Jazz as a genre of music has a rich history, with its birthplace in New Orleans in the US. The sophistication and wide variety of the genre currently available to enthusiasts and casual listeners also have a rich history. Although it may not be possible to point the beginning of some progression in styles, there are specific artists who stand out as having contributed to the evolution of the genre to what it is today. One of the most influential artists, and who changed the genre through innovation is Miles Davis, the jazz guru who brought jazz fusion (Lagace n.p.). What then were the contributions of Miles Davis to jazz and which among his songs stand out in highlighting his innovation in jazz?
Before his break as a bandleader and trumpeter, Miles Davis worked with some of jazz greats including Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker (Merod 72; Palmer n.p.). Davis’ work and break into the scene under the aforementioned jazz greats was during a revolution in the genre, which (revolution) introduced bebop; a revolt from jazz players against big bands, racial injustice and the apparent restrictions within the harmonic conventions of jazz at the time (Palmer n.p.). Bop, as played by the revolts, included difficult melodic lines and rhythms played at breakneck speeds, which Davis could not play at the time due to his young age and the fact that he was at the time developing the strength of his lips (Merod 72).
Davis’ age and his inability to play bop as the greats perhaps started his innovation of the new genre. Given that it was not possible for him to play high, loud and fast, he largely played with a light sound. Through the light sound, he developed a unique emotional power through the infusion of the light sound with blunt dramatic exploration of personal inwardness. This combination essentially birthed Davis’ style and language that elicited a heart-wrenching poetry of the soul (Merod 73).
Miles Davis’ beginnings as an innovator began with his involvement with Gil Evans and the Claude Thornhill band. His work with this band introduced the French horn and tuba, where the band played them as melodic rather than as rhythmic instruments (Merod 86). Davis was especially instrumental in not only arranging the nine piece that marked the digression from bop to cool but also in securing a performance for the new sound. The music also secured Miles a contract with Capitol Records. The collection of the new sound recorded between 1949 and 1950 became a compilation released in 1954 called the Birth of Cool, which launched cool jazz as a sub-genre of jazz, which slowed down the tempo of bop, had a light style of drumming, while at the same time maintaining the prevalence of bass as was the case in bop.
The new arrangement perhaps marks Davis’ full-fledged innovation in jazz. He did not revel much in the creation of cool as a genre of jazz, but quickly moved to a new style, modal, which was ideally his first foray into jazz fusion. Jazz fusion became his signature and a great influence to his later works as he borrowed from the cool era while at the same time slowing the melodic activity (Valelly n.p.). During this first phase of jazz fusion, Davis involved performers who later went to become great stars on their own including pianist Herbie Hancock. The major digression for Davis was the jettisoning of customary chord-based jazz improvisation to a modal approach. The modal approach involved suspending melodies based on early modes above harmony instead of the complex nature of melodies as weaved in bop and funk harmonies. Additionally, the new approach involved the incorporation of many more instruments include electric bass, guitar and keys, which were previously absent in jazz (Valelly n.p.).
The next phase of innovation for Davis was his admiration for popular European classical music, which saw him fusing the European music with jazz. With an admiration of popular musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Sly and Family Stone, Davis took jazz to another level in fusion. Through the admiration of the musicians, Davis then fused jazz, rock, pop, and funk, ushering in a new era in music (Palmer n.p.). Kind of Blue is the album that highlights Davis’ success in fusion, putting him in the limelight in addition to becoming the highest selling jazz album of all time. So significant was the album that it was voted in the US House of Representatives as a national treasure in 2009.
The success of the album did not stop Davis from venturing further into music innovation and fusion. In his traditional adventurous self, Davis took to experimentation and innovation with other genres, albeit even more controversial ones. With Rock and Roll being the most popular genre at the time (1969-1975), Davis began experimentation with the genre’s fusion into jazz, adding electronics and rock aesthetics. He additionally fused electric keyboards and wah-wah effect to his trumpet, in addition to bring in artists with rock background to hid band.
Miles Davis’ Beaches Brew was indeed the culmination of his fusion experiments. With rock being the greatest music at the time, he borrowed heavily from the rock styles, particularly the recording large amounts of material and later editing them on tape in making an album. Beaches Brew particularly highlights this method, along with the fact that it has a heavy rock influence on it. Aside from rock, Beaches Brew also borrows from funk, resulting in music full of rock-infused textures with an intense psychedelic funk groove, setting it apart from anything ever recorded at the time (Valelly n.p.). In essence, therefore, Beaches Brew pushed the boundaries of jazz, taking it from an era in which spontaneity was the order of the day to an era of fusion, bringing together different genres of jazz into a perfect melodic ensemble that Beaches Brew is the epitome.
Jazz as a genre of music has undergone transformation over the year to become what it is today. Traditional jazz, through different artists, evolved to become the different styles of the music that currently exist. Miles Davis played an important role in the evolution of jazz thanks to his experimentation and innovation, as well as his leadership ability that helped him bring together great musicians who complemented his excellent trumpet skills. Miles Davis’ contribution to jazz is especially visible in his pioneering, developing and nurturing of fusion as a style of jazz that brought together different genres of music. His working with fusion helped launch not only the careers of different musicians, but also put jazz in the map, culminating in the declaration of the genre as a national treasure as well as honouring him as one of the greatest artists from America.
Lagace, Martha. “Kind of Blue: Pushing Boundaries with Miles Davis.” Harvard Business School, 2009
Merod, J. “The Question of Miles Davis.“ Boundary 2, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 57-103
Palmer, Robert. “Miles Davis: The Man Who Changed Music.” Rolling Stone, 1991
Valelly, Peter. “Miles Davis’ Brilliant, Pioneering Fusion Era.” The Current, 2013