Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Heroes of Jazz

In class today, I raised the question as to why Miles Davis and John Coltrane enjoy an especially privileged position in the history of jazz and among jazz critics. Here are few possibilities that might feed into their status in jazz history.

  • They were both visibly involved with more than one experimental, modern jazz style.
  • They both had a relationship with the civil rights movement.
  • They were photogenic and / or charismatic.
  • They pushed their instruments into new creative territory on more than occasion.
  • They somehow embodied the heroic ideal in music.
  • They often took risks in their playing, including making mistakes or using techniques that exposed their playing in new ways.

Coltrane and Davis are far from the first jazz musicians to get this kind of treatment as creative figures in the jazz press, but they are the only ones that get such extensive treatment in our text (and in others). Why do you think this is? Were their heroic efforts worth celebrating beyond those of other similar artists? For example, Bill Evans gets very little space even though he inspired a new school of playing the piano that is still largely influential to this day.

Could it have to do with the privileged place Coltrane holds among jazz educators? We talked extensively in class today about the ways that John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” holds a certain position in jazz pedagogy. Do you think that Miles Davis gets the same kind of attention? I mentioned in class that many trumpet players can play all of Davis’s solos from Kind of Blue. There is a fundamental difference between these two styles of playing, and yet they are both common in training and disciplining of young players. What can we learn from this?

Personally, I think much of the attention that these two figures receive has to do with a few factors, including the timing of their contributions just before the frenzy of the “New Thing” and Jazz-Rock fusion and the romanticism jazz audiences enjoy ascribing to risk takers. But I don’t think that is all that there is to it, and I would like to extend this discussion because I think there is much more to explore here.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Heroes of Jazz

  1. Frankie

    I do think that an important thing to discuss is the playability of Miles Davis’ music, particularly his modal jazz contributions. His techniques sound melodic and are easily remembered. They are typically in the middle register of the trumpet, which is a huge appeal to many trumpet players.

    Personally, the first time I ever heard of Miles Davis was in middle school band class with fellow trumpet players. Other than that, I believe that all of the factors you mentioned are at play as well!

  2. Lauren Brown

    One question I have on this issue of heroism is whether the perception of Davis and Coltrane as heroic is influenced or encouraged by the specific instruments they played. The trumpet and saxophone have historically held very dominant roles in jazz ensembles, which would likely make these musicians more accessible to audiences both inside and outside of specific jazz circles. In contrast, the piano has primarily been relegated to the rhythm section, making it less dominant in the sound of the ensemble and making the player less visible. I see a connection to the 19th Century heroism paradigm involving the violin and viola. Christian Urhan was famous during his lifetime for his viola playing, and set the standard for solo viola performance by playing the premiere of Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”, but he is barely mentioned in comparison with Niccolo Paganini’s violin playing and 24 Caprices. The violin was (and, to a degree, still is) perceived as a “heroic” instrument, while the viola was not (and still isn’t). In the context of jazz, the piano does not appear to hold a “heroic” role, which could be one reason Bill Evans gets so little attention compared to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, despite his own significant contributions to jazz.

  3. Both of you raise excellent points! Register and tone have so much to do with Davis’ popularity among trumpet players. He sounds accessible, even though his playing is rife with nuance.

    The leaders of jazz combos are traditionally the trumpet, the saxophone (alto, tenor, soprano) or the piano (for smaller groups). Horns definitely dominate though, and many of the pianists from this period would hire trumpets and saxophones to fill out their sound. I know that the trombonist who played with Coltrane on “Blue Train,” J. J. Johnson, is a hero to trombonists and one of the only bone players from the period that many other musicians can recall. Another instrument with a peculiar relationship with jazz iconicity is the upright bass. Charles Mingus became so dominant, in part, because he was a prolific composer. Bill Evans’ bassist, Scott LeFaro, is also an icon among bassists due, in part, to his early death, and his inventive use of melody. Neither of these musicians approaches the level of jazz fame surrounding Davis and Trane. You may have a point here.

  4. Dylan Gygax

    I agree with the analysis that the instruments played by Davis and Coltrane influenced their stasis as jazz heroes. I feel that playing the piano has an inherently less “heroic” affect because it is played sitting down, and that lack of movement keeps the performer from accenting their performance in the way that a horn player can. Also, in the case of Davis the sheer number of different important movements to which he made significant contributions.

  5. Elliott

    Coltrane and Davis both played instruments that typically sail into the forefront of the music, which paralleled each one’s role as bandleader in their various ensembles. They were each a salient presence for their alluringly distinguished sound, and dominating appearance on stage.
    Davis’ use of mutes, and careful articulation gave a subdued aesthetic that ironically drew more attention. Despite his relative sparseness of notes, the expansive exploration in new modes appealed to music theorists as an educated exercise and to simple listeners as a mystical transcendence.
    Coltrane achieved a similarly high status for his flashy playing and unabashed penchant for virtuosic speed. An unfortunate fact of both their careers is their drug addiction. While drugs inhibit rationality, these two major figures managed to pioneer the modern aesthetic of proficiency at their instrument. Joining Charlie Parker, these jazz musicians gained attention (not necessarily popularity or even respect) for maintaining a level of unmatched virtuosity and innovation despite their downfallen health. Despite the adversity of intoxication and/or using, they gained a heroic reputation even moreso for continuing to outperform others.

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