of other critics. Bill Cole, for example, in his study Miles Davis: The Early Years, dismisses Miles’ later work as largely worthless, “a music that was artistically far beneath his potential”. Echoing Crouch, Cole finds the pathbreaking Bitches Brew “sluggish and monotonous”, while reserving his greatest spleen for Miles’ inspired 1972 album On the Corner, which he condemns as “an insult to the intellect of the people”.

This negative assessment of Miles’ 1969-75 work has become accepted wisdom in some circles. Ken Burns’ celebrated and influential documentary film Jazz, for example, wholeheartedly embraces the Stanley Couch view that the music took a wrong turning in the 1960s, and has little time for Miles’ fusion period. Miles’ statement that “jazz is dead” is quoted, with the implication that he played a not inconsiderable role in killing it. Fortunately, however – according to the Crouch-Burns version of jazz history – salvation was at hand in the shape of the young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis whose neo-classicist approach, which involved piously reproducing selections from the established jazz canon, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to Miles’ mid-’60s quintet, succeeded in reinstating a proper respect for traditional musical values.

The cause of Miles’ shift away from more conventional jazz forms is still the subject of heated debate (at least among those of us who heatedly debate such issues). Adherents of the “sellout” school of thought generally adopt a crude form of economic determinism, explaining Miles’ change of course in terms of the basest financial motives. In this account (see, for example, Frank Kofsky’s Black Music, White Business) the villain of the piece is Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, the label to which Miles was contracted. In the late ’60s Davis was responsible for Columbia signing up the new rock acts that were to prove such moneyspinners for the company, and it is Davis who is supposed to have engineered Miles’ capitulation to the corporate rock machine by dangling before him the prospect of milking the new expanding “youth market” if he adapted his music accordingly. Miles himself, though, vehemently denied any such motivation. “I ain’t thinking about no fucking market …”, he insisted in 1973. “Columbia tries to get me into that shit but I won’t let them do it.”

Perhaps this was a case of the artist protesting too much. The fact is that by the late 1960s Miles’ career (not artistically, but in terms of his popularity and the substantial income it generated) was in decline. Musically, his quintet had set new standards in jazz improvisation, but its “time-no-changes” format (which retained a regular pulse but abandoned set chord sequences) proved a bit too abstract for most listeners. Older jazz fans were notoriously conservative in their tastes anyway, and had difficulty in adjusting to Miles’ new musical language, whereas most young people in that period were drawn not to jazz but to the then more fashionable “progressive rock”, which presented an image of seriousness and musical depth while usually employing a very basic 4/4 rhythm with a pronounced offbeat derived from rhythm and blues. In his heyday, during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Miles’ albums had sold 100,000 to 150,000 copies, but now sales were down around 50,000. When the British bass player Dave Holland joined Miles’ group in 1968, he found himself playing US jazz clubs to audiences sometimes of no more than thirty or forty people.

In his memoirs, Clive: Inside the Record Business, Clive Davis recounts that Miles was constantly on the phone to Columbia trying to blag advances on his albums, even though they were at this time barely registering a profit. “In the process of becoming the star of the jazz world”, Clive Davis remarks of Miles, “he’d acquired some expensive habits: exotic cars, beautiful women, high fashion clothes, unusual homes.” Columbia was willing to subsidise Miles, because it was good for the company’s image to have such a respected artist on its roster, but they obviously found it preferable that he should actually make some money for them. In a speech at a Columbia business convention in 1970, Clive Davis claimed personal credit for Miles’ change of musical direction, describing how he had discussed Miles’ flagging record sales with him and proposed that action should be taken to reverse the slide.

But this was not the whole story by any means. Perhaps rather more important than any influence by the president of Columbia Records was Miles’ own notorious reluctance to stand still musically. As he himself famously put it, “I have to change, it’s like a curse”. Saxophonist Dave Liebman, who worked with Miles in 1972-4, comments: “He couldn’t keep repeating…. See, that would be the cardinal sin for Miles. He could not be a classicist … one who makes his art classic and continues to refine it and stays with it. He had to be into what he thought was changing, and be a leader of what he felt were movements…. Could he have gone back to playing ’My Funny Valentine’?”

When Wynton Marsalis took it upon himself to condemn Miles’ 1980s music (“Bird would roll over in his grave if he knew what was going on”), Miles launched a reciprocal attack on the conservatism and sterility of recycling established musical styles as Marsalis did. “What’s he doin’, messin’ with the past?” Miles demanded. “A player of his calibre should just wise up and realize it’s over…. Nostalgia, shit! That’s a pitiful concept. Because it’s dead it’s safe – that’s what that shit is about!” It was in line with this philosophy that Miles turned down the offer of a huge sum of money to reform his mid-’60s quintet for a concert in Japan – “Miles refused because it wasn’t in his nature to look backward”, Liebman observes. This was hardly the action of a man who fits Crouch’s description as “the most remarkable licker of moneyed boots in the music business”. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1991, only a few months before his death, that Miles was finally prevailed upon to perform music from his past, including recreations by Quincy Jones of the big band pieces Miles had recorded in collaboration with Gil Evans three decades earlier.

There was also a personal dimension to Miles’ late-’60s transformation. In 1968 he married Betty Mabry, a singer who was close to Jimi Hendrix (a bit too close, in fact – her continuing liaison with the guitarist led to the break-up of her marriage to Miles within a year), and some accounts credit her with directing Miles’ attention to the new developments in rock. At any rate, she put him in contact with Hendrix, and he and Miles became quite friendly for a while, with each exercising an influence on the other’s music.

A concern for the commercial viability of his art was in any case scarcely new to Miles. He had learned a hard lesson in that regard early on, after he left the Charlie Parker quintet and branched out on his own as a bandleader. The sides he recorded in 1949-50, which were later collected on the Birth of the Cool album, were an artistic triumph and have since been accorded classic status by critics. But they sold poorly at the time and the nine-piece band that recorded them was booked for only two short club engagements which attracted small audiences. In the early 1950s Miles was left scuffling for work, travelling around the country using pick-up groups, and the disappointment of his hopes for a successful career (he came from a respectable middle class family who attached importance to such things) was a major contributory factor in his four-year descent into heroin addiction. When he kicked his habit, Miles was determined to achieve commercial sucess – and the material rewards and social status that went with it.

The popularity of his mid-’50s quintet was no accident, as Miles carefully tailored the repertoire of the group to include show tunes that would be familiar to his audiences and give them a handle on the music, in order to make the often complex improvisations more palatable. As one sympathetic critic remarked at the time of On the Corner’s release, defending Miles against charges of adapting to the latest fashions in pop music, was it any more absurd to try and construct a musical masterpiece around a James Brown bass riff than around a piece of pap like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”?

At the same time, Miles’ was sufficiently proud and independent-minded to balk at prostituting his talents in order to win acceptance by the general public. The Tin Pan Alley standards performed by his mid-’50s quintet may have involved some concessions to popular taste, but this was rather undermined by Miles’ decision to recruit as a member of his group the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane – rarely a man to produce music that could be filed under easy listening. The tension this contradiction produced is dramatically illustrated by a recording of Miles’ Paris concert in March 1960, where an innocuous pop song – “Bye Bye Blackbird” – is subverted by a torrential improvisation from Coltrane, provoking an outburst of booing and whistling from scandalised members of the audience.

The same sort of contradiction can be found during Miles’ fusion period. Although Bitches Brew proved his most popular record ever (the double album eventually clocked up sales of over 500,000), commercial considerations seem to have played little part in Miles’ choice of a follow-up. Three of the four sides that were to be released several years later as Big Fun had been recorded by this time, as had Miles’ version of the Crosby Stills and Nash song “Guinnevere”, which remained in the vaults until it appeared on the 1979 compilation Circle in the Round. This material could easily have been put together to produce another double album that would have maintained some stylistic continuity with the music on Bitches Brew and helped to consolidate Miles’ appeal to his new audience. Instead, he released Live at Fillmore, whose fractured rhythms and extended passages of free improvisation certainly did him no favours with rock fans.

In contrast to the fusion groups established in the early 1970s by former members of Miles’ bands – Weather Report, led by Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, or John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra – which attracted broad audiences with their more accessible forms of jazz-rock, the music produced by Miles himself presented a challenge to jazz and rock fans alike. It is instructive to compare the relatively simple jazz-funk of Herbie Hancock’s best-selling 1973 album Headhunters with the dense musical textures produced by Miles’ own bands at that time. As Ian Carr points out, “the extreme African elements in his current music were as foreign to American blacks as they were to whites. In particular, the absence of organic harmony (chord sequences) and of diatonic melody made his music forbidding, even alien, to ears attuned to the European tradition”. All of which underlines the one-sided character of Crouch’s accusations of blatant commercialism.

As anecdotal evidence, this ageing reviewer can recall two concerts by Miles at the Rainbow Theatre, London, in 1973. Though the first was sold out, the group’s heavy electronics – Miles was by then playing trumpet with a pick-up and a wah-wah pedal – left many in the audience bewildered, and the second concert six months later was only three-quarters full. “Davis wanted the acceptance of the rock crowd”, Richard Williams notes in his book Miles Davis: The Man in the Green Shirt, “but even in this form his music was too rarefied to stand a chance.” You can only conclude that, if Miles’ fusion bands were intended as “an abject surrender to popular trends”, then he wasn’t making a very good job of it.

Miles’ music was never less than interesting during this period, but by 1975 he appeared to have lost his creative enthusiasm, partly no doubt due to mounting health problems, and for the rest of the decade he withdrew from music to lead a reclusive existence. Miles himself claimed that he had temporarily abandoned jazz in favour of a life of unbridled hedonism – “Sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then, and I did both of them round the clock”. Other accounts suggest that he spent most of his time watching television. Either way, it wasn’t until 1980 that he felt ready to return to musical activity. The recordings he produced over the following decade were a mixed bag, and some of them really did involve a dilution of his talents. If Bitches Brew represented a surrender to commercial pressures, what are we to make of 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, with its coke-snorting sound-effects and soft-centred, reggae-tinged rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Time After Time”?

The CDs under review here (yes, this is a review article – bear with me) give us an important insight into two crucial years in Miles’ musical evolution. The 3-CD box set The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions covers the period from the 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro (the last one in which Stanley Crouch recognises any artistic merit) to In A Silent Way itself, while It’s About That Time comprises a live recording of a Fillmore East concert from early 1970 – the first occasion that Miles played in front of a rock audience.

Although at the time of its release In A Silent Way appeared to be a sudden break with Miles’ previous work, the pieces collected on the Silent Way Sessions suggest that this sharp rupture with the past was not necessarily Miles’ original intention. An initial run-through of the album’s title track is performed in an arrangement that would not have been out of place on Filles de Kilimanjaro, in contrast to the stripped-down, minimalist version that appeared on the album. Of particular interest is the first rough edit of “Shh/Peaceful”. This reveals that in Miles’ original conception the piece had a conventional theme – which again would have fitted quite well into Filles – and other more orthodox jazz elements, none of which found a place in the cut-and-pasted version that was finally released. In fact the major revelation of this compilation is the extent to which the unique sound of In A Silent Way owed as much to producer Teo Macero’s editing skills (tactfully leaving aside the hamfisted splice at 10:42 on “Shh/Peaceful”) as it did to the efforts of the musicians themselves.

This, indeed, was the main difference between Filles de Kilimanjaro and its successors. Whereas Filles was composed and arranged in advance (with the help of Gil Evans, whom Miles didn’t even have the courtesy to credit on the album cover), Macero assembled subsequent studio albums by cutting and splicing tapes of what were in effect glorified jam sessions. Joe Zawinul, who played keyboards on Bitches Brew, left the studio frustrated by the lack of focus at the recording sessions and told Miles that the music was just “noodling”, but was staggered by the brilliance of the finished album when he heard it playing over the speakers at Columbia’s offices.

In March 1970 Miles was invited to perform over two evenings at the Fillmore East, then New York’s premier rock venue (Clive Davis had been pestering the Fillmore’s owner Bill Graham for months to get Miles the gig). In some respects this placed Miles in a rather humiliating position. Not only was he merely the warm-up act on a bill headed by two rock groups, Neil Young with Crazy Horse and the Steve Miller band, but he was also obliged to accept a much reduced fee. However, Clive Davis persuaded Miles that this was a price worth paying to reach a new audience, one numbering thousands rather than the hundreds that attended jazz concerts.

Miles was urged to adjust his performance to take account of his audience’s musical inclinations, by performing some of the music from In A Silent Way (which had received airplay on rock radio stations) and by finishing his set with a strong backbeat. However, although Miles chose as his closing piece Silent Way’s “It’s About That Time”, the 2-CD recording of the concert that has now been released under that title shows that the group’s performance was otherwise about as severe and uncompromising as jazz-rock fusion could get. It must have been completely beyond the average Neil Young fan, and on the first night Miles’ music reportedly met with stunned incomprehension. Yet, as this recording shows, the next evening the sheer intensity of Miles’ performance evidently won over the rock fans, who treated him to warm applause and even the odd call for an encore.

What are we to make of the music contained in these CDs? It must be said that, compared with the sophisticated compositions on Filles de Kilimanjaro (The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions includes two great tracks – “Mademoiselle Mabry” and “Frelon Brun” – from that album), the recordings for In A Silent Way itself mark a falling off in quality. Personally, I think it is a matter of regret that Miles didn’t recognise the potential in Filles, his first collaboration with Gil Evans since the early ’60s, and go on to develop a form of fusion that adapted and incorporated some of the rhythmic elements of rock while retaining the basic framework of jazz.

The same goes for his live performances. Bootleg recordings of Miles’ European tour in October 1969 reveal that the group was playing his recently recorded fusion material (“Bitches Brew”, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, “Sanctuary” and so on), but while the music featured modified rock rhythms and electric piano it remained identifiably in the jazz tradition. In that respect, despite the fact that these performances postdate the recording of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, they have more in common with Filles de Kilimanjaro than with either of those two albums. Although It’s About That Time was recorded only a few months later, the music had by then taken on a rather frantic quality, no doubt in an effort to impress a rock audience, and much of the subtlety had been lost.

So, though it pains me to say this, I have to admit that, for all the intemperate language adopted by Stanley Crouch et al in their attacks on Miles, there is a rational kernel to their criticisms. Even Dave Liebman, who in general rallies to the defence of Miles’ fusion period, admits that Davis “went backwards to fit in with this rock thing. His playing is less complex. You couldn’t play that other stuff when you’ve got such a heavy beat. It just doesn’t fit…. I have to say that the level of sophistication, musically, wasn’t as classic”.

That being said, over thirty years afterwards I can still remember the excitement generated by the release of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and there is no doubt that much of Miles’ post-’68 work still repays listening today. On the Corner may be an insult to the intellect of the people, but it remains one of my all-time favourite Miles albums. And even a record as shallow and populist as You’re Under Arrest contains more of the vitality and invention that is the essence of jazz than is to be found in any of Wynton Marsalis’s po-faced exercises in musical puritanism.

First published in What Next? in 2002 (under the name Robert Wilkins)