Tag Archives: Miles Davis

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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Modal Jazz to Post Bop

Here is the additional listening for this week. Here are transcriptions of Miles Davis’s “So What,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt.”

This week we are dealing with the immediate aftermath of Cool and Hard Bop (and the continuation of “Modern Jazz”), with a special emphasis on Miles Davis and John Coltrane and their legacy in the realm of post-bop. Since many of these recordings have been so influential, we are going to dedicate a considerable about of time to looking at transcriptions and discussing the consequences of these musical developments on jazz.

ETA: I should add that the repertoire we are doing this week has, for better or worse, been very influential for contemporary students of jazz. To this day, a player’s ability to play over the “Giant Steps” changes is understood as a benchmark of ability (and is often taught in jazz programs around the country). Further, doing so without sounding like Coltrane is a further challenge. Jazz scholar David Ake has written about this particular phenomenon in Jazz Cultures.

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