Anyone who’s interested in jazz knows that the shadow of Miles Davis falls right across the jazz world of the second half of the 20th century – but it takes a visit to “We Want Miles“, the retrospective at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, which I had the chance to visit just before Xmas (it runs to 17th January) – to remind you how big and long that shadow is.
He was, famously, playing bebop with Charlie Parker and Gillespie at the age of 18, and recorded The Birth of the Cool before his 23rd birthday. Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz record of all time, came a decade later. By the end of the 60s, with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, he remade jazz (with a little help from his producer, Teo Macero) as it collided with rock music.
Part of his secret was that he only worked with the best. In the early part of his career, these included (as well as Parker and Gillespie) Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane. By the time of Kind of Blue, he had become the elder statesman, picking up the best young talent, such as Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Jack de Johnette, and Marcus Miller. The list goes on.
And with the best arranger as well; Gil Evan’s role in the early recordings from Birth of the Cool to Miles Ahead is influential. It’s possible to hear Davis’ 60s and 70s sound as a way to create in his electric work the same depth that Evans achieved through his careful orchestration. It helped that Miles was, as he would tell interviewers, “blessed with perfect time”.
One of the revelations of the Paris exhibition is also one of the simplest exhibits: a timeline of his whole career showing all the musicians he collaborated with (my not very good photographs are below). The larger the name, the closer the collaboration. There have been some events at Cite de la Musique to mark the exhibition, and as people such as Marcus Miller have come in to play, they’ve been signing the wall, a kind of living exhibit. I’m hoping that when it goes to Montreal in April, the wall and signatures will go as well, rather than just being repainted in the new location. There’s music everywhere in the show – including a great video of a concert at Parc de Villette, right by Cite de la Musique – but somehow it is the camaraderie of the collaboration, crystallised by the autographs of his musical partners, that brings Miles, and his vast creative enterprise, to life.
Even if you can’t get to the exhibition, the website’s worth a visit (good pictures and a good selection of music, with commentary in English). And there was an interesting article in The Guardian about why Davis liked Paris.
I took the pictures, and they’re published here under a Creative Commons licence.