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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 152

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This is the grave of Miles Davis.

For my money, Miles Davis is the greatest jazz musician of all time. This is hardly a novel assertion. I say this not because of his skill as a trumpter or because of his fame, but because he was so critical in pushing the music forward by leaps and bounds over his life. From the moment he started recording until his temporary retirement in the mid-1970s, no single individual went on a longer and more varied musical journey. The cool jazz of the 1950s gave way to his amazing 60s quintet of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Then that gave way to his utterly wonderful and pathbreaking electric albums that some jazz critics decried but which mesmerized the rock audiences lucky enough to see him play live. With the exception of On the Corner, which I don’t think works very well but it certainly interesting, each of these albums was brilliant, both live and studio. His personal life was a complete disaster, but I don’t see much reason to revisit that here. The music of his comeback was also pretty grim by and large, although the 1980s weren’t good for most older musicians, regardless of genre. Perhaps some of those albums would hold up better if I listened to them again, but at the very least, they no longer set the tone of jazz. That in no way makes his career pale compared to any other musician in American history.

I would mark In a Silent Way, and Tribute to Jack Johnson as my favorite Miles albums, with Sorcerer, Sketches of Spain, and Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet behind that. The live recordings that range from Live Evil and Dark Magus from his electric era to the brilliant collection Live from Europe 1967 that was released a few years ago are all pretty great. I know that people love Kind of Blue, but I find it kind of boring. Call me a heathen if you like. The sheer number of amazing artists that got their start or a major early career boost from playing with Miles is astounding, ranging from John Coltrane to John McLaughlin. There’s really so much else to say, including his early work as a sideman with the leading artists of the day to his politics and his heroin addiction. But I will leave it at that and we can talk about the greatness of his work, rank his albums, or discuss which of his various periods was the best. I will close by saying that the key to Miles was not his technique or his compositions per se but rather the way his mind continued exploring new frontiers that included both borrowing the rock music of the 1960s and deeply imbibing Karl-Heinz Stockhausen as the 70s approached.

Miles Davis died in 1991 at the age of 65, generally from treating his body like garbage for most of his life. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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