When He Went Electric by Michael Schiavo
When he went electric, Miles Davis was accused of being both a sell-out who was trying to reach a larger (white, rock ‘n’ roll) audience and of destroying the American music that he was such an integral part of by moving it into a so-called impure territory. It strikes me as more than peculiar that an artist would try to become more popular to the mainstream by becoming more obscure in his music.
It was Betty Mabry —”the Madonna before Madonna” as Carlos Santana describes her—who gave him the final push into the electric world. Exotic and erotic, strong and uncompromising, she introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix, the music, then the man. Then to Sly Stone, James Brown, music of the now, the young music. Miles copped a riff from Hendrix and paid tribute to Betty on 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro which marks the start of his electric life (Herbie Hancock on electric Rhodes piano, Ron Carter on electric bass; the earlier Miles In the Sky also featured some electric instruments). But because of her more-than-friendly involvement with Jimi, the Davis-Mabry marriage didn’t last a year.
It didn’t matter. Miles was off and running. In a Silent Way,
recorded in early 1969, was the first whispering shot. It appealed to rock stoners while alienating jazz fans who couldn’t recognize its splendor. It’s ambient music, veers toward new age (Keith Jarret’s Köln Concert anyone?). Joe Zawinul’s title track is the new morning (or evening) settling around you. It’s a soundscape that appeals much more to Philip Glass fans than lovers of Duke Ellington. Then again: Brian Eno said that Davis’ dark dirge to Ellington (“He Loved Him Madly,” Get Up With It, 1974, recorded a month after the Duke’s death) was a major influence on his own work.
August 1969 saw the recording of Bitches Brew (no apostrophe for a reason) and the world of music changed. The English composer Paul Buckmaster, who would later work with Miles during the On the Corner sessions: “Bitches Brew was the album, when I first heard it, I thought I was going to climb the walls and climb across the ceiling; I was on the floor, beating my hands and feet—I could hardly take it, it was so intense. It was everything I had imagined some kind of future music to be. It was . . . everything that I’d hoped to hear.”
Others were not so impressed. The critic Stanley Crouch, no matter how many times he listened to the album, in various states of altered perception, found nothing good or true about Miles’ new direction. Like a nail being repeatedly hammered into his hand held down. “The greatest example of self-violation in the history of art,” Crouch wrote of the new sound. “Formless long pieces that seemed to go nowhere,” he said.
Percussionist Mtume has the answer:
“The problem was . . . the people who were criticizing that music . . . no one wanted to accept the fact that he was no longer playing jazz. So why are you asking jazz critics about this music that they don’t have a palette for? Miles never called it anything but it was no longer jazz. That has been the fundamental problem through that whole period up to now. They keep wanting to call it jazz. It wasn’t.”
It isn’t. It’s a soundtrack to life. Put “Honky Tonk” or the title track to On the Corner on your iPod and take a walk through any part ofManhattan. Hell, take a ride through the backroads ofVermont. It’s all there. It’sAmerica. It’s rebel music. It’s the sound of a man unwilling to compromise himself for anyone, maybe even himself. “Let it displease the critics and the masses,” it says, “I know what I’m doing.” Call it funk, call it rock, call it jazz, call it—as Miles said after he played the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 before well over half a million people—anything.
The new music was a literal soundtrack too. Going into the sessions for A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Davis bragged he could put together “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band you ever heard.”
He did. Anyone who hears John McLaughlin’s opening riff to “Right Off,” Billy Cobham’s drumming, Michael Henderson’s bass line—let alone Miles’ outstanding solo—and argues any other way, is suspect. Miles was a boxer, and his playing, his direction of any lineup he fronted, reflects this approach. He ducks, he swerves, he throws a one-two with his trumpet. Producer Teo Macero and Miles crafted these electric albums more in the control booth than in the studio. Things had to move and as Miles said: “Listen, sound and music change so slick, it’s like the world turnin’ on its axis. Turnin’. It doesn’t turn so you can say ‘I’m turnin’.’ It turns so slow that you can’t feel it. Music changes you.”
Miles creates terror. The triple threat of “Little Church,” “Nem Um Talvez,” and “Selim” off Live-Evil are unequivocally the most frightening and demonic pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They don’t just sound Satanic—they are. Old Scratch traces his finger along my spine every time I listen to them. Maybe it’s because Miles plays electric trumpet for the first time on this album. Or maybe his truly cosmic American music summoned an eternal force that’s in the groove forever, never to be exorcised.
Miles moved. The sounds he produced during the sessions that made their way onto Big Fun are “world music” in extremis: sitar and tamboura mix with Chick Corea’s piano, Bennie Maupin’s clarinet. That there’s a riff in the second part of “Calypso Frelimo” (recorded during the On the Corners sessions in 1972) which sounds exactly like the music to the Underworld of Super Mario Brothers tells you how far Miles’ legacy reaches.
Yes, it’s the moving forward that’s important. Hangers-on wanted Miles to stay the same. He couldn’t. Mtume: “All he ever had to do at half the places we played was just do 8 bars of ‘So What’ or ‘Kind of Blue.’ He never did.” (I often wonder if Frank O’Hara —who was Miles’ exact contemporary, both born in 1926—would’ve evolved in the same way Miles did, had the poet not died in 1966. What would Frank O’Hara “going electric” sound like?)
Adds Mtume: “Look, when the temperate scale was created—the 4/40—that was the synthesizer of its time. I’m sure there was some harpsichord players walkin’ ’round talkin’ ’bout, ‘They not keepin’ it real.’ “
As a poet, I’ve tried to follow Miles’s example whenever I find myself doing the same thing over and over. To remain static is to die, in art, in life. If the point of art is to connect people—the artist and the audience, the audience with one another, with themselves—then to keep the top spinning on the same surface is thoughtless, heartless. It teaches nothing, nothing is expanded upon, no one is moved. Late in his own life, Miles said, “See, I do change it. But I can’t help it. It’s not that I’m a ‘genius’—but it’s just that I can’t help it. I play it one way so long, I just have to change my way. In order to give it to you. So you’ll like it.”
Travel Avails Us of Nothing But Sorrow
He opened the door slowly
saw the Cyclops loafing on the sofa
leafing through his new issue of Omni.
O the abattoirs I’ve administered
& the women who’ve fallen prey
to my unconscious callousness, I
am a professional massage therapist.
I will rub you the right way
& run for governor of a smaller state.
Civics classes aren’t taught no longer
but I took one as a lad
knowing love only through Neil Young
lazy sunset evening Georgia pine-straw.
It’s not the same when a woman
stands before you, total as a planet
drawing her strength from the moon
like the sea, how I love the smell of her.
When you live amongst cannibals
it’s hard to be a vegetarian. Or a diplomat.
Dinosaurs will rule the earth once more
if the wizard has his way. That crafty
fruit is preparing another army for us.
I see them hammering out armor
in the distant fields before
the fjords, way before the Forest
of the Poison Kanban Owl
named so because the dead emit
a rainbow from their skulls
when the flesh has been plucked clean
by rain and other prowlers in the dark.
I would live with you near the Palisades
forever and it would be high summer
the rip-roaring day I do love you Cate.
Hold tight your hallelujah. I once shot
a porcupine with a crossbow
& it pursued me across the entire
Tri-State area including Candlewood Lake.
I then recall the promo banner for Tattoo You
in Caldor. It was all so long ago
the sunrise looks the same over St. Louis
as it does San Jose. I’ll always find you
in this invented weather. Call it anything
Michael Schiavo is the author of The Mad Song, which will be published this fall and will be available exclusively at the Northshire Bookstore. His poetry has appeared in The Yale Review, McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, LIT, Painted Bride Quarterly, Fou, No Tell Motel, Forklift, Ohio, and elsewhere. He is a contributing editor to Cue and an editor of Tight. He lives in North Bennington, Vermont. Michael can be found online at http://michaelschiavo.blogspot.com.