The Music of Miles Davis from 1960-1991 and its Influence
Completed April 7, 2000
The music of Miles Davis between 1960 and his death in 1991 is arguably some of the most innovative and influential music ever recorded. Not only did Davis open several new doors for musicians to walk through, but he also created leaders out of the musicians in his band. This, therefore, made his influence even more widespread. This period in Miles Davisí career coincides with the growing freedom and change of the 1960ís, and therefore, his music definitely begins to take shape as an expression of the vastly different societal expectations and norms (whether Miles intended for his music to or not). Nonetheless, just as Miles had done in the forties with bebop and the fifties with cool jazz, he spearheaded changes in music (not just jazz) that transcended what was expected of a musician. Sometimes the music world wasnít quite ready. He not only became the first prominent jazz figure to fully exploit the concept of electronic instruments, but also utilized modal structures and eliminated time in between pieces by linking tunes together through a method referred to later. Additionally, if he had all ready introduced enough changes to tip the music world on one ear, he expanded the small jazz group format to include multiple guitars, multiple keyboards, and various exotic percussion instruments which was considered very innovative in jazz for the time. He also utilized the standard as a changeable formal structure within which he created asymmetrical divisions. As a testament to Davisí view on change, he responded to Leonard Featherís blindfold test in 1968 with the following statement, (regarding Freddie Hubbardís playing)
I donít dig that kind of shit man; just a straight thirty-two bars. . . .Itís formal man, and scales and all that . . . . Freddieís a great trumpet player, but if he had some other direction to go. . . . you [should] place a guy in a spot where he has to do something other than what he can do, so he can do that.
Miles Davis also decided to take the "standard" in a different direction. Standards, in general are divided into grouping of bars which are a multiple of four. However, around 1964, Miles began changing the structure of standards when he would play them, so the sections wouldnít always divide up evenly. He would do this by one of two ways. Either he would divide the structure into parts that donít utilize 8-measure sections (ex. "Stella by Starlight", "My Funny Valentine","I Thought About You"), or he would enrich the musical structure via tags and turnarounds (ex. "All Blues", "All of You"). Many bands since then have used this method to keep standards (especially those most often play) from getting stale or boring for the audiences and the performers. While Miles was not the first one to try this alteration of the "standard" form, he certainly helped make it more popular for musicians to utilize.
One of the most influential innovations during this period was Davisí expansion of the instrumentation and usage of electronic instruments. A typical small group of the time would include one or two horns (generally saxophone or trumpet), a pianist, a bassist, and a set player. As mentioned earlier, Miles expands on this through doubling and introduction of new instruments (by jazz standards). The first addition of such note is that of George Benson on guitar in the 1968 recording of Miles in the Sky. This marked the beginning of a direction that Miles would follow for quite some time. Around the same time on December 28, 1967 in Columbia Studio B in New York City, Herbie Hancock used electric piano while Ron Carter utilized electric bass on the tune "Water on the Pond". Later, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Jarrett would both use electric piano in Milesí group (frequently at the same time at some point). While using electric keyboards and electric bass in the band was not a first for jazz, it was the first time that they were used to their full potential in a band with as much influence as Milesí band. Miles liked the freedom that this afforded the band and the keyboard players themselves. He particularly took to the combination of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. About this combination, he declared, "The beginning of the summer  I had both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on electric piano in my working band, and that shit they was playing together was really kicking ass." Being that Miles wasnít exactly generous with praise, this statement reflects how much he truly loved the sound that expanded instrumentation allowed him. Miles at some points could be bluntly influential as Herbie Hancock stated to Eric Nisenson, "I walked into the studio and there was a Fender Rhodes electric piano sitting there. I asked Miles what I was supposed to do and he said ĎPlay it.í" Therefore, Herbie Hancockís quote conflicts to a certain extent with recordings made around that period, but nonetheless it was right around this time frame and the fact that Miles coerced him to play it is probably quite accurate. Later, he also forced Keith Jarrett to play it and he later fell in love with the instrument. Additionally, later that next year, Miles added Jumma Santos and Charles "Don" Alias to the band as percussionists. From this point on, Davis used a myriad of different percussionists including Mtume (Jimmy Heathís younger brother), Airto Morierta, Badal Roy, Billy Hart (on set as well), Marilyn Mazur, as well as many others. Frequently, he used multiple percussionists for concerts as well as recordings. On the album Bitches Brew (1969) Davis added Khalil Balakrishna and Bihari Sharma on Indian instruments such as the sitar (electrified) and the tambura. In 1970, Davis started using the organ within the ensemble. This brought organ to the forefront in the jazz genre. Many of his keyboardists went on to lead jazz and fusion bands in which the organ was very prominent. The organ was the instrument that Jarrett reluctantly became fond of and recorded with throughout his career. Lastly, in 1970 Miles finally decided to go electric himself due to the fact that it was becoming difficult to cut through the sound from the other instruments (this was caused due to his unbelievably mellow tone). Partially influenced by the sound of Jimi Hendrix, Miles began to utilize a wah-wah pedal effect with his trumpet. As Miles stated, "By now  I was using the wah-wah on my trumpet all the time so I could get closer to that voice Jimi had when he used a wah-wah on his guitar. I had always played trumpet like a guitar and the wah-wah just made it sound closer." Many of the band members that he played with throughout his career later went on to lead their own bands and use such instruments as electric guitar, electric bass, added percussionists, organ, etc. Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Herbie Hancockís groups in particular come to mind.
Besides instrumentation, Davis, began exploring new ways of thinking of form and harmony. In 1960, Miles recorded the album Kind of Blue, which is the
first true success at recording modal work. Modal structure consists of very few chord changes spread out over many bars, therefore allowing a soloists to utilize many different patterns and substitutions over a given chord before that chord changes. A prime example of this is the tune "So what". (sheet music)
When the modal composition, "So What" is compared to "Tune Up", one can see that "So What" utilizes only the Emi7 and Fmi7 chords and changes chord only after a long period of time on the previous chord. However, on the traditional tune from the bebop era, which does not exhibit modal characteristics, you can see how the music is based around II-V7-I progressions, and in general changes chord on every bar. Therefore, one can see how much different soloing over modal changes would be as opposed to traditional changes. Neither one is necessarily harder, just radically different approaches from one another. Miles introduced this radical new change and it has been a mainstay in the jazz genre since.
So as one can see, this evolution was particularly influential to the music world. The main reason for this is that John Coltrane was the tenor saxophonist of the album, and later in that same year recorded an album (Giant Steps) with mostly modal progressions. Miles recorded his album by basically placing sketches of the form in front of the musicians and letting them play what they hear. Coltrane did the same. This laid the pavement for modal tunes such as "Teo" on Someday My Prince will Come (1961) as well as some of the Wayne Shorter tunes on E.S.P. (1965).
Within this music, especially as the musicians became more comfortable with it, the musicians learned to use ever more complex harmonic substitutions and inventive usages of scales. Through Milesí modal approach, the changes are reduced in numbers (as stated before) and frequency and therefore the musician must be more inventive to keep from becoming repetitive and thus boring. Once some of the big names in the band left, most notably John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, they too composed with this style at points during their careers.
Along with the harmonic and form changes, Davis also changed the form of the concert from a series of distinct pieces, separated by musical silence and applause, to one continuous, ever-evolving suite. In other words, Miles joined the pieces via intricate movement to the key of the next piece. This innovation began at the end of 1965(Plugged Nickel). Greg Masters had this take on Miles electric/suite era:
The musical events Miles Davis created during his so-called electric
period (1969-75), are acts of constant exploring and constant willingness to push into the unknown, daring to always look forward and to not rely on any conventions or any of the safety nets of the past. The music is rebellious in its uncompromising intensity and is uncategorizable for its urgent flooding past genre definitions. It flaunts recording conventions with tunes and passages merging into suites inappropriately lasting longer than an LP side. Miles' music of this five year period is unlike any music that preceded it, and still, thirty years later, so original, so progressive, and so inadequately described.
And while the concerts during the early stages of this period were not suites or medleys yet, they did eliminate the pauses between pieces. They are not considered suites due to the lack of interrelationships between successive pieces. However, after Davis recovered from his hospital stay in 1966, he retained the concept that he had started. During the European tour in 1970, Miles refined the concept of "link", the term for suite, which was coined by Enrico Merlin. While the band was finishing out one piece, Davis would begin the next one causing the appearance of a fade-out, fade-in type of sonic effect. The concept behind the "link" was that the band could progress to any piece from any other depending upon what was played at the end of the tune in progress. The concept mentioned earlier helped enable this. Modal progressions allowed for bass pedal tones that could be used to distinguish the beginning of a new piece. His most notable works using this device are concerts involving pieces from Directions, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. In Enrico Merlinís article on Losinís site, Merlin reveals the secret.
I discovered that all the Ďsimilar musical situationsí were preceded by the same phrase played by Miles Davis on the trumpet. . . . Having checked the theory carefully, it became clear that these Ďphrasesí were used by the leader during the course of long medleys, to signal the wish to go on to the next piece.
According to Merlinís study, Miles used three different kinds of "coded phrases" (again his phrase). Either the first notes of the tune, the bass vamp, or the voicings of the harmonic progressions would be performed to signal the new piece. While this system seems quite intriguing and useful, the amazing part is that several of his top players have stated that this system of signals was never verbally discussed. They were just on the same page mentally. Regardless, several musicians from his band have since used that method as well as groups like "Parliament Funkadelic", etc. The Parliament Funkadelic connection was definitely possible; however, there is no proof of it. However, it has been theorized that since Joseph Foley McCreary played bass for both George Clinton and Miles Davis around the same time, those ideas such as "linkage" could have been passed on in this fashion. And since Parliament Funkadelic was a hugely influential funk band, other bands were in turn exposed to the linkage system, which most likely came directly from Miles himself.
Throughout all of these changes, Davis refused to categorize his music. Therefore, when critics perceived that he was closely related to jazz figures (in the fifties and early sixties) they assumed he would continue on this path. However, Davis never cared much for critics or having his music labeled. Regarding his new movements in music, Miles stated,
ÖI started realizing that most rock musicians didnít know anything about music. They didnít study it, couldnít play different styles-and donít even talk about reading music. But they were popular and sold a lot of records because they were giving the public a certain sound, what they wanted to hear. So I figured if they could do it-reach all those people and sell all those records without even knowing what they were doing Ė they I could do it, too, only better.
Davis liked whom he liked musically regardless of what musical style they were from. The blindfold test, in which Miles discussed pieces played for him without his knowledge of the title beforehand, that he took with Leonard Feather is famous by now. Miles pretty much hates most of the jazz materials from his contemporaries, and likes music outside his genre. He was known to be very into Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and even zouk music which Quincy Troupe introduced him to. All of these different musical styles effected Miles. This is part of the reason his music took on the sound it did, plus Miles wanted the attention greatly at this point and he knew that the modern crowd was more in tune to electric sounds more than acoustic at this point. While many critics panned Davisí music from the electric period as being commercial, one columnist states,
Ö.Anyone who thinks that Davis was getting commercial on these albums probably hasnít heard the music. Each album (with the notable exception of Live-Evil, which mixes live and studio tracks) contains two discs of roughly 45 minutes of unbroken music [refer back to section on coded phrases] - - hardly the stuff radio programmers dream of. And the music is funky, to be sure, but itís a far cry from James Brownís tight three-minute workouts or Sly Stoneís layered sing-alongs. Itís as dense and texturally complex as it is dark and unsettling.
However much Miles got panned for mixing jazz with rock characteristics, he ended up producing many notable future bandleaders from his band. Astonishingly almost all of them formed fusion bands built upon what they had done with Miles group. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter went on to form Weather Report. Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Herbie Hancock formed the Headhunters. Tony Williams started Lifetime and Chick Corea founded his Electrik band. Lastly, Keith Jarrett started his own group going a slightly different direction but still with enough remnants that one can tell he played with Davis at some point after 1960.
Towards the later part of his career, Miles moved more towards musical styles that were exotic or unknown to him previously. In Quincy Troupeís recently released Miles and Me, Troupe makes reference to Davisí great fondness for zouk music, which inspired some of the beats and mood of the pieces on the album Amandla. Troupe also claims to have turned Miles onto the group Kassau, which uses the zouk style. Additionally, around late 1988 Miles started tell Troupe that he was getting into rap and hip-hop due to the fact that some of his band members were into this music and exposed him to it. Quincy Troupe summed up Miles new interests by writing,
He said he wanted to do a recording mixing rappers and electronic music with Brazilian and Caribbean beats, especially zouk. He told me once that he was going to talk to Quincy Jones about the project, but weather he ever did, I donít know. Although Miles didnít know a lot about rappers, they know a lot about him. I used to hear from mentioning his name and talking about how "bad" they though he was, how creative, how he was "the joint".
This statement alone brings forth the best of what was innovative with Miles Davis. He was willing to try combinations and take risks that were way ahead of his time. As Dave Holland stated in Ian Carrís book, "What he means is. . . heís saying donít play whatís there, play whatís not there. . . . Donít play what your fingers fall into.. . . Play the next thing." That was his attitude about everything, including styles of music. He never wanted his style to stagnate so he flocked towards new styles (for him) consistently. The fact that he didnít know a lot about rappers but wanted to create a project with them and learn more shows how progressive he really was. However, while that project mentioned never
came to fruition, Miles did produce an album (albeit finished after his death) called Doo-Bop, about which Troupe states,
As is, doo-bop is only an indication, a musical index finger, if you will pointing in a direction music might go in the future. Already some musicians, like Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, and Russell Gunn, have released intriguing musical albums that move confidently in that direction, and perhaps beyond.
As already stated, this album was not completed before his death, however, it illustrates just how determined Miles truly was to always change and always play something new. All of his stylistic changes made it easier for jazz artists to incorporate them in their playing.
In conclusion, the reason Miles Davis was such an influential figure was not simply the fact that he was innovative and turned his band members into bandleaders. The reason Miles is a transcendent figure in jazz is due to the fact that he helped shape some of the best players on their respective instruments such as Cortland, Shorter, Williams, Core, Stern, etc. That list alone is a virtual whoís who of the music world. Additionally, not only did he touch their lives, but also worked with and influenced Prince and influenced a considerable amount of todayís current major figure in jazz. As Ralph Gleason aptly summarizes,
The greatest single thing about Miles Davis is that he does not stand still. He is forever being born. And like all his other artistic kin, as he changes, leaves behind one style or mode and enters another, he gains new adherents and loses old ones. . . . Miss him at your loss. He is amazing."
His changing styles brought out the best in Miles: changes in instrumentation, usage of electronic instruments, the use of suites (linkage), the use of the standard as an alterable musical structure, and his undying passion for constant change and innovation. As can be seen throughout jazz today, many of the innovations that Miles Davis brought to the forefront are rampantly popular among jazz artists today. Miles Davis was ahead of his time. He was and always will be truly great!
Baker, David N. The Jazz Style of Miles Davis: A Musical and Historical
Perspective. Lebanon, IN: Studio 224, 1980.
Bragalini, Luca. "My Funny Valentine: The Disintegration of a Standard." [article
on-line] (accessed 12 March 2000); available from
Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: A Critical Biography. London: Quartet Books Limited
Gale, Ezra. "Miles Davis". Salon. Sept. 16,1987.
Losin, Peter."Miles Ahead" Version 2.0. (accessed 31 March 2000)
Masters, Greg. "The Electric Miles". [article on-line] (accessed 4 April 2000);
Merlin, Enrico. "Code M.D.:Coded Phrase in the First ĎElectric Periodí" [article on
-line](accessed 31 March 2000); available from http://
Nisenson, Eric. Round About Midnight. New York: The Dial Press, 1982.
Troupe, Quincy and Miles Davis. Miles the Autobiography. New York: Simon and
Troupe, Quincy. Miles and Me. Berkeley: University of California Press
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NOTE: The footnotes are very thorough and may be overcomplete. This is due to author appearing for more than one book. (i.e. Troupe). Therefore, I made them all this way. Additionally, while the Losin base site itself is not cited within the paper, it was utilized for dates, titles, and personnel information that are generally considered to be factual. (listed in more than three different sources)