Miles Davis - Jazz - Music - New York TimesMarch 13, 2006
A Jazz Legend Enshrined as a Rock Star?
BY BEN RATLIFF
Miles Davis is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight. Not as an "early influence," as Hank Williams, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton were; that category is for artists whose careers were established long before rock 'n' roll began. (The hall has not inducted anyone in that category since 2001.) Davis is being recognized as a rock star.
This seems provocative for a second, and then a little meaningless. It is not some sort of timely argument for underappreciated work; adventurous musicians like those in the Black Rock Coalition have been claiming Davis's electric period as an inspiration for decades. There are some jazz adherents who never liked Davis's long electric phase and will be mildly outraged. But after all the jagged turns of his career, and its thorough box-set gilding, most of us have long since let Davis's body of work just assume its own meaning.
Davis's so-called rock could be strange and brilliant (especially from 1969 to 1975). His jazz was less opaque, and his love for it as a language and a tradition much clearer. Jazz had been his training, the basis of his best recorded work, which would include "Walkin'," "Birth of the Cool," "Milestones," "Miles Ahead" and "Live at the Plugged Nickel," among other albums. But by the mid-1960's he sensed correctly that jazz's greatest age was closing. He listened to everything, from Karlheinz Stockhausen — who has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but certainly could be in the future — to the trumpeter and record executive Herb Alpert, who is being inducted this year in the lifetime-achievement category.
Davis couldn't stand being permanently linked with jazz if it meant his becoming second-class. He wanted the music industry to take him even more seriously than before; he came into contact with rock 'n' roll simply by being himself and resisting decline. A series of women in his life during the late 1960's, particularly Betty Mabry, brought him closer to the center of rock culture, the musicians and the nightlife and the clothes; he was also working with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, who ambitiously drove his label during those years to be a rock 'n' roll contender.
As pop record-making changed, as the album-qua-album became as important as the hit single, with a wider canvas for fuller expression, Davis found himself suited to that challenge, too, during a remarkable partnership with his producer Teo Macero.
By 1970 Davis had veered hard toward funk and rock: first Jimi Hendrix, whose Band of Gypsies riffs he quoted and altered for his own purposes, and then Sly Stone and James Brown. You could call his albums "Bitches Brew" and "Live-Evil" rock by extension — especially in this context, because Mr. Brown, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly and the Family Stone have already been inducted into the hall. And the album "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" from 1970 even more so. You could also call them quite amazing records, whatever they are.
Davis, who died in 1991, was finally unsentimental about jazz, yet he respected many of its forms. With rock he could be more instinctive, brusque, shocking, mystifying, wasteful. With "In a Silent Way," from 1969, he did want his music to sound "like rock." He said as much in his 1989 memoir, though at the time he was fantastically dismissive about the issue. ("What's a rock 'n' roll band?" he sneered at a journalist in 1970. "The only rock I know is the rock of cocaine.")
But if he wanted more of his music to sound like rock, he meant its sound: the volume, the riff, the electric guitar and bass, the back beat. Everything else was changeable. There were dense slabs of hammering rhythm, static harmony, great moving plates of collective improvisation, which he ordered around as he conducted onstage. In the studio, he jammed endlessly with a revolving cast of musicians and then, with Mr. Macero, cut and spliced and layered the tapes. He could treat rock and funk like abstractions. Perhaps that's why his electric period — which, let's be clear, lasted half of his career — had such vertiginous high points ("Live-Evil," "Get Up With It") as well as such drowsy lows (a lot of his music after 1980).
The program essay for tonight's induction ceremony does not acknowledge the oddness of Davis's induction; it simply describes his accomplishments. But the view of Davis as rock star is not unanimous. Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said in a telephone interview on Friday that as a member of the nominating committee he did not vote for Davis, because he felt that his most significant work had nothing to do with rock.
Mr. Ertegun, a cofounder of Atlantic Records with a lot of jazz in his past, said he did vote early and strongly to put Davis in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, where he thinks he belongs.
"I love Miles Davis," he said, referring to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. "I also love John Coltrane and Jack Teagarden, but I'm not voting for them either."
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