High Times Greats: Miles Davis

Paying tribute to the jazz icon 29 years after his death.
High Times Greats: Miles Davis
Davis in his New York City home, c. 1955–56; photograph by Tom Palumbo/ Wikimedia Commons

Born in Alton, Illinois in 1926, legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991 at the age of 65. To commemorate the anniversary of his passing, we’re republishing John Swenson’s piece from the December, 1981 issue of High Times below.

Miles Davis is the greatest trumpeter/stylist since the legendary Louis Armstrong. Davis’s musical concepts and ground-breaking bands changed the course of postwar jazz several times; and he changed the face of both jazz and rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s with his popularization of fusion. The rhythmic concepts of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are still being worked out by Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, who played in Davis’s most celebrated fusion band.

In recent years Davis has been completely out of the picture. He last work in the mid ’70s was often a pained and groping affair in which Miles played virtually no trumpet and experimented in live performance with keyboard playing instead, often to very unsatisfying results. He was rumored to have such severely cracked lips that it was nearly impossible for him to play. He was in a near-fatal auto accident from which he recovered slowly. He was rumored to have bone cancer. It was widely supposed that Davis would never be heard from again, a suspicion that was underscored when he failed to materialize at several comeback shows.

When Davis was advertised as the highlight of the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival in New York a lot of people wondered at first if he would even show up, but when word began to leak out that his first new music in half a decade, The Man with the Horn, was a return to his top form, tremendous anticipation for the performance started to build. Festival promoter George Wein assured the public that Miles had regained the touch, and the night of the performance at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall an audience of devoted fans, excited but skeptical critics and a whole lot of musicians waited to hear the news.

Davis & Co. came out smoking and swung their way through an hour-plus of surging music without a single letup. The entropic weight of this monolithic statement gassed the crowd in searing, Bitches Brew frenzy as each change wrenched them a little more. Davis, ever the showman, bent over double as the rhythm section wove a subtle R&B gurgle and sliced bleating notes and phrases against the hypnotic backing. People cheered joyously at the fact that Miles could still play this way. They had feared otherwise.

Guitarist Mike Stern was a standout accompanist in this Davis group, which proceeded to play a number of live dates, most of which were recorded and will undoubtedly see some kind of release in the future. “It’s pretty loose the way he wants it structured,” Stern said of Davis’s working band. “So it can go a lot of different places, like rock, you know, some of the stuff he used to do like five years ago with two guitarists. He wants to do some of that and then he wants to do more swing type of feels, so in the framework of one tune it can go into all different kinds of directions. It’s real loose and real free so we can get into a whole bunch of different things and it seems that’s what he’s looking for rather than a tight kind of set. Seems like he’s never had that for a long time, but more like he’s looking for moments, different moments, different grooves to get into.”

Like so many other musicians who grew up listening to and being influenced by Miles Davis, Stern is somewhat in awe of his current employer. “I never expected to be able to play with somebody who’s been my hero for years. That’s the cat that I listened to all through my years as a musician, like millions of other people. He’s one of the main influences, obviously. To play with somebody like that is great.”

Since working with Miles, Stern has taken the opportunity to learn from Davis in other ways as well. “He’s been listening with me to some of the tapes of the gigs we’ve done,” Stern said. “He’s really excited by this. He usually doesn’t listen to a lot of tapes and he’s been starting to do that more. He’s into it. And sometimes I’ll ask him different things, musically. I ask him about certain groups that he had. Sometimes we hang out and stuff. When we’re not talking, we’re playing. That’s the best stuff. Definitely I’m learning just to hear this cat play. He’s so intuitive. That’s where his real genius seems to be. It’s mainly ear playing. It’s just unbelievable what he’ll come up with. I can’t even explain it. It’s there to listen to.”

And we’re pretty lucky that there’s so much more to hear.

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