The power of an artist’s influence:
A look into the life and work of Miles Davis
Music is often a way to trace the changes in culture and society overall. America experienced a period of turmoil and change during the 1960s. Powerful people were emerging from the African American communities to bolster the argument for equal rights by giving voice to the people. Miles Davis demonstrated the will of the people through his music. The transitions in musical style of jazz artist Miles Davis in combination with his own personal experiences are a reflection of movements within the civil rights period. By defying expectations of the jazz genre, Davis fought against oppression by creating music for the community. However it was only after he became aware of his influence that Miles Davis truly became an iconic symbol of power and strength within the African American community.
Davis was an innovator; he was a man who changed the course of jazz in part because of his childhood experience of oppression and prejudice. But not only did Davis stand as a model for future musicians, he allowed audiences to glimpse into the world of an oppressed American through his music. Davis’ music and personality were both highly influenced by several events during his youth. He was born in 1926 in Alton, Illinois. He received his first trumpet from his uncle and took his early lessons from friends of his father. Not only did his father influence his rise into the musical world, but also his later role as an activist of the black power movement. Davis described his father as “pro-black, very pro-black.” His father was actively involved in politics in the community, and Miles claimed, “… some of [my father’s] importance was carried over to his kids…they expected us to make something important of ourselves. I guess this kind of special treatment helped us have a positive attitude about ourselves” (Davis and Troupe 23-24). Although privileged and respected among the black community, Davis’ young life was not without violence and hatred. After moving to a wealthy “white” neighborhood during his youth, Davis recalled being chased down the street by a white man with a shotgun, who called after him in derogatory terms. His father once said of the incident, “I don’t think Miles, a sensitive boy, ever forgot it or our troubles” (Chambers 7). In his autobiography, Miles, Davis also remembers competing in many high school musical competitions, but losing to his white peers. “It made me so mad… I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on the horn.” This was truly a defining period in Miles Davis’ career because “if I hadn’t met that prejudice I probably wouldn’t have had as much drive in my work” (Davis and Troupe 12).
Before the civil rights movement, Miles Davis played in his race expected genre of jazz. Davis’ original approach to music was not symbolic; instead it showcased his years of tutelage and overall artistic talent. This style of jazz was more classic to the time, and showed off the artist’s range while entertaining audiences. His earliest years were spent under the watchful eye of Dizzy Gillespie, who influenced Davis’ bebop style. Some of his earliest bebop can be heard in a recording of Herbie Field’s group. The music itself is upbeat and cheerful, a classic example of the time. His later transition from bebop to modal jazz can be heard in the album Milestones (1958). This shift into “cool jazz” or “modal jazz” would foreshadow his blues and funk recordings (Chambers 26-29).
One crucial incident Davis described would lead to the greatest change in his overall musical style and personality, by making him realize he could use his musical influence on a political scale. In what would be later named the ‘Birdland incident’, Davis described being beaten by a white police officer after escorting a young white women into a taxi. Author Ingrid Monson describes, “the struggle was so noisy that members of the Hodges-Robbins Orchestra who were rehearsing across the street… captured New York City’s finest calling Miles Davis the n-word” (Davis and Troupe 316-317; Monson 187). The judge later dropped the case, leaving Davis with an interminable sense of cynicism. A dear friend of Davis once commentated on the Birdland incident and Davis’ reaction to the outcome. “He feels that he was attacked because he is a black man and that he was denied justice because he is a black man” (Chambers 316). This incident sent a shock rippling through the musical world. Davis would later learn the impact he had after meeting Hugh Masekela, a South African trumpet player. “He told me that I had been a hero of his and other blacks in South Africa when I stood up to that policeman outside of Birdland that time and I remember being surprised that they even knew about that kind of thing over there in Africa” (Davis and Troupe 287). It was at this point that Davis realized the extent of his political influence and musical voice.
It would be a combination of his early sense of privilege and these incidents of discrimination that would drive Davis into funk, which defied all traditional rules of music by representing defiance of the black community to race expected roles. After a while, enough was enough for Miles Davis. “After playing a lot of white halls I was starting to wonder why I shouldn’t be trying to get young black kids into my music. They were into funk, music they could dance to” (Davis and Troupe 320). Much like Bob Marley and the Wailers, in the 1960s Davis started to play for the audiences he could relate to and inspire. “I was getting interested in seeing black sound develop and that’s where my head was moving toward, more rhythmic stuff, more funk rather than white rock” (Davis and Troupe 321). Davis was on a quest to bring music that he could relate to and that could bring power and truth to the African American community.
It was during this period in Davis’ life that jazz started to stand less for the racially expected genre of African American musicians and more as a symbol for power and strength. The world was changing forever with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Junior and Robert Kennedy and the rise of the Black-Power movement. During this turmoil, the black community needed someone who could voice their opinions and play for the community. Miles Davis soon filled this role. Like the fight for civil rights, jazz music itself was turning very much into a resistance with Davis at its heart. “In a similar way the defiance and resistance of jazz musicians has often been confused with romanticized politics of style that views music’s relationship to the civil rights struggle as mostly symbolic. Here the defiant attitude of musicians…has been viewed as the heart and soul of the relationship between music and politics” (Monson 56-57). Miles Davis and other jazz musicians were reflections of the civil rights revolution through art.
Critics and older fans of jazz did not immediately understand Davis’ transition from classic to funk, because he deified the traditional ideas of music. However, Davis’ target audiences, oppressed African American, were quick to relate to the new rebellious style. Soul musician Mtume commented on Davis’ innovative style, “when we recorded In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall, that was the first time I realized the divide that Miles was creating. When we finished that night, all the audiences could do was stare. Young people were in awe because they were introduced to a new music that had never been heard before. The old jazz fans were actually angry…” (Davis 25). Miles Davis’ new musical approach helped demonstrate the real world changes by showing the divide between the old world (filled with hatred for the new musical style) and a new, accepting audience. One of the best examples of Davis style and influence can be heard on the 1970s album Bitches Brew. The African influences and “back to the roots” style is heard throughout the album, as beats and drums are stressed alongside Davis’ trumpet playing. Listeners can also hear the influences of some of Davis’ closest friends at the time, such a Jimi Hendrix style electric guitar and the strong electronic funk beats of James Brown.
Always on the quest for a new sound, Miles Davis influenced the course of bebop, modal jazz and funk forever. Although often described as having a strong personality, it was a combination of childhood experiences of oppression and realization of his political influence that would take Davis to the top of the musical spectrum. Not only did his music influence the later musical style of artists like Prince, Mos Def and Santanna, but he also stood as a symbol for the black power movement. His transition from artistically pleasing standards on Milestones (1958) to the funk rhythms of Bitches Brew (1970) help show the power of an artist’s influence and the lasting changes brought about from the work and life of Miles Davis.
Chambers, J. K. Milestones. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1983. Print.
Chambers, Jack. Milestones 2: the Music and times of Miles Davis since 1960. New York: Beech Tree, 1985. Print.
Davis, Miles, and Quincy Troupe. Miles, the Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Print.
Davis, Miles. The Complete on the Corner Sessions. Sony BMG Music, 2007. CD.
Monson, Ingrid. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.