It’s been 60 years since Miles Davis released ‘Kind Of Blue’. People will tell you that it’s the best jazz album ever but they’re wrong. It’s a very, very good jazz album but it’s not the best ever and it’s not even Miles Davis’ best album. If you’re going to celebrate ‘Kind Of Blue’ then you may as well just celebrate the man instead. That album is just one piece in a fascinating, complicated and richly coloured career; the most gripping and vital career in all jazz and, when judgment day comes, perhaps all modern music. Does Miles Davis hold his own against Dylan, Bowie, Presley and Cash. You’re fucking right he does. He could take on pretty much anyone and he was to jazz what the great white shark is to the ocean: top of the food chain, watch out.
Why lie to yourself? If you say you don’t like jazz you just haven’t tried enough. Believe me, I’m no expert, and I’m happy to concede that jazz has a time and a place, but there really is something for everyone if you look in enough places. And jazz then broadens the palate and lubricates the senses and opens doors to yet more music you may never have bothered with. But don’t see it as a chore, that’s just insulting. Jazz also has a mystique not afforded to other genres: a smoky, liquor damp fog of atmosphere stuffed full of characters that positively drip with Dickensian intricacy. Louis Armstrong took jazz out for a walk and Billie Holiday was the shoulder to cry on. Duke Ellington took it to dinner and Ella Fitzgerald whispered sweet nothings in the ear. Charlie Parker got it drunk and stoned and dizzy and John Coltrane showed it a window to the whole solar system, maybe even heaven, but it was Miles Davis (and you must have seen this coming) who rolled jazz over and fucked it. And, what’s more, jazz liked that.
Davis was a genius (as in a proper genius, not the pretend ones we get today) wrapped in an enigma wrapped up in a gravely, nasty, hard-as-nails motherfucker. You messed with him at your peril and he was one of those people whose exterior persona was as granite hard as his self-belief. If there was a weakness he hid it well. That he was a bit of a bastard is fairly well recognised but he wasn’t the first deeply flawed genius and I doubt he’ll be the last. I own an awful lot of his music and I’ve still not listened to it all, but what I have established is that my favourite Miles was the funky one. Just as my favourite Elvis started at the ’68 Comeback Special and got fatter from there Miles Davis really caught fire for me with ‘In A Silent Way’ and wasn’t doused until he retreated from view in 1975, when the slings and arrows of a life lived hard had left him creased and cracked and a vulnerable he doubtless didn’t want other people to see in public. When he re-appeared in the 80’s he wasn’t necessarily a different man but he had lost the soul of his music somewhere and he never found it again.
So, while ‘Kind Of Blue’ may have been big news in all sorts of ways it was with ‘In A Silent Way’ that jazz morphed into something much more exotic; lit a different kind of cigarette and wrapped a feather boa around its neck. From there Davis went all Kurtz with ‘Bitches Brew’, his slunked up, wah-wah version of Jimi Hendrix, an almost impossibly dense tropical swamp that you have to let bleed slowly into you. He would probably laugh in my face, perhaps punch it, if he were alive: a pink, ginger, middle aged honky writing a love letter to a man who spent the early 70’s being the world’s coolest human being (with the possible exception of Keith Richards), a definition of strut in bug eye sunglasses, looking like some kind of suede clad ninja pimp. ‘A Tribute To Jack Johnson’ – perhaps his finest album, and therefore one of the finest albums ever – came next, and between that and his self-imposed retirement he released various live offerings (‘Live Evil’ is stunning and from which ‘What I Say’ is the perfect soundtrack to a sweltering, hip New York heist movie, in my head anyway) and compilations of discarded or saved studio recordings which included the insidiously mind blowing ‘Go Ahead John’ and his spooky, very ambient tribute to Duke Ellington ‘He Loved Him Madly’. And in amongst that was ‘On The Corner’, the funkiest of the funky, squeezed tight, the darkest of the dark, two streets down and light years ahead; an album much criticised by the jazz snobs of the day but which time has allowed to become a beacon of almost unmeasurable influence.
And yet Miles Davis was just a human being, a remarkable one but no more flesh and blood than you and me. He gets in your guts and puts a spring in your step and you simply can’t walk through 20th century music without stepping over dozens of his contributions to it. The treasures here are just a hint, barely a wisp, on the rump of an accumulated body of work that has few or no rivals. Certainly not in jazz. The list of his achievements is gargantuan and, while I hate the word for its unnecessary ubiquity, his stamp on culture and music is unprecedented. So, do yourself a favour and try him, ‘Kind Of Blue’ is a kind of a start but it’s just a pretty door to a dark yet beautiful cellar stuffed with awe and wonder. There, love letter over. A worthwhile hour on a crappy October day. For me, if not you. Miles ahead? That doesn’t even scratch the surface.
G B Hewitt. 12.10.2019