Saturday, August 16, 2014

How Miles Davis Fused Rock and Roll with Jazz: A Musical Analysis

By Austin Kimble

Author's note:  The life and music of Miles Davis, a jazz trumpet master, have been two of the biggest influences in my own life and career as a jazz pianist.  Listening to hundreds of hours of the music of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, and Woody Shaw, along with formal music education, is how I originally learned to play jazz music -- as a trumpeter
     I began learning to play jazz on the trumpet in the 7th grade in a junior high school jazz band and started jazz trumpet lessons in the 10th grade.  I first attempted to transfer my jazz chops over to the piano in the 12th grade prior to starting my "jazz piano performance" studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005.
     STEP ONE for becoming a successful jazz pianist was, for me, starting piano lessons and daily practice at age six (21+ years ago!), and STEP TWO was getting turned on to Miles Davis in junior-high school.
Photograph of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette (1969)

“If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats,” was the alternate title Charles Mingus gave to his jazz tune “Gunslinging Bird.” What Mingus’ words seek to convey is that if a jazz legend such as Charlie Parker flatted a ninth or played a melodic line through a chromatically descending harmonic sequence on a gig one night, the next day musicians all around town would be copying and practicing what they had heard the night before as an addition to the current improvisational language of jazz. In this way, dominant musicians have changed the course of jazz history. Miles Davis was one of these dominant musicians, having shaped the development of jazz for decades. While this paper focuses on Davis’ development of jazz fusion, Miles Davis was also a pioneer of three additional subgenres of jazz: cool jazz, hard bop, and modal jazz. He recorded and performed music in the cool jazz style from 1949-1953, beginning with his nonet recording, Birth of the Cool; in the hard bop style from 1954-1959, starting with his sextet album, Dig; and in the Modal style from 1959-1968, with a sextet of different personnel on Davis’ 1959 album Kind Of Blue. From Miles’ hard bop years forward, the individual subgenres of jazz proliferated, at times showing definite traces of the music that came before them. Finally, with the release of the album Bitches’ Brew in 1969, which sold over 500,000 copies, Miles Davis concretely defined the subgenre of music called jazz fusion. Through critical listening, musicians, musicologists, and the general public can see that Miles Davis invented jazz fusion through gradual means – taking small evolutionary steps from recording to recording rather than through a single miracle of creativity.

     In order to contextualize the innovations of Bitches’ Brew with the music that existed before it, analysis must start with the earliest recognizable sign of Miles Davis having borrowed musical concepts from rock and roll for use in his own music. The first track recorded by Miles Davis that clearly borrowed from rock and roll comes from his 1965 album E.S.P. The track, titled “Eighty-One,” is based on the twelve-bar blues form, and the personnel on the entire album include Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums – a combo known as “The Second Great Quintet” to jazz historians. On this track, Ron Carter plays a “rock bass line” under the blues form. The ostinato repeats every two bars during the first eight bars of the form, transposing up a perfect fourth for the fifth and sixth measures to retain the form of the blues. In essence, this bass line serves as a pedal point over the first four bars. The last four bars are based on the bass line and serve as a “turn-around” back to the beginning of the form. The reason why this can be called a “rock-like” bassline is because Ron Carter basically sticks to the three notes, scale degrees 5, b7, and 1, throughout the tune; these three scale degrees are common aspects of many rock and roll tunes and of many traditional blues recordings (especially those in the Louisiana boogaloo style.) In addition to the mere inclusion of a rock bass line, the rhythm section on “Eighty-One” exhibits a non-static groove – changing back and forth between the rock feel with the aforementioned bass line to a swing feel with a walking bass every few choruses – that foreshadows the mixing of jazz and rock rhythmic concepts that were perfected during the Bitches Brew recording sessions. The album E.S.P. contained only the first signs of jazz fusion, but it influenced the music that Miles Davis’s bands would play from that point on into the future.

     Although “Eighty-One” was, at its time, the first obvious sign of rock elements being fused into the jazz idiom, the use of static, modal, pedal point-based harmonies, a foundation of rock, is apparent as early as April, 1958 on the LP Milestones. The author Eric Nisenson notes the use of piano vamps, similar to those heard on rock and roll recordings, and drummer Philly Joe Jones’ “steady, repetitive rhythmic figures” that “would become a model for the jazz-rock that was to become so predominant” within the tune “Milestones” (Nisenson 149). This new type of rhythmic intensity, which would eventually become part of the basis for fusion, truly started taking shape with Davis’ introduction of drummer Tony Williams to the band on Seven Steps to Heaven (1963), an event which formed the aforementioned “Second Great Quintet.” The rhythmic “grooves” that Williams and bassist Ron Carter create in pieces such as Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” on Miles Smiles (1966), are the next step in Miles Davis’ development toward jazz fusion. The writer and musical director Greg Tate, whose writings on art, music, and culture have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Premiere, Downbeat, Artforum, and the Village Voice, commented on how the roles of Miles Davis’ band members had successfully diverged from the traditional roles within mainstream jazz.
          On Miles Smiles Ron Carter and Tony Williams so radically
          transform - indeed, so radically subvert - the role of bass and
          drums in improvised music as to make the solo skeins of Miles,
          Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock come off like a tight wire
          act run through a rain forest… (Tate 16-17).

This particular rhythmic element signaled the beginning of Davis’ experimentation with loose and undefined solo structures, exemplified in “Nefertiti” (Nefertiti, 1967) and “Circle in the Round” (Circle in the Round, 1968). Miles Davis began using electric instruments on Water Babies, recorded in 1967-1968 (but not publically released until 1976), a step that can be called Davis’ last innovation before recording In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. While the first three tracks on this record have the same personnel as E.S.P., the final two tracks on the five track album feature a band with Dave Holland on electric bass replacing Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock on electric piano instead of acoustic piano, and the addition of Chick Corea on electric piano as well. Miles Davis’ incorporation of electric instruments was fully realized with the addition of George Benson on guitar on the album Miles in the Sky (1968). The last album that Miles Davis recorded before In a Silent Waywas Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), which has the same personnel, minus George Benson. This album draws from the music that came before it, namely since E.S.P., but true jazz fusion was not yet audible from Miles Davis’s music – not until the release of In a Silent Way, which was followed immediately by the release of Bitches Brew.

     On the album In a Silent Way, Tony Williams and Dave Holland play roles that obviously fuse rock traditions with jazz. On the two preliminary tracks of the recording session, “Shhh / Peaceful” and a medley of “In a Silent Way” and “It’s About That Time,” Holland plays repetitive rock-influenced rhythms on the drums, such as repetitive straight eighth notes and sixteenth notes, while Dave Holland plays ostinato bass patterns, such as repeating V – I over and over again during the single-key solo vamps of “Shhh / Peaceful” and alternating between a one-measure I – vii – I ostinato and a two-measure I – III – VI – V – bIII ostinato on the medley tune. Similarly to the rock tradition of using multiple guitars (outside of one lead and one bass guitar) or synthesizers as part of the band, such as in bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Who during the late 1960s, there are four chord-playing instruments on this recording: Joe Zawinul on organ, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock both exclusively on electric pianos, and John McLaughlin on guitar. Miles Davis’s trumpet sound is amplified and processed using studio echo and reverb, while Wayne Shorter plays only soprano saxophone. The album contains three tunes, two tunes composed by Davis and the tune “In a Silent Way” composed by Joe Zawinul. According to Miles himself, Joe brought his chart (melody and chords) to the studio, and then Miles changed what he had written. When they recorded, Miles “threw out the chord sheets and told everyone to play just the melody, just to play off that.” Miles said, “I wanted to make the sound more like rock” (Davis 296). The musicians that he had selected to play on this record and on Bitches Brew are the reason the music sounds like it does. Miles Davis, at least on the tune “In a Silent Way,” only takes credit as having arranged the piece. But this way of thinking led to the definitive jazz fusion recording. While the In a Silent Way ensemble is large in comparison to anything Miles did since Birth of the Cool, the sonic possibilities provided by the In a Silent Way ensemble was not enough for him.

     The studio double-LP Bitches Brew included trumpet, electric guitar, electric and acoustic bass, three electric keyboards, two reeds, two drummers and one percussionist. This double album opened space for works like Joe Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance” (20:07) and “Bitches Brew” (27:00) to create expansive “grooves” for soloists, based on vamps and simple figures in the rhythm section, and various pre-composed segments, all of which utilized the current studio technology to heighten the surreal atmosphere. This expansion of the improvisational dimensions paralleled that of the physical size of the ensemble as there were infinite possibilities of developing the pieces within themselves. The Bitches Brew sessions took three days to complete, and over four hours of the sessions have been released in the form of nineteen individual tracks over four discs. The complete personnel for these first real “fusion sessions” included Miles Davis on trumpet and vocals; Don Alias on percussion, conga, and drums; Khalil Balakrishna on sitar; Harvey Brooks on bass and electric bass; Ron Carter on bass; Billy Cobham on drums and triangle; Chick Corea on electric piano; Jack DeJohnette on drums; Steve Grossman on soprano saxophone; Herbie Hancock on electric piano; Dave Holland on bass and electric bass; Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet; John McLaughlin on guitar, Airto Moreira on Berimbau, Cuíca, and percussion; Bihari Sharma on tabla and tamboura; Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone; Jim Riley on conga and shaker; Lenny White on drums; Larry Young on organ, Celeste, and electric piano; and Joe Zawinul on electric piano. Long recording sessions, the enlarged electrified jazz-rock ensemble, and the “static-rooted but harmonically kaleidoscopic tonal field” (Sanford 30) are the basis of Davis’ 1969-75 fusion period. His musical development and innovations through these six years can be heard sequentially based on his recordings during this time; each successive performance includes more rock sounds than the recording sessions that came before it.

     In conclusion, Miles Davis invented jazz fusion over a span of several years instead of in one spurt of creativity, culminating with the definitive release of Bitches Brew in 1969. His music evolved from one recording to the next in a gradual fashion towards more incorporation of rock and roll elements. Jazz, an American musical form, has always borrowed from numerous outside sources to develop and change as time has progressed. As a result of this borrowing, individual jazz pieces have expanded both the definitions of what we perceive as “jazz” and of what we perceive as a genre in general. This borrowing also shows that jazz is an art form with a life that is shaped gradually by the genius of dominant musicians such as Miles Davis.


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Austin Kimble is a professional jazz pianist, music director, educator, and composer based in Austin, Texas.

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Email Austin Kimble at or Tweet @JazzAustin

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