Miles Davis’s Restless Musical Journey

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Illustration by Oliver Barrett of The Atlantic

Although I’m not a musician, I seem to find myself hanging with them an awful lot.  For example, in college I roomed with Warren Moise and accompanied him and his band Wormwood on many a gig.  When Warren decided to drop out and make a go at being a professional musician, he invited me to join Wormwood as soundman or light man or something or another, but I stuck to the unglamorous academic life of a sophomore living in Tenement 9 in the so-called Horseshoe of the University of South Carolina.[1]  Later Warren later returned to school, became a lawyer, but still writes songs, like this one recorded by the Band of Oz.

the-band-of-oz-super-summer-surfside

The next year I moved off campus with another musician, Stan Gibbons, who played bass for a rock cover band called Buddy Roe. After Buddy Roe broke up, Stan got into jazz, and it was he who turned me on to the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, which I didn’t dig, and believe me, I got to hear it on numerous occasions, like non-stop for a couple of months. I still don’t dig it, but now that I’ve finished Ian Carr’s two-inch thick (658 pages) Miles Davis, The Definitive Biography, I have come to appreciate why Davis became such a restless innovator and to see his refusal to settle for the profitable status quo as a mark of heroic artistry.

Born to upper middle class parents, Miles Dewey Davis III grew up in East St. Louis where his father practiced dentistry.  Although he grew up in a household awash in music, it was classical music that his African American family embraced. His sister played the piano and his mother the violin.  As Carr puts it in the biography, “After Emancipation, it was the professional men and ministers of the church who were the heads of the new black society, and they were at pains to get rid of any customs that were too ‘negroid’ or which harked back to slavery.  It often happened that leading black citizens became the most fanatical imitators of white society. ”

However, that great corrupter of youth in those days, the radio, turned Miles onto Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, and Roy Eldridge, so he took up the trumpet, played in the school band, but also at social clubs.  By the time he was sixteen and still in high school, he had joined a music union and came under the tutelage of Clark Terry.  This was in the 40’s.  Once he graduated, he talked his parents into letting him go the Juilliard instead of Fisk University.  At the Juilliard, he lived what Carr calls “a Jekell and Hyde” existence, trafficking with classical music by day and jazz, particularly bebop, by night.

Bebop was the first jazz innovative movement Davis got into.  Soon, he found himself attending Charlie Parker gigs, and in 1945 he joined Charlie Parker’s group. During this period, he shared the stage with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

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Trane and Dizzy

So began his career, a career that featured a series of departures that usually irked the mainstream jazz community.

Weary of bebop, Davis and cronies Gil Evans and Jerry Mulligan among others started experimenting with the idea of having their instruments imitate human voices, creating  more melodic jazz than bebop.  After this so-called “birth of the cool” phase, Davis, now hooked on heroin, played what is called “hard bop.”  He signed with Prestige records and locked in a room by himself kicked his H habit cold turkey, .  Next came modal jazz, and in 1959 Davis released Kind of Blue, which is the best selling jazz album of all time.  In the 60s as rock replaced jazz as the cool pop music, Miles embraced the sound of the guitar, and “went electric,” much to the chagrin of jazz purists, and hence Bitches Brew.

 After Wynton Marsalis publically criticized Miles for abandoning “real jazz,” Miles responded:

What’s [Marsalis] doin’ messin’ with the past?  A player of his caliber should just wise up and realize it’s over . . . Some people, whatever is happening now, either they can’t handle it or they don’t want to know. They’ll be messed up on that bogus ‘nostalgia’ thing. Nostalgia shit!  That’s a pitiful concept.  Because it’s dead, it’s safe – that’s what that shit is about!  Hell, no one wanted to hear us when we were playing jazz. Those days with Bird, Diz, Trane – some were good, some were miserable . . . People didn’t like that stuff then. Hell, why do you think we was playing clubs?  No one wanted us on prime-time TV.  The music wasn’t getting across, you dig!  Jazz is dead![2]

Point taken: innovation is often frowned upon, misunderstood. Why, after all the success of Born in the USA, did Springsteen follow that up with Nebraska?  Why did Dylan abandon acoustic folk for the electric guitar, and why does he constantly reconfigure his songs so that at a concert he might be halfway through “Blowin’ in the Wind” before you recognize it?

Maybe because for them it has gotten old, stale.  You don’t have to like the new product; I much prefer Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew.  However, unless you’re a great musician, you probably should keep your mouth shut and let the masters do their thing.

It’s your thang, do what you wanna do.

I can’t tell you, who to sock it to.


[1]You can read about my travails with my roomies here, a situation that had me literally threatening to hang myself to university officials.

[2]I suspect Miles used a different mode of expression at Juilliard.

 

South Carolina’s Musical Heritage

To say South Carolina is a colorful state is like saying Orson Welles had a weight problem, Yul Brenner was follicularly challenged (better add a reference someone under 60 might recognize) or Justin Bieber isn’t what you would call winsome.

Damn right we’re colorful – got a Asian-Indian-American governor against immigration, a black senator backing legislation that makes it more difficult for blacks to vote, a white not-so-closeted gay senator against marriage equality. Got a state university that houses its “Honor College” in a building named for former governor/senator who went by the moniker “Pitchfork Ben” and was an outspoken advocate of white supremacy and lynch laws.

hunleyfuneral11We put on elaborate funerals for found Confederate bones, wear seersucker suits, interbreed, whoop it up all the time (cf. Southern Charm). In fact, I hear James L Petigru’s quote that South Carolina’s “too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum” so often it’s almost become a cliché.

Given our eccentricities, it follows South Carolina boasts a bumper crop of potent popular music, and it does — to a certain extent.

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Each year the magazine The Oxford American puts out a Southern Music edition that comes with a cd featuring an eclectic selection of songs from the South. The last few years, the editors have featured the songs of one state; e.g., Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee have all had cds devoted to their home grown music. Because of the rich treasure trove these states possess, the editors have refrained from choosing the states’ most famous or most accomplished musicians but have opted instead for a [redundancy alert] smorgasbord of arcane eclecticism. For example, you won’t find Iris DeMent or Robert Lockwood, Jr. on the Arkansas cd; however, Suga City makes the cut.

Iris DeMent

Iris DeMent

Whenever the Oxford editors get around to culling some tunes for the South Carolina cd, they’re not going to have a profound number of musicians to choose from, but damn, they’re going to have some true masters who hail from the Palmetto State. The problem, I suspect, will be which James Brown or Dizzy Gillespie tune to showcase.

What follows is my South Carolina cd with the caveat that I ain’t no expert and will no doubt omit some obvious choices. Also, I’m not listing the musicians/songs in the order that would appear on the cd but in the order they occur to me.

* * *

One gripe I have with the Oxford cds is that they can sound a bit too archive-y, if you know what I mean. I like listening to cds in the car on the way to work, not necessarily listening to them as an exercise in musical scholarship. Therefore, I’d match the following SC musicians with these songs.

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs – “Stay” [Lancaster, SC]

The Swingin’ Medallions – “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” [Greenwood]

The Marshall Tucker Band – “Can’t You See” [Spartanburg]

Eartha-Kitt-Bad-But-Beautiful-375528Because Eartha Kitt’s “C’est Bon” has already appeared on an earlier Oxford compilation, I’d go with maybe “I Want to be Evil” or “Je cherce un homme.” {North]

Of course, the geniuses Dizzy Gillespie [Cheraw] and James Brown [Barnwell] have left profound bodies of work. I’m too lazy to even try to come up with representative songs. It’s no fun, too fraught with danger.

 * * *

Okay we have 6 songs so we need at least 14 more. SC beach music needs more representation than the Medallions, so Bill Pinckney’s Drifters [Daizell, SC] is an obvious choice. Let’s go with “There Goes My Baby.”

Chubby Checker - Twisting USA Album CoverChubby Checker [Spring Gulley] checks in [forgive me] with “Let’s Twist Again” because it’s such pure rock-n-roll, but “Limbo Rock” would be a close second.

As far as country/Americana goes we got Bill Anderson [Columbia] “Po Folks” and the country swing of Uncle Walt’s Band [Spartanburg] featuring Champ Hood, David Ball, and the late Walter Hyatt. “Gimme Some Skin” would be my choice.

I love gospel, and we have an impressive number of groups to choose from, but in deference to my pal Jo Humphreys, I’m going with the Brotherhood Gospel Singers [Mt. Pleasant] “Mary, Don’t Weep.”

Now, it’s blues time. The Reverend Gary Davis’s {Laurens County] “You Got to Move” or “Prodigal Son” will be familiar to Rolling Stone aficionados. Pinkey “Pink” Anderson {Laurens] certainly deserves the nod above Drink Small [Bishopville].

Though I’m not a big fan, it would be churlish not to include Hootie and the Blowfish [Charleston]. You choose.

Now for some lesser known South Carolina artists. Julius Cobb’s {Greenville] soul ballad “Great Big Change in Me” with its horns and killer vocal (featuring talking) is an obscure gem (and my former roommate Warren Moise once played keyboards with one of his bands). You can listen to “Great Change in Me” HERE.

Even though they’re from North Carolina, we could sneak Jump Little Children into the mix, but why do that when you could include The Fire Apes’ [Charleston] “Let Me Know” or “Lori.”

killerwhales_largeEver heard of the Killer Whales [Charleston]? Well, I have, and their cover of the Melodians’ “Johnny Too Bad” adds a much needed Caribbean lilt into the mix.

How bout some jazz fusion funk via Alphonse Mouzon [Charleston? “Funky Snakefoot” will do in a pinch.

Okay, I’m down to two Do I want to throw a bone to the younger set with a selection from Iron & Wine or add a couple of unrepresented country crooners like Josh Turner?

Naw, I’m going with the Blue Dogs’ “Walter” [Charleston] and Danielle Howle’s [Columbia] “Oh Swear.”

Jim Crow

Jim Crow

By the way, if you’re reading this before 15 November 2014 and are in the Charleston area, come out and see two of my favorite acts at the Folly Beach Front Porch Festival, i.e. Jim Crow going solo and Po Dunk led by brother/frontman John Fleming Moore. It starts at 2 at various venues in walking distance of Center Street.