Where were you the first time you heard the music of Miles Davis? Since you are reading these words, chances are that you will know the answers to this question.
The memories of the big moments in our lives, whether personal or historical, remain with us forever, and are often embedded in seemingly irrelevant details: how things smelled at the time, what music we were listening to, what the weather was like. This is often called the "JFK effect," illustrated by the proverbial question: "where were you when you heard that John F. Kennedy was shot?"
Miles Davis never achieved the household fame of the likes of JFK. And yet an amazing number of people remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard his music, illustrating Miles Davis's huge impact.
My own answer to the question when I first heard the music of Miles Davis will bring the reasons for the existence of this site and for writing Miles Beyond into focus. I first became aware of Miles 's music as a teenager in the late '70s, on Dutch radio, at my parents' home. It was a sunny afternoon in the middle of summer and I heard some seriously weird stop-start rock music fronted by a screaming electric guitar.
Since I was—among many other things* —into experimental and avant-garde rock music at the time, bands like King Crimson and Henry Cow, and loved screaming electric guitars, I listened attentively, and made a mental note of the artist mentioned after the piece finished. I remember wondering: "Miles Davis? Isn't he a jazz artist? But this music doesn't sound much like jazz. Maybe this is another Miles Davis." I went to the local music library about a week later and found out that they only had records by one Miles Davis. They were indeed filed under jazz, and hence unlikely to contain the piece I'd heard on the radio.
I was puzzled and about to give up when I noticed a cover that looked promising: a red and gold psychedelic affair with a night vision of a large city seen through what looked like an aquarium. I took it home, placed it on my record player and found my jaw dropping. This definitely wasn't jazz, more like some weird, avant-garde, totally over the top funk. I was initially put off by the nerve-wrecking density and seeming monotony of the music. This was nothing like the engaging, open, stop-start stuff I'd heard on the radio. But since Agharta, the record I'd brought home, was all I had, and since the cover looked so cool, I persevered. The insurgent cover instruction to play the album back at the loudest possible volume was further encouragement, much to my parents' dismay.
Soon I discovered that astonishing moment, 14 minutes and 43 seconds into Side 1, where the band cuts out and Pete Cosey's guitar solo goes into total overdrive. Being a guitarist myself, I thought I was an insider on the outer fringes of crazy electric guitar playing, but this was beyond my comprehension. From that moment on Side 1 until the middle of Side 4, the music was continuously interesting, provocative, unbelievable, and highly exciting. I was sold. For the next months Agharta rarely left my record player.
Listen to an excerpt of this guitar solo, from 14:35 till 15:10 (Windows Media Player format).
It bewildered me that I didn't have a clue as to how the music and the solos were structured or conceived. There was clearly a large element of improvisation going on, but the music was too structured and too melodic and there was too much flawless interplay between the musicians for it to be totally improvised. I was baffled by this dense and bizarre music, because I had no frame of reference. Nothing I knew sounded even remotely like it, not even the other electric Miles Davis albums I sought out and enjoyed, among them Get Up With It, In A Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. (Fifteen years later I finally found the piece I had first heard in the Dutch radio. It turned out to be "Gemini/Double Image" from Live-Evil. It was testimony to the strong impression that piece made on me that I could still recognise it after all that time.)
The idea of writing a book on Miles's electric period was born one afternoon in the early '90s at Goldsmiths' College in London, where I was studying for a music degree. I ran into two guys around 50 years of age in the canteen who identified themselves as jazz musicians and college tutors. We talked and they asked me whether I liked jazz. I told them that I greatly admired jazz, but generally speaking didn't have much resonance with it, but that I really liked what Miles Davis had done when he fused jazz with rock. Their reaction pushed me back in my seat. If looks could kill I would have died that very instant. They proceeded to unleash a degree of vitriol on Miles Davis, for 'selling out,' for playing 'kid's music,' for 'betraying the jazz community,' etc etc, which astonished me. This was not a simple disagreement about musical taste, this was pure hatred.
What amazed me most was that they were not traditional jazz musicians, but known and respected (in London) free jazz players. It amazed me because between 1980 and 1983 I frequently visited the BIM-Huis in Amsterdam, the Netherlands's premier free-jazz club. Hungry for more unusual sounds, I had witnessed many free-jazz concerts there, and even joined in with some of the tutorial jam session for young musicians. For me avant-garde was synonymous with open-mindedness, with an urge to boldly go where no-one had gone before, musically speaking. For me it was, and is, about a willingness not to dismiss any music genre or sound or structure a priori, but instead to stretch as far as possible in understanding and accommodating new sounds and styles of music. And here these two old avant-garde jazzers were as conservative, closed-minded, and dismissive as classical music tutors who reckoned that all music written after 1900 sucked. Perplexing.
It was my first direct encounter with the intense feelings that Miles Davis's venture into rock-influenced music evoked in certain sections of the jazz community. It enticed and intrigued me, and I ended up writing a dissertation on Miles's electric period for my graduation. In doing so I found out that there were no books available that covered the electric period well. After my graduation, in 1995, I approached a number of publishers with the idea, without success.
Finally, in 1998, I mentioned the idea to Bob Doerschuk, then editor of Musician, who advised me to get into contact with Bob Nirkind at Billboard Books. It turned out to be a moment of sychronicity. A fan of Miles's electric music, Nirkind told me he'd just had the same idea a few hours before my e-mail arrived.
What followed after I signed the book contract was lots of hard labor, as well as synchronicity, serendipity, and inspiration. During the next two years I travelled to New York, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, London, and Italy, interviewed about 50 associates, musicians, and partners of Miles Davis, and came to terms with almost 60 official electric Miles Davis CDs, as well as with dozens of bootlegs.
In the end, Miles Beyond was published in May 2001, to much acclaim. I set up this web site around the same time. I hope that both the book and this site will enrich and deepen your enjoyment and understanding of the electric explorations of Miles Davis.
This web page contains abridged and re-written material from the "Introduction" of Miles Beyond, plus additional material not present in the book.
* Other favorites include Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, James Brown, Jai Uttal, Khaled, Bill Frisell, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Medeski Martin & Wood, John Scofield, Sly Stone, Robben Ford, Paco De Lucia, Salif Keita, Ravel, Debussy, Bach, Copland, Beck, Prefab Sprout, Jethro Tull, Beethoven, Vaughan-Williams, Hector Zazou, Steely Dan, Mari Boine, Crowded House, Chet Atkins, John Renbourne, Pierre Bensusan, Steve Reich, and many more...