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Miles Davis: Innovator-in-Chief: Thaddeus Tukes - Tribute to Miles Davis

On July 13 at 9:30pm, I’ll be doing a tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis at Andy’s Jazz Club. Here’s why.

For much of my life as a young Jazz musician, the obsession with trumpeter Miles Davis often confused me. I felt there were more accurate trumpeters. I could easily name more melodic composers. But whenever I asked a Jazz fan about their favorite musicians, the response usually included Miles Davis. As a student of Jazz education, most of my early listening and studying was of Miles Davis, on recommendation of my teachers. Even today, Kind of Blue is still the highest-selling Jazz record of all time.

Yet, I still wasn’t sold. Then one day, I decided to dedicate a day to Miles Davis recordings and finally understood why everyone was so enamored with him.

Miles Davis was the most consistently innovative artist in Jazz history.

Davis received his first big break with the Charlie Parker quintet, as a replacement for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Though not as technically proficient as his predecessor, Davis became a formidable voice in bebop during his four-year tenure. However, early recordings such as “Now’s the Time” from Charlie Parker’s Reboppers display Davis’ ear for innovation. Juxtaposed against Parker’s sixteenth-note filled solo that rarely deviated from the key signature, Davis’ eighth-note based, slightly “out of key,” or atonal, melodies signaled a transition from traditional Bebop language.

Thus, Cool Jazz was born. Davis’ Birth of the Cool not only allowed Davis to expand on his new improvisatory style, but he employed instruments that were unconventional within Jazz, such as the French horn. At the same time, the chord changes and tempos of each composition could be directly traced back to Bebop. Throughout the album, Davis’ solo aesthetic highlighted unpredictable, yet intentional note choices.

However, Bebop was still at Davis’ core. He often relied heavily on Bebop rhythmic structures, even when he found unique melodies during an improvisation. Bebop traditionally utilized stepwise motion (think: “Do-Re-Mi”), and melodic phrases typically ended on a note within the chord, or chord tone. Contrastingly, Davis’ new sound laid the foundation for Hard Bop, which emphasized ending a phrase on “wrong” notes, or altered chord tones, while maintaining the rhythmic motion and succinctness of Bebop.

As Davis’ focus on unconventional note choice became more intense, the accompanying harmonies followed suite. Bebop/Hard Bop tunes usually consisted of chords that changed as frequently as every two beats, which encouraged linear (or beat-to-beat) melodic phrasing. Modality, however, tremendously expanded the harmonic palette. In a modal tune, a single chord could last up to 16 bars, which encouraged vertical (or chord-to-chord) melodic phrasing. Modality also forced a change in rhythmic patterns, as there was more freedom to play “out of time,” or not follow a specific tempo. Davis’ Kind of Blue caused a major shift in Jazz, as it encouraged simplicity and novelty over technical proficiency and predictability.

Modality seemed to be Davis’ key to freedom. Over the next few years, he and his band members experimented with harmony, rhythm, and atonal melodies in studio sessions and live performance. The group also innovated an accompaniment technique: instead of relying on strict rhythms and time, the rhythm section would respond to a soloist’s melody in whatever way felt natural. Thus creating an early framework for Free Jazz.

In the midst of this, Davis was faced with the emergence of new electronic instruments, as well as the need to meet the demands of a younger audience. This may have been the boldest move of Davis’ career – electronic instruments were largely shunned by many traditionalists, and Davis was called a “sell-out” by some jazz critics. However, in true innovator form, Davis left a definitive mark on Jazz Fusion.

With his spirit of innovation, my quartet will pay tribute to Miles Davis on Thursday, July 13 at Andy’s Jazz Club.

We will play modern arrangements from the spectrum of Davis’ musical catalogue, including music from Doo-Bop, Davis’ venture into live instrumental hip-hop.

Jazz can’t exist without innovation, and I’m honored to hail the Chief Innovator.

Thaddeus Tukes

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