March 7, 2006

Not just a jazz man, Davis deserves his spot in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Miles Davis may embody jazz, but to limit him to jazz would be overlooking more than two decades of musical evolution. Apparently someone has acknowledged his impact beyond jazz, because Davis will be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 13 at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Although artists like Black Sabbath and Blondie will also be inducted at the ceremony, it’s Davis—even in death—who has captured the audience’s intrigue.

How did a jazz musician who dropped out of Julliard to play with Charlie Parker become a rock ’n’ roll icon? After creating modal jazz with 1959’s timeless Kind of Blue, his reinvention was far from over. The seeds of rock were first planted in the forming of his second great quintet. Davis was the elder jazz statesman of a group comprised of much younger musicians (Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and the master on trumpet).

This band of equals was formed with a defined musical lineage dating back to the first great Miles Davis quintet (John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums). The last two studio recordings of the second great quintet, Miles In the Sky and Filles De Kilimanjaro, hinted at the electric revolution to come.

The revolution came with Bitches Brew. This 1970 recording was a major dividing force in contemporary music. Many jazz purists saw its departure as electric blasphemy, but the impact of this album went far beyond the controversy it started. Davis was joined by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland (just to name a few). This album went on to produce three seminal fusion supergroups of the 1970s. McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea formed Return to Forever and Shorter, and Zawinul moved on to explore musical frontiers in Weather Report. All three of these bands directly owe their genesis to Miles Davis’s trek across the rocky terrain of popular music. Just as Kind of Blue was not standard jazz, so Bitches Brew was not standard rock. It was simply creative genius on full display.

Releases like Live-Evil dove further into exotic musical depths. Now, I prefer the Miles Davis of the ’50s and ’60s, but even my jazz purism does not allow me to deny the impact the man had on rock music. Songs like “You’re Under Arrest” and “Star People” were light years away from the days of “Flamenco Sketches” and “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” But the one thing that remained constant was Davis’s trumpet, which never wavered. The acoustic reality of the first quintet was now just a memory in the progression of an artist.

While the experimentation and improvisation of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman may have given the public avant-garde jazz, it was still jazz. What Miles created with his electric pianos and distorted sounds was a new genre all together: fusion. It fused rock and jazz and incorporated elements of funk and rhythm and blues.

Today, genre bending is nothing new; many bands that we consider “rock” use elements of jazz in this mold. Davis’s legacy is firm in all music. By stretching the limits of his own genre, he encouraged the creativity of all musicians. Any artist who refuses to be bound by the conventions of a single genre owes something to Miles Davis.

Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in no way the greatest achievement of this eminent trumpeter. But, it shows that whichever musician wishes to emulate him has a tough act to follow. With Davis, there was no predicting or following—just listening and appreciating. When his name is called at the Waldorf, another chapter will be opened. Nearly 15 years after his death, it seems his journey is far from over.