A Review of Miles Davis and American Culture
A book edited by Gerald Early; Forward by Clark Terry
(Missouri Historical Society Press: isbn 1-883982-37-5, 228 pages)
Also by Tyrone Williams
|As Eric Porter demonstrates in his overview of the jazz criticism on Miles Davis, "'It's About That Time': The Response To Miles Davis's Electric Turn," the paradoxes, contradictions and conundrums that riddle, if not define, the life and music of Miles Davis have generated a voluminous body of criticism that mirror his musical, cultural and ethical tensions. Thus it is not surprising that Miles Davis and American Culture, a commemorative catalog to the first major museum exhibition of Davis's work, is a microcosm of the conflicting assessments of both the musician and human being, not only between but also, in certain cases, within the essays, memoirs and interviews that comprise this book. Although there is little that is new here in terms of the critical debates over Davis's relationships and contributions to the American music problematically called "jazz," (Davis himself was notorious for his scorn of the term) cool jazz, hard bop and "fusion" (even more problematic a term), this collection does feature a number of interesting essays, at least two of which warrant extended discussion: the introductory essay by Gerald Early and the critical assessment by Martha Bayles. Eric Porter's essay is also valuable reading, but as he is primarily interested in summarizing the critical debates around Davis's music, particularly the post-1969 material, I will limit most of my comments to the contributions of Early and Bayles. But first, the other contributions.
The essays by William Howland Kenney, Eugene Redmond and Benjamin Cawthra situate Davis's music within the cultural and economic history of East St. Louis, Missouri. Specifically, Kenney and Cawthra attempt to account for why Miles Davis is known as someone only "from" East St. Louis, why Davis both chose and had to leave for New York in 1944. Kenney's essay, "Just Before Miles: Jazz in St. Louis, 1926-1944," discusses Davis's formative years as a musician in "hot-dance" riverboat bands in Missouri and Illinois. Kenney argues that the demise of these riverboat bands--due to the advent of air conditioning, interstate highways, federal regulations, and the aging boats themselves--was as crucial a factor in Davis's decision to leave the Midwest as his desire to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in New York. Cawthra's contribution, "Remembering Miles in St. Louis: A Conclusion," argues that the erosion of East St. Louis's economic and cultural infrastructures, due to deep-seated racism and political expediency, was and is as great a factor in the city's inability to retain its cultural talent as is the obvious attractions of the East and West coasts. More optimistic is Eugene Redmond's celebratory poem/prose, "'So What'(?)...It's 'All Blues' Anyway: An Anecdotal/Jazzological Tour of Milesville." Unlike Kenney and Cawthra, Redmond reads Davis's "from East St. Louis" as, at worst, mere description, at best, something to be proud of since, Redmond suggests, Davis's legacy might serve as a cornerstone of the foundation on which East St. Louis rebuilds itself.
The book also features interviews with record industry a & r impresario George Avakian and musicians Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Ahmad Jamal, and Joey DeFrancesco. It concludes with a reprint of Davis's 1962 Playboy interview with Alex Haley. Other contributors include Quincy Troupe, Farah Jasmine Griffin, John Gennari, Ingrid Monson and Waldo Martin, Jr.
As noted above, the essays by Gerald Early, Eric Porter and Martha Bayles attempt comprehensive overviews of the twists and turns of Davis's career: from a "Newer Negro" (Early) playing black music (hard bop) and a black man playing Negro music (cool) to, after 1969, a black man playing black-and-white music (fusion and pop) and, finally, a black man playing African-American music (hip-hop). The intersection between ethnicity, race and gender in the preceding reflects concerns that orient almost all the writings here.
Gerald Early's introductory essay, "The Art of the Muscle: Miles Davis as American Knight and American Knave," begins from the premise that the key to understanding Miles Davis as a man and musician lies in the relationship between his ascendancy as a major force in jazz at the very moment that the music's commercial appeal was in decline. About the latter, Early writes: "No music can eschew its own commercial dimension, and if it does, as jazz sometimes has...it only winds up, paradoxically, trying to sell itself on the basis that it is noncommercial...." (4) Early argues that Davis attempted to solve this dilemma by embracing elitism while repositioning himself within the marketplace.
The decline of jazz as a popular music due, in part, to its own pretensions is an issue taken up later by Martha Bayles, but the theme is a familiar one in the arguments of Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray and others. The common target is bebop, held responsible, to varying degrees, for jazz's demise as a popular music. The target behind the target is the modernist conception of "art" and the "artist," perceived as intrinsically antipopulist, self-indulgent and formalistic to the point of narcissism. In all its forms this argument leads to problematic, if not contradictory, positions, as we will see in Bayles's essay.
Gerald Early, for one, understands the pitfalls of the antiart argument and the rest of his essay dances around its implications. He acknowledges that any contradictions one might perceive in Davis wanting to have it "both ways" depend on prior presumptions about the inviolability of musical genres - which the musician may not share: "In a sense, what Davis wanted to do was transcend jazz and simply embody musical improvisation." (5) However, this generous reading of Davis's motivations will not, as Early knows, sustain scrutiny. Early is merely setting the ground for his own reading of Davis as the quintessential ever-searching, ever-restless romantic figure of jazz. This is Miles Davis through a European lens (to adopt one of Bayles's more useful strategies of reading jazz history). This is Miles Davis as a white man, which might explain why Early writes, with a straight face: "Miles Davis is the American bad boy of jazz, our Huckleberry Finn...."
Early does not neglect the "black" Miles Davis, the would-be homeboy, "Jim." Most illuminating in this regard is his discussion of Davis's fascination with boxing in general and his hero-worship of Sugar Ray Robinson in particular. Davis saw in Robinson's - and, earlier, Jack Johnson's - celebration of the "sporting life" (the indulgence in women, gambling, drugs, etc.) - a model and challenge to the "straight" life, not from the point of view of "hipness" but on the assumption (right or wrong) that black bourgeois culture was largely a form of accommodation to white racism. In particular, as Early makes clear, Davis viewed some - but not all - middle-class mores as attempts to police the "black body," strategies in concert with white modes of control. As a black male secularist and musician dedicated to the pleasures of the body, Davis could no more stomach "Crow Jim" attitudes among Negroes than he could Jim Crow white law. And just as Jack Johnson had, by virtue of his exploits in and out of the ring, become a "New Negro" worthy of the accolades of the Harlem Renaissance literary elite, so too, later, Miles Davis would become a "Newer Negro." Early points out that Davis saw himself as a part of a "black male heroic tradition," but whereas Johnson and Robinson - six years older than Davis - operated as New Negroes in spite of white American hostility, Davis, simply because he was in the right place at the right time, benefitted from the "white Negro"/Newer Negro phenomenon. His on- and off-stage antics thrilled the young, hip, white jazz aficionados (among them, of course, the Beats) of the 1950s. In this context, as Early makes clear, Davis's resentment, however heartfelt, was, like Lionel Hampton's accommodationism, based on the same premise: the audience for jazz, traditional or avant-garde, was overwhelmingly white.
Just as Davis is, for Early, a figure of the romantic artist and opportunistic businessman, benefitting the historical period in which he lived - the rise of the music industry - he is likewise, for Martha Bayles, a latter-day Ulysses, a straight man in an epic tale of pretension and slapstick. Its theme: "the day the music died." Bayles's largely laudatory essay, "Miles Davis and the Double Audience," links the modernist divide between technique and accessibility in modern European music (e.g., serialism) and American music (bebop) to the growing belief in progress and science in the early 20th century. For Bayles, the result is "no audience" for European modernism (she cites Milton Babbitt's famous essay, "Who Cares If You Listen?") and "two audiences" for American modernism. Aside from exasperating class differences and polarizing blacks and whites, the elevation of technique, Bayles argues, has resulted in the debasement of "traditional" musical values (especially melody). Miles Davis is thus the exception that proves the rule, negotiating the Scylla and Charbydis of crass commercialism (accessibility) and artistic isolation (technique): "to the yang of hard bop Davis brought stillness, melodic beauty, and understatement; to the yin of cool he brought rich sonority, blues feeling, and an enriched rhythmic capacity that moved beyond swing to funk." (155). This is, of course, a gloss on Gary Giddins's more pithy observation - cited by two other authors in this book - that Davis was the "Midwestern parent" of both West Coast cool and East Coast bop. These two modes of jazz quickly became color-coded as white and black in the late Fifties and early Sixties. As Gerald Early implied with his Huckleberry Finn-Sugar Ray Robinson metaphors, Davis is, for Bayles, a figure of musical and racial reconciliation despite his occasional posturing.
Bayles's essay stands alone in this volume in its attempt to not only bracket but also criticize the extramusical forces that influenced Davis's music, particularly after 1969 when he helped popularize fusion. In relation to music criticism, these forces function as "contexts." Bayles begins by noting, pace Porter et al, Davis's interracial audiences and the resulting discomfiture for this son of a "race man." (149) But audience, too, is a "context," and Bayles will privilege this particular context - for whom is this music? - and oppose other "contextual" approaches for being, of all things, insufficiently contextual. Especially, it seems, the political context(s). Yet what surprises one is the insufficient attention Bayles pays to historical contexts, a failure which results in misreadings and distortions of the historical record. Bayles, thinking of Gary Tomlinson (cited by Eric Porter), asserts that notions of "dialogue," like that of "contestation," do not provide "genuine insight" into Davis's music and its significance. Those terms, of course, not only imply "contexts" but, more important, they presuppose separate black and white cultures and traditions. This is what Bayles must reject as "significant," much less "positive," influences on Davis's music. And though she concedes the limitations of a purely "formal analysis" of Davis's music, Bayles proceeds to place into abeyance all contextual factors except "audience." Of course, this makes perfect sense since to invoke formalism sans audience would mean a retreat into modernist isolation.
I do not have the space to discuss the ways Bayles distorts the relationship between modernism, science and "progress" (in this respect she misreads Babbitt's essay) vis-a-vis serialism and aleatory music (though her distinction between aleatory music and free jazz is illuminating). Instead I will conclude by focusing on what Bayles has to say about American jazz and pop. It is perhaps a little fussy to note that Davis's infamous turning of his back to the audience is read by Bayles as contempt (she tries to distinguish gradations of contempt in Davis's behavior) when he himself claimed that his stage movements were a rejection of the jazz musician as "entertainer." As already noted in Gerald Early's essay, Davis came onto the stage of history when a black musician could not only be tolerated for rejecting the mask that Louis Armstrong had to wear but could, in fact, be lionized for doing so. This rejection of the entertainer role preceded Davis (as Bayles notes), but she can only see it in extremes, in polarized terms as either contempt or "a clever marketing device." She quotes Davis gleefully reveling in his "bad boy" role without sufficiently attending to its significance as a "role."
More egregious is Bayles's reading of Davis's "electric turn." Effusing over the 1960s in terms of "crossover" audiences, Bayles writes, "The seemingly miraculous spectacle of the double audience blending into one attracted Davis." Not according to almost everyone else in this volume and elsewhere. It was not race that mattered to Davis in this context but age - he wanted to go after the youth market, and the youth market was rock 'n roll and r&b. Had these audiences already been 'blending into one" fusion would have already been popular. Moreover, the term "crossover" was and is equivalent to "integration," largely a one-way street in popular music and social history. Black music was and is more popular with white audiences than the reverse just as black people move into white neighborhoods more often than the reverse.
So what "genuine insight" does Bayles offer in lieu of "dialogue" and "contestation"? Contemplating Davis's turn to fusion, she writes: "With the popular audience Davis shared an appreciation for the primary capacities of music: the power of rhythm to move the body (dance) and the power of melody to move his emotions (song). Perhaps fusion should be judged by these standards." (161) I could not agree more, but that's not to say that these are more profound criteria than the "simplistic notions of 'dialogue' and 'contestation.'" On the contrary, Bayles has simply withdrawn Davis's music from one "context" (political and social forces) and inserted it in another context (audience reception) on the basis of traditional musical values (melody, rhythm). Which really means: certain kinds of melodic treatment, certain kinds of rhythmic measure.
As I hope my extended - if incomplete - analyses of Early's and Bayles's essays - and there are other good ones here - imply, Miles Davis and American Culture is a worthy addition to the collection of anyone still fascinated by the enigma that was - and is - Miles Davis.