Tuesday, August 14, 2012

This Day in Jazz History (Bird-Backed Miles Leads First Recording Session)

August 14, 1947Miles Davis, a 21-year-old Julliard School dropout who had achieved a steady reputation as a trumpeter in the trendy bebop scene, gave signs of his future greatness as bandleader by helming his first recording session, with mentor Charlie Parker taking a subordinate role on tenor sax.

On that groundbreaking session, Davis played with, besides Parker, John Lewis on piano and Max Roach on drums. Two Davis compositions were recorded: “Half Nelson” and “Milestones.”  

(The latter, according to critic Gary Giddens’ account in Visions of Jazz: The First Century, contained “so many harmonic bottlenecks that Parker insisted he’d play just the bridge because the tune was too hard for a country boy like him.”)

In the clubs dotting New York’s 52nd Street the last couple of years, shifts in jazz were occurring with unusual rapidity, overwhelmingly centered around Parker. Musicians were in awe of “Bird,” but his drug addiction was also causing fissures in the community. 

Friend Dizzy Gillespie, despairing over Bird’s substance abuse, left the band.  Gillespie’s replacement, Davis, learned what he could from Diz while the latter was still around, but, realizing he could never match the older musician’s power, strove for his own, more personal, more lyrical tone.  

In all of this, Davis was encouraged by Parker, who, when the shy young man from St. Louis first came to New York, urged him to get up and play: “Go ahead. Don’t be afraid.”

Davis had tried imitating Parker’s sound at first, but, finding it impossible, determined to “play under him, and let him lead the note, swing the note.” 

A series of gigs followed, including an especially crucial one with the group Parker formed in April 1947, featuring Davis; Duke Jordan, piano; Tommy Porter, bass; and Max Roach, drums.

Just how much influence Parker exerted on Davis’ life is a matter of some debate still. There is no doubt that, as Davis’ idol when he came to New York—and first significant boss—he played a big part. 

But critic Dan Morgenstern, in a 1980 retrospective on Davis included in his anthology, Living With Jazz, suggested that Parker might have paid the rent for his young musician and roommate.

This seems unlikely. Davis’ autobiography, Miles, is filled with admiration for Parker as a creative force, but an almost scatological disgust for his antics when in the grip of drugs:

“He wanted everything. And when he was desperate for a fix of heroin, man, Bird would do anything to get it. He would con me and as soon as he left me, he would run around the corner to somebody else with the same sad story about how he needed money to get his horn out of the pawnshop, and hit them up for some more. He never paid anyone back, so in that way Bird was a [expletive] drag to be around.” 

That account would seem to lay to rest any notion that Parker could help others monetarily at a point when he could hardly help himself. 

In another sense, though, Davis didn’t recognize the exquisite irony that he could be just as much high-maintenance—perhaps even more so—than Parker. His interactions with his sidemen were more than a little similar to Bird’s.

His band members, like Parker’s, depended more than a little on his health. He had a heroin addiction of his own so harrowing that he needed to leave New York for his father’s farm in Illinois to break it cold turkey. 

In the 1960s, he discovered he suffered from sickle-cell anemia; in the mid-1970s, continuing health problems (including an addiction to cocaine this time) led him to withdraw from music.

If Parker’s personality could be bizarre at times, Davis’ was extraordinarily complex. His irascibility and general willingness to irk people at times just for the hell of it inspired the nickname “Prince of Darkness.”

Yet, like Bird again, his skill as a musician was such that band members were willing to tolerate the sullenness—if they could get past points of enforced inactivity because of his health. (Not everyone could do this.) 

Those who did stay the course with Miles testified to his willingness to give them creative freedom—and, surprisingly, for those who only knew that low voice growling expletives at every turn, he could be sensitive and kind, inviting them to his house, where he would cook dinner and discuss music.

Those sidemen included many, if not most, of the nonpareil jazzmen of the last half century, including Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter, to name just a few.

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