Miles Davis did not think of himself, first and foremost, as an entertainer. He clearly despised all the things that older jazz musicians took for granted, like playing music that would entertain a predominantly white audience, “walking the bar”, etc. It was this that probably caused him to align himself with the bebop crowd early in his career. Miles never really was comfortable with bebop. He was ill equipped, technically, for its breakneck tempos and chord substitutions, as demonstrated by his earliest recordings. What attracted him greatly was the “outsider” status of the beboppers, the way they played music for themselves and tried to express something straight from their experience, without regard for its potential acceptance by the audience. This is not to say that earlier jazz musicians didn’t play in an honest or expressive way-Miles certainly revered greats like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet-but rather that the boppers were resolved to play with this level of intimacy all the time.
The analogy of painting and improvising has been used ad nauseum, including the reference in Bill Evans’ liner notes on Kind of Blue to the Japanese style of painting in which the painters may never lift their brush for fear interrupting the line and breaking the special paper canvas. For Davis, though, painting is a good metaphor, particularly since he did some painting himself. He did his journeyman work with Bird and Diz, apprenticed with Gil Evans and others on the Birth of the Cool sessions, finally coming into his own style as a representational artist with the first Quintet that featured John Coltrane. His work became more impressionistic in his next round of work with Gil Evans, this time very much as an equal collaborator on recordings like Miles Ahead andSketches of Spain. With the second Quintet he moved into the realm of abstraction, working with musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter who were moving in a similar direction. He abruptly changed directions with the recordings In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, becoming completely modern and burying himself beneath layer upon layer of electronically generated sound. With On the Corner and subsequent work, he moved deeper into minimalism.
Another way to look at Davis’ career is to realize that he moved himself further and further from the audience as he progressed. Some feel that this demonstrates his isolation from and general disdain for the people who were listening to his music, but I really think that it demonstrates, instead, his attempts to remove himself from the equation, to have his music judged purely as sound. It seems to have had the opposite effect, however. The more Miles receded, the more the audience tried to peer through the clouds for a glimpse of him, and the less many respected or even discussed the music. It’s easy to dismiss the work he did throughout the 1980s because he could have chosen to play much more harmonically complex music that would have been more challenging to an artist of his caliber, but that is to judge his work from the perspective one’s own bias rather than as music unto itself. The general belief is that Davis sought to become a rock music superstar and pandered to an audience consisting primarily of teenagers or those with unsophisticated musical tastes. But that flies in the face of everything Miles had done in his career up to that point, and his career at that time was already a long one. Even though rock fans may have been initially attracted by the trappings of rock music-the amplified guitars, the synthesizers, the barrage of exotic percussion, the sheer volume of the whole experience-they surely weren’t inspired to hang around as Miles continued to experiment with sheer washes of sound, with ambience and expression and all the things he had always been concerned with. Miles was always about what was contemporary, but his themes didn’t change much. He was always looking forward with regard to his sound, and he never revisited a style he had abandoned, but he did explore the same ideas and feelings and thoughts, as well as methods of working, over and over again.