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ART of the HIPSTER: Miles Davis


§§ In the 1985 Miami Vice episode "Junk Love" Miles Davis plays the aging pimp Ivory Keys. There is deliberate irony in this casting, for, as Davis says in his autobiography, "I started to get money from whores to feed and support my habit. I started to pimp them, even before I realized this was what I was doing." (p.136)

This was his New York 1950 "Birth of the Cool" period, when he became a serious junkie, master of the melancholy modernist blues. Hip? His modality was so hip he was a Dorian blur in the shadows of Harlem and 52nd Street, the jazz clubs, the flop hotels, grooving the dreamers and the schemers. The Vice episode isn't exactly great drama, although -- like the whole series -- it simplifies the idea of cool to a visual fantasy. Dialogue is minimal, epigrammatic at best, just something to pace the music. Essentially MD's part is two or three scenes more than a walk-in... a few growling lines in a sultanic costume. The baggy pants and the satin shawl jacket are a long way from the slim zoot suits of his New York bop days -- well, the jumped shoulders remain, but here they sag as the hipster becomes androgynous in the rock n roll gestalt. "Stay loose" is now more than a figure of speech. The hipster shape-shifts to camouflage. He is Sky Man.

Miles Davis: Miami Vice

Ivory Keys dies off-stage, his Nigerian necklace a death trophy for Mr. Big, a dwarfed Latino hood called Silva, who is a killer drug dealer with a bad case of Oedipus Rex. But in real life, Davis ended up in Malibu, a hermit painter in an enclave of Hollywood stars, and his drug was no longer smack or coke, but the less than glamorous AZT. Whether his early hipster pimp career took him down or he wrecked his lungs blowing horn (pneumonia & a failed respiratory system took out a few of his fellow jazz horse traders, including Bird and Hawk), time caught up to him. He was 65 -- a decent age for his generation -- and had accomplished more than most, considering the ladder he had to climb. The black hipster's story isn't always a success story but his is. More than anyone, he took jazz from cultural novelization into the core of modern art.

Miles Davis' verbal expression is deeply ethnic, a black underclass jive speak full of scorn and self-congratulation, fatalism and wounded pride. Just read his 1989 autobiography (brilliantly ciphered by Quincy Troupe), see if you can survive. He tries to be fair, and he is mostly fair, although the wound of the ghost slave runs deep. His flowing obscenities and double-negatives obey a counter-rhythm and a counter-logic that uses insult as praise. Nigger and motherfucker predominate. It's blues talk, a defiant parallel language born outside of church and state, a black hipster's cynical blunt-force humour. Obscenity as chant therapy is by no means just a black American thing -- manual workers the world over massage their physical pain with rhythmic swearing, and anyone who has used a hammer knows it. This sado-masochism is convulsive, like the squeal and moan of heavy machinery doing its grind. Rage is the first note in the jazzer's scale of being. He blows or he dies.

So for a musician like MD, this way of talking is an exhalation, just like playing his horn. It's a shitting through the mouth, a modulation of a bodily function. Interestingly, Miles Davis cites his main musical influences as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker (Bird), Theolonius Monk and -- believe it or not -- Orson Welles.

Welles? For voicing, as MD saw the trumpet (or the sax, trombone, bassoon, whatever) as a modulation of the human voice. Tone, phrasing, pitch, intonation -- all these things could be learned from a master of the spoken word. And in the Radio Age Orson Welles was a master of the spoken word. He was Othello, he was Citizen Kane, he was The Shadow, he was the "bad motherfucker" who duped millions of Americans into thinking they'd been invaded by the Martians. He had tone, he had measure, he had the power to persuade, unlock the dreams of the sleeping listener. You can imagine MD driving between the great cities of the eastern seaboard in the Blue Demon -- his 1948 Dodge -- listening to Welles and the Mercury Players sandwiched between jazz casts and another fix before the gig. Or driving through Harlem or along 52nd Street or checking out Greenwich Village, slow cruisin' and schmoozin'. The traffic babble of the city, half-human, half-machine in the concrete jungle is the modal shell of consciousness. As MD says, and says often, he was a middle-register man, floated above the rumble, soared below the scream.

His trumpet speaks another language, one of melancholy, grace and beauty. There is no obscenity in the scale, no politics. He reaches into space, becomes free, so when he returns to life, it's a disappointment. Hangovers and manic-depression mark the boundaries, define the territory. He inhabits a night world, a spirit world. You don't dance to Miles Davis. You leave your body at the door and hope that it's there when you return. Despite his frequent barbs about dead white European music, the genre of bebop improvisation is jazz classical... and so is the MD post-modern "cool" style. It's all head, extra-sensory and personal. You lock minds, not bodies. It's theatre without the audience.

And so it came to pass that The Birth of the Cool (recorded 1949-50, released 1955) became the hipster's score to survival. The machine cities of America had been running hot for the war and bebop was war. It was fast, as nobody had time to be slow. Bebop was a blizzard of notes, like a creeping barrage of massed artillery, but now it was shutting down, would soon be an echo. MD didn't like the high-register -- it might be o.k. for Dizzy and Bird, but it wasn't for him. He was going to cool things down. It would be heroin, pussy and space.

So MD was the classic "bad motherfucker" voodoo male, where "bad" is either hip code for "good" or just plain chauvinist nasty, depending on your point-of-view. Anyone who reads his autobio will know that he was not at heart a mean person, although he could be mean, was mean, as survival in the racist streets of America required the evil-eye look, the "don't mess with St. Louis" look. Yes, he idolized Sugar Ray, took boxing lessons, did some karate dance, but it was an off-stage pose. Or it was heroin therapy, dressed cold turkey. His cool cat of the street persona was at odds with his notion of self, as he was bourgeois when it suited him. His old man was a St. Louis dentist, had dough, and Miles was -- for the times -- privileged. The gutter or the madhouse might claim others like Bud Powell or Monk, but MD could always go home to the farm.

His machismo was a vulgar attitude rather than a physical fact. He was of average height, skinny-assed, with a bad hip and elegant hands that couldn't be damaged or else. The only fight ring he performed in was a bitch's bed, although he did visit the gym. His power was all voodoo, spells and magic sounds. In 1969 when he was sitting in his parked Ferrari in Brooklyn with a girl and someone pulled up and fired a few rounds through door, he didn't go on a revenge quest, and if you believe him, he says he had no idea who was after him, although he was told it was some black promoters who didn't like the fact they weren't getting any of his action. "Sometimes life is a bitch," he said, let it go at that.

Miles Davis autobiography

Davis as Black Orpheus

the smell of France

In 1950 he goes to France, immediately hangs out with Jean Paul Sartre and Picasso, French artists who love jazz, recognize the expression (after all, France was an African colonizer). His romance with the chanteuse Juliette Greco is pivotal, mythical like Black Orpheus but without the death. Imagine it -- it's a ballet on the walkways of the Seine. Script by Cocteau, music by Davis.

"We had to communicate with each other through expressions and body language," says MD speaking of Juliette. The way he describes it, Juliette drops by the club when the band is rehearsing, and he doesn't know who she is, except that she looks good. He crooks his finger -- she comes. Most of the time she's a faux lesbian ("I don't like men but I like you"), but for Black Orpheus, she's all woman, a creature unlike anything he's experienced previously. When she speaks, she's masculine; when she sings, she's feminine. Quite possibly she isn't real, a bohemian fantasy, a character in a novel. And neither is he real, the American jazzman, a piece of skinny black nicotine in a funeral suit, a line sketch by Picasso or Cocteau, a transient spirit for the existentialist. Be hip or be mortal.

Miles Davis & Juliette Greco

Juliette Greco recalls it like this: "And there I caught a glimpse of Miles, in profile: a real Giacometti, with a face of great beauty. I'm not even talking about the genius of the man: you didn't have to be a scholar or a specialist in jazz to be struck by him. There was such an unusual harmony between the man, the instrument and the sound - it was pretty shattering."

"I had been hypnotized, was in some kind of trance," says MD, reflecting on this period. "What I remember is the smell of France." Coffee, wine, Gitanes and women. The context is non-racist -- at least insofar as the Left Bank art scene is concerned -- although it would be naive to think that racism didn't exist in France outside the art ghetto.

The trance is personified by Juliette Greco -- she played Aglaonike the sorceress in Jean Cocteau's Orphee (1950), a surrealist refit of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend. In a perverse way, they acted it out, Miles and Juliette. Years later, when she followed him into the underworld of America, booked into a suite at the Waldord-Astoria, he was cold to her, brutal... and like an uncultured pimp, demanded money. By his own admission, he was an asshole in love, couldn't handle the racial politics, the dope, the lack of control. As American liberals say, it was a cringe-worthy situation, especially for anyone reading about it now. Juliette's view was -- is -- aesthetic: "Years later at the Waldorf in New York, where I had a very nice suite, I invited Miles to dinner. The face of the maitre d'hotel when he came in was indescribable. After two hours, the food was more or less thrown in our faces. The meal was long and painful, and then he left.

"At four o'clock in the morning I got a call from Miles, who was in tears. "I couldn't come by myself," he said. "I don't ever want to see you again here, in a country where this kind of relationship is impossible." I suddenly understood that I'd made a terrible mistake, from which came a strange feeling of humiliation that I'll never forget. In America his colour was made blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris I didn't even notice that he was black." [from the 2006 interview by Philippe Carles]

Today, super heroes in the comics wear exoskeletons, cyborg suits that make them invulnerable. The "pimp" persona was MD's exoskeleton, a defense mechanism in a rotten world where a black man could be standing under his own banner marquee outside Birdland and get beaten up by a white cop, or -- for the cynical -- it was nothing of the sort, was simply an attitude of jazz cool that plays well with the brothers. Sexism to the feminists, reality to the hipster noir.

Artists of all ethnicity are notorious for their fragile narcissism, for using art as a license to kill, and there is a certain greedy self-interest in MD's view of things that goes beyond fair play for the black artist. He's no worse than Picasso, maybe, yet sometimes he bitches too much. He criticizes Ornette Coleman for playing "free form" trumpet (occasionally) without having had any training on the instrument, yet later in life it's perfectly o.k. for him to take up painting without any formal training. He doesn't like the action white jazzers like Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker get, yet it's o.k. for him to use white musicians when history threatens to pass him by. The Julliard School of Music was too white, too European, yet when the time comes, Ravel and Rachmaninoff are cool. He likes Kim Novak type blondes, yet white women have no fine ass, don't cut it. Alright, he's discriminating, not contradictory. Malcolm X liked white chicks and zoot suits too.

Kind of Blue

§§ Space. The big signature of MD's "cool" style is his use of space, narrative minimalism, ghosting. This style -- the antithesis of bebop speed -- is usually medium or slow tempo, and requires the piano to stay low, or even desist when the trumpet (or any lead) is playing, let the drums and bass "stroll". "Strolling" is the essence of the Davis hipster groove. Strolling and space. It's like Steve McQueen or the Buddha -- it's not what he says, it's what you imagine he's thinking. Interestingly, MD arrives at this spatialization aesthetic right in step with the move from monaural to stereophonic recording. In 1959 the seminal Kind of Blue album was released in both mono and stereo versions.

Shortly after its release, Davis appears with his main men (sans Cannonball Adderly, who was sick) on a Studio 61 TV cast called the Robert Herridge Theatre [check out Miles playing So What]. Although MD didn't think much of the white corporate packaging, it is nevertheless a slick piece of work with a superb presentation. The camera point-of-view brings us onto the stage with the players, like privileged guests allowed to hang in the wings. The host, Robert Herridge, introduces the set as "a studio for a story told in jazz" as the Davis group plays some mood bars in the background. Herridge -- veiled in smoke from a concealed cigarette -- looks like he's hungover, has just pulled these guys in from Minton's. The camera swings away, closes on Davis dressed in an Italian chop suit, playing the riff to "So What" and from there on it's pure onomatopoeia. Lay the syllables on the beat. As the bass kicks into swing time, MD's trumpet scats "Bye... Be Bop", flows into his first solo, proclaims the future, buries the past. He's hot, although his expression is cool. When he finishes, he moves to one side (stage right) (the viewer's left), has a cigarette as Coltrane steps forward, testifies in a blaze of poetry and bullets. MD listens, watches, his passive horn pointing at the floor. A couple of idle trombone players stand with him, move gently to the groove, smile, smoke. Then, because Cannonball is missing, MD resumes the mic, takes another power solo. Wynton Kelly follows on piano. He takes us south, goes tropical. Miles comes in below and he and Trane comp the So What traffic signature. After a short bass solo, the Gil Evans orchestra joins in, fattens the chord, fuels the ending.

Because So What swings, you can dance to it, which is one important reason for its popularity. The modal architecture allows the improvisational expression to move away from Broadway Show tunes, swing in broader cultural sweeps, follow scales, not chords. It's a move away from orchestral expression into solo expression. The old way was communal, militaristic even -- here, the Miles Davis way is personal, allowing the soloists to go deep.

But for the most part, bebop jazz or cool jazz, you couldn't dance to it, and this is the reason jazz went out of fashion in the sixties. MD doesn't see it that way, suggests that a conspiracy of the white critics -- scared by the lyricism and beauty of Kind of Blue -- pushed "Free Jazz" (i.e. Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp... even Coltrane at the end) which screwed jazz and lyric players like Miles Davis, so the public "turned to rock". His contempt for "white hillbilly music" (probably thinking of Elvis here) is an understandable intolerance due to the early politics of the situation, the ripoff of black blues artists and control of the recording industry. But by the end of the decade when he moves into fusion (or creates it as some think) it's not just a musical blend, it's also a racial blend. Moral: if you go modal, you go miscegenational.

He goes Spanish, investigates the flamenco mode. You can hear Sketches of Spain coming long before 1960 -- you hear it in Blue, you hear it in Stones. Dissed by some as a high-class mariachi plunder, it nevertheless has some beautiful Miles Davis flugelhorn in his familiar blues modernist saturations. It's the hipster going into exile, moving homeward to a home he has never known except in dream. It's a Daliesque underworld where Orpheus wanders, haunted by dream trauma and a cruel paranoid loneliness. The narrative labyrinth is European, yet the chambers extend into Africa. No groove, little hope, just psychic signals and a warrior's hunt shuffle as he moves further south into the racial memory. Once again, the feral sensitivity baffles the bourgeois mind.

The sixties is when the trumpet is replaced by the electric guitar as the hipster's instrument of choice. MD recognizes this, tries to adapt but has problems as the shift is a white generational shift. The guitar is more than just melody -- it is rhythm and lead, and furthermore you can bend the notes, break the intervallic trap presented by fixed piano tunings, fully embrace the atonal possibilities of the blues. MD goes electric, as electric is dyna big, electric is dyna hip. He tries playing through a wah wah pedal -- a frequency sweeper -- a favorite of guitarists, especially Jimi Hendrix. He meets Jimi through his new young funkadelic wife Betty Mabry, and old hip confers with new hip. You could say that the Jimi Hendrix atonal power style, full of electronic abstraction and personal karma, is just "free jazz" pumped through rock n roll. It matches the direction MD thinks he's heading; he's been listening to Karl Heinz Stockhausen, recognizes the possibilities of poisoned noise.

Armed with a young wife (legally his second, technically his third) and a wah wah pedal, he channels Africa, "chases down the voodoo". The influence of Betty Mabry is significant. Hendrix, Sly Stone, funk. Her face doubles the mountain motif on the jacket of Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), and includes a track that's named after her, "Madamemoiselle Mabry" (you wonder if the French dressing is the ghosting of Juliette Greco). It's a short marriage -- MD accuses her of playing Hendrix ("Betty was just a high-class groupie"). Whatever the case, "Backseat Betty" continues on with a career as a singer, her highly sexualized brand of funk a clear prototype for Madonna's later pop heresy. As the Second Quintet morphs into the Third, MD goes U.N., almost white. Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin -- it's a long way from Bird and Trane, but these guys can be led, be influenced. Yet....

1969. In A Silent Way... what a mistake... surely. At times there's so much space in these "compositions" it's like Miles Davis has amnesia. No wonder the jazz critic Stanley Crouch thinks Kilimanjaro is the last significant Miles Davis album. No wonder his drummer Tony Williams hid his wah wah pedal (just listen to some of those shrill live bootlegs from this period and you'll understand why), called for Miles to play his trumpet clean. Adios Ted Macero, the longtime Davis producer. Perhaps Macero's editing was poor, his sense of montage inadequate. Perhaps there was too much dope. Perhaps Miles leaned too much on Joe. Tuning up or tuning down, it's like cheap Christmas music for the infant Satan. There's a lot of searching, polite exchanges, should we fly or should we not, where is the runway, have mercy... well maybe tomorrow.

Let us reconsider. Perhaps there's a gentleness to the textures, these blue atonalities, electric skyscapes, a sense of mission possible in some of the tracks. Yes, some. McLaughlin goes Gabor Szabo gypsy and Wayne Shorter shows up, makes sense where no sense lurks. Compare this to Bitches Brew -- which is the next album -- and you can hear that this is a dry run. The major difference is the percussion. Here it's light and metronomic but in Bitches Brew it's a full-tilt jungle rumble. Bitches is decisive: let's go to Africa.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Miles Davis: Filles de Kilimanjaro

Fantastic Planet

Fantastic Planet

Miles Davis painting

Miles Davis painting

Miles Davis painting

Bitches Brew

It's like he's playing through an elephant tusk, has found the primal groove. The echoplex trumpet blasts announce the arrival of Orpheus and his retinue of babes. It's a fantastic world, another planet, the birthing ground of the hipster. It's both the past and the future, a place where Sky Man learns the magic arts. It's beyond the lost cities of Igo-domi-godo, Jenne-jeno or any King Solomon Saharan fantasy. It's more like Rene Laloux's 1973 animation film Fantastic Planet, the place where a galactic civilization called The Drogs go for mating and reproduction. "Drog youth navigate to this rutting field of the demi-gods in glass spheres that float like spore bubbles and attach themselves to the shoulders of a statue of the appropriate gender. The statues then begin to dance in pairs, a ritual that allows these astral beings the necessary physicality for reproduction and the continuation of their species." Without question the late Mati Klarwein's famous album cover painting for Bitches Brew captures this sense of sexual ritualization and idealization.

The groove is modal funk, with everything submerged into the mix. The genius of it lies in the massed bebop instrumental attack style expressed within the polyphonic dynamism of contemporary electronic music. It's linear, yet complex... random, yet structured. It has mass, like a stream of heavy atoms from a black sun. The life-form is both human and animal, cyborg and divine. A stampede, a razzia, a disco elephant shuffle. The unwritten history of ancient Africa is accessed by metabolism and reincarnation.

Miles Davis: Bitches Brew

Malibu, West Africa

Next to music, painting is the most primal and elemental of the hipster arts. Both became mathematical as societies built their temples higher in the sky, so it's no surprise that their narratives became institutionalized and decadent. Picasso showed the way, looked south, embraced primitivism, and of course Miles Davis knew Picasso. The style was in the air -- let's go primary -- as it cut out art school, allowed amateurs to indulge their infantile fantasies, get porno without consequence. But while MD had no formal training as a painter, he had all the mathematics of modern music, took jazz into the post-modern sensibility, so the notion of deconstruction and the return to root zero was already within his modus operandi.

The hipster was getting old, his body was a wreck, and the pressure of being an international celeb made a Malibu pad a welcome sanctuary for the final expression, painting. What you see is what you get. Skinny figures reminiscent of Dali, his favorite painter... swollen torsos and flattened heads... the usual scramble of West African totem art and furniture store deception. Oddly, for a man who claimed to have the second sight, his imagery is neither prophetic nor psychological. His genius is disguised, the expression comfortably bourgeois. Sure, you wouldn't mind owning one, especially with "Miles" on it. You would especially like a first press vinyl disc of Star People (1983), as he did the jacket, so you want the large format.

Miles Davis: Star People

"Star People" is probably an allusion to the Dogon peoples of western Mali, some of whom believe they are descendents of amphibian extra-terrestials from the star system Sirius. The idea sits well with MD's New Age anthropomorphism and science fiction sound.

He plays with his horses, goes on TV. His voice is low and bronchial, his familiar Sky Man nuke shades locked in place for the final count down. On the Arsenio Hall talk show the white lady who hunts parasite aliens on space ships and ugly planets sits nearby as the host dumbs down the questions. MD's responses are slow, as if he's in tape delay or drugged. He's hoarse, whispers, as if all the rage has been sucked out of him. He starts spitting, explains that this is how you learn to play trumpet without wrecking your cheeks, blowing the blood vessels... peas, rice, spit, spit... how you keep it cool, secret, so nobody knows if you're blowing or not.

Yes, he's famous. Yuri Andropov loves him and he doesn't need a passport anywhere in Europe. It's all stretch limos and rock n roll now. He is Star People.

LR Jan 2013 | Culture Court/ Media Court/CC Audio | my novel RADIO BRAZIL

Miles Davis: "Heavy Metal" Germany, 1988

Close to the end: Human Nature Paris, 1991


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