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How Miles Davis and John Coltrane Ruined Jazz

Time to pinpoint who is really responsible for preparing American culture for the likes of Kenny G and the horrors of muzak.

by
Robert Spencer

Bio

April 12, 2013 - 2:00 pm
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Jazz and Islam, Part 9

Jazz was more popular than ever in the early ’60s. Then the Beatles exploded onto the American pop music scene, and that was the end of that. Jazz artists who had begun the decade engaging in innovative and enthusiastically received explorations of harmony and rhythm finished it by offering up tired, pale instrumental covers of psychedelic Top 40 hits. Ever since then, many of jazz’s fiercest partisans have spent an inordinate amount of time insisting that jazz is not dead — which, like the claim that “Islam is a religion of peace,” wouldn’t have to be endlessly repeated if it were obviously true.

If jazz is dead, two suspects who should be brought in for some intense questioning are two of the unlikeliest people ever to be thought of as the ones to have administered the coup de grace to America’s foremost native art form: Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am one of the most ardent fans either one of them could possibly have ever had. On my shelves are easily two hundred discs featuring one or (better yet) both of them. Their historical role as towering musical pioneers and composers, improvisers, and virtuosos of the first order is unshakeable. Yet in their own ways, where the vibrant and popular jazz of the 1960s is concerned, they became death, the destroyer of worlds.

John Coltrane took the road less traveled. He became enamored of Ornette Coleman, the great innovator of “free jazz” — and with good reason. Coltrane liberated his sound from the dense chordally based improvisations he pursued with characteristic passion in the late ’50s and early ’60s — first adopting Davis’s modal approach, and then emulating Coleman in exploring improvisations free from harmonic structures altogether.

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Top Rated Comments   
"It is Miles Davis who brought us the likes of Kenny G, David Sanborn, David Benoit, and other handsomely remunerated purveyors of musical pap; it is John Coltrane to whom we owe self-important dweebs wearing dirty turtlenecks and black horn-rims, grating the ears on saxophones and trumpets while one is trying to get a beer in a college town bar — Miles Davis aptly termed them “no-playing m—–f—–s.” "

In my opinion, the epithet "no-playing m*****f*****s" belongs not to Kenny G. and those like him but to the rappers. I have long thought of rap as a form of music performed by non-musicians. Aside from the occasional interesting bass line or drum beat, there is no other musicality in any of the rap I have heard. To me, rap is music without melody, which may be valid (John Cage's recording of silence was deemed music too) but it is music that I do NOT want to hear. I have never seen sheet music for rap songs but have never really looked for it either. If such sheet music exists, I have to imagine that it is written like drum music: X's to mark where the percussionist strikes his instrument but no pitches since there are no specific notes that have to be created.

I have serious doubts about whether any of the rappers can actually play an instrument, even something as simple as Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Rap truly feels like music for non-musicians to me.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
In musician circles, there is a joke that goes:

Q: What's the difference between a blues musician and a jazz musician?
A: A blues musician plays three chords to an audience of thousands; a jazz musician plays thousands of chords to an audience of three.

Music is entertainment. Different audiences find different things entertaining. And styles play themselves out, with remnants of older styles surviving in some of the newer styles, or are resurrected in later years.

Typically, musical styles have a life cycle. An innovator bursts onto the scene and captures an audience with something new and exciting. As it catches on, it grabs the attention of other musicians, who in turn grab greater audiences. At its zenith, the musical style quits being perceived as a musical style and becomes just, "music". Sometime later, the style splits in two or more fragments, with the sentimental "pop" stuff collecting on one side and the intellectual esoterica on the other. The pop stuff dies because it eventually becomes too insipid to bear, while the esoterica dies because not enough people "get it".

This happened to so-called "classical" music. At its zenith, was Wagner. Music was never the same. Music written in the style of Wagner (chromatic harmonies, lush orchestrations) all sounded like Wagner. Composers don't generally like sounding like other composers. The rush was on to invent new esoteric styles: twelve-tone atonal music; Impressionism; new expressions of tonality. And on the flip side, there were the traditionalists who tried to keep the old styles alive, and lived on (and were looked down on by the cognoscenti) as film-score composers. (Or British composers.) Meanwhile, fragments survive to this day, here and there -- in film, certain Broadway musicals (in the insipid stage), and today's saccharine elevator music. At least the film-score composers still have an audience, even in the concert hall (e.g., John Williams). Nobody listens to twelve-tone music anymore, nor should they have the first time.

Rock is a musical zombie. It is dead and should be immobile, but somehow it still shambles around, like a real-life horror movie. Today, there is esoteric rock (I think Jack White qualifies) and the insipid stuff too (any number of blonde bimbo singers), but the split probably started forty years ago with Paul McCartney spearheading the sentimental contingent and Led Zeppelin leading the edgy esoteric phalanx.

Count me in the sentimental camp, so for me personally, jazz died with the Tommy Dorsey, Bennie Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie bands. There were many fabulous big bands up through the Sixties, but the formula was mostly unchanged from the old days. I just can't wrap my head around bop, nor have I ever wanted to. And I can't stand to listen to Miles Davis (I really think a trumpet player should, you know, be able to play the trumpet).

As I said, music is entertainment. The intellectual contingent, whch includes modern jazz proponents, believes it should be intellectual entertainment, but most listeners do not agree. Some of my best friends are jazz musicians :) and I'm grateful for the art form for their sake. But give me a sentimental British orchestral piece (e.g., Elgar's "Nimrod") any day.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Music is probably the most human form of communication there is. It probably predates language. Music is something we all recognize, with some reservation, no matter what culture produced it. We instinctively can understand tone and cadence, without much need for translation.

It is, at least from my perspective, a sign of the imminent death of a particular musical genre or movement when the composers in it begin to disregard the basic formula for what we humans instinctively recognize as music, and produce what to me is noise like scratching ones fingernails over a chalk board.

That is exactly where most "classical" composition went after the turn of the 19th century. It is exactly where jazz went. It is where R&R, if not already evident, will soon go.

Music is communication. When you have nothing left to say, everything you say is just noise.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (31)
All Comments   (31)
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With apologies to Mark Twain: aficionados' defense of post-bop jazz always boils down to "it's better than it sounds."
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
But, but, but ... my perfessers all told me that Coltrane and Davis were so oooo cool. Took me a while to figure out that those pot and jazz fueled soirees were just a way for college professors to lay freshman girls.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part of the story is race. Black men playing jazz was never going to become incredibly popular in the 50s and 60s. Elvis could cross-over to black music. Trane and Miles couldn't crossover to white music. Not at that time. Brubeck was the great white hope, I guess, but the relatively small number of white Jazz musicians was a big factor in keeping Jazz out of the mainstream at that time.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"It is Miles Davis who brought us ...musical pap;"

Fixed it. Music to nowhere, no tension,
no resolution
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
True, . . . so true, . . . pe-e-e-yo-o-r-r-r pap, . . .
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
For a month after I bought my car I had Syrius radio. They had stations for 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s music. The 70s was my teen generation. The 70s channel almost never played anything I liked. The 60s channel occasionally did. I liked what was on the 50s channel about a third of the time. I liked about half of what the 40s channel played.

The classical channels rarely had anything melodic or emotionally powerful; usually it gave the impression that the composer was some loser trying to say, "Look! I'm painting a picture with music!"

If Syrius radio had offered a channel for '30s music I might have subscribed to their service.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"It is Miles Davis who brought us the likes of Kenny G, David Sanborn, David Benoit, and other handsomely remunerated purveyors of musical pap; it is John Coltrane to whom we owe self-important dweebs wearing dirty turtlenecks and black horn-rims, grating the ears on saxophones and trumpets while one is trying to get a beer in a college town bar — Miles Davis aptly termed them “no-playing m—–f—–s.” "

In my opinion, the epithet "no-playing m*****f*****s" belongs not to Kenny G. and those like him but to the rappers. I have long thought of rap as a form of music performed by non-musicians. Aside from the occasional interesting bass line or drum beat, there is no other musicality in any of the rap I have heard. To me, rap is music without melody, which may be valid (John Cage's recording of silence was deemed music too) but it is music that I do NOT want to hear. I have never seen sheet music for rap songs but have never really looked for it either. If such sheet music exists, I have to imagine that it is written like drum music: X's to mark where the percussionist strikes his instrument but no pitches since there are no specific notes that have to be created.

I have serious doubts about whether any of the rappers can actually play an instrument, even something as simple as Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Rap truly feels like music for non-musicians to me.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nice, . . . really cool, . . . "Sparky", . . . you are definitely hittin' on all eight, . . .
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
"but it is music that I do NOT want to hear."

didn't you mean to say that "it's a whole bunch of sh*t that I ain't trying to hear."
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
(C)rap is what it is.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rap afficianados proudly trace the origins of their genre to the old New York blackouts and the looting that ensued in their wake (turntables were the stolen item of choice). It's not much of a heritage to look back on.

The overwhelming majority of rap "music" is nothing more than remixed samples of existing recordings. Some actual musicians have protested the bastardization of their work, but most embrace it for financially obvious reasons.

Many of the arguments against rap are similar to those leveled against disco in the 70s. The problem is that, like you point out, at least disco had melodies - rap is little more than a beat. It is all flash, a genre whose success is based purely on shock value, image, and moderately catchy rhythms. (And I wouldn't call a sampled drumbeat, taken from another person's work, and looped behind a frontman yelling how much of a thug he is, to be music.)
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great post. Great thread. @335Blues and @Tina Trent: Ezra Pound said in the ABC of Poetry that poetry atrophied as it became more distant from music, and that music atrophied as it became more distant from dance.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I almost didn't read this article because what I know about jazz you could put in a thimble.....but astonishingly this article is about that thimbleful. I went to university in NY where in about 1963 I met a white jazz tenor player named Frank Smith out of Philly. He was into free jazz, which I immediately recognize from your first vid of Coltrane's Meditations. The single most important thing I learned about it was that you had to be in the room with it. It sounds just as unstructured and unimpressive today as it did recorded in 1963. Live, as I said at the time, it was like sticking your fingers directly into and electrical outlet. Pure transfer of energy. Up close it was personal - you were compelled to identify with the player's striving body and pouring out of soul.

It is contagious too. I will never forget the time I listened to Frank and some friends jam in a basement in the South Bronx in a small room that made the sound almost unbearably loud. And they played for hours. When they took a break the drummer (his name was Jerry I think) invited me to have a shot while they went upstairs for a snack. I was so high (not that way), so blown away, that I was in a different world. I sat down and began to play the drums for the first time in my life. Weakly at first and then with greater confidence. The next thing I knew a chick who had also been listening picked up Frank's sax and started playing. Suddenly we were jamming, riffing off each other. The music had stripped us of all the normal barriers between strangers. Musically not good, clearly weak compared to what we had been listening to and doing our best to imitate. Doing it is about inner channeling energy. I honestly don't believe you can record it. It is more akin to Kundilini than music. The only other time that happened was about 15 years later when my eldest son had a 'rock' band that was the pits. But he was playing something resembling free jazz on his electric guitar and there was a sax in the room. I picked it up nodding to the owner for permission to play. And I started playing in the moment and in no key and suddenly my son and I were jamming. At that period we could barely have a civil conversation, yet we communicated in that way for something like 10 minutes. All I could think was that his mother and I used to take him along as an infant to hear Frank play and that both of us were imprinted with it. It felt like we were sharing a remembered experience.

I know my way around the visual arts, not music, but my experience of free jazz is that when recorded it is like a mediocre B&W photo - very so what. Experiencing it intimately and live is to be ravished. Even from my two unskillful forays into playing, I know it is about letting the energy of the different instruments mingle and trigger each other at the cutting edge of impulse. There is no possibility of thought, score - at most a tentative sense of direction. It may be self indulgent as a recorded art form, but it can be transformational to be thrown headlong into the visceral inner experience of sound without form as player or listener. That said, I think there is a place for form too. I remember Frank one night at Slug's on 3rd Street doing his signature song. Ave Maria. It started off fairly conventional and quickly broke apart into the amazing leaps and blatts and bleats of free jazz and then much later, long after the opening melody was forgotten ….slowly - a note here…..a note there in key as the melody came back transformed and utterly beautiful. He could conjure the presence of the Virgin Mary in a barroom. (If you are more comfortable calling it the Devine Feminine, thats OK, but she was right there.)

I also remember Mingus at the Five Spot for a couple of sets. I can still recall him downing about half a bottle of what looked like aspirin tablets at the beginning of the second set. All part of the performance I suppose. But that is exactly what the music was - a memorable but conventional performance you listened to as audience. His music, or any bee bop records well. And then there is Winton Marsalis. Funny you should mention him. I heard him, probably in the 90s in Springfield Mass. I was really looking forward to his jazz because I had encountered him as a transcendentally good classical trumpet player. Phui! I walked out. It was dead cat postmodern. Pure joyless self indulgence. Etiolated is the word that came up as I walked off my disappointment that night with my sister and her friend. Beckett's Malone Dies is scintillating in comparison.

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have a different viewpoint. I believe bebop may have been the greatest contributing factor in the decline of jazz. In the 50's, jazz was not only popular but many of the enthusiastic followers also considered it the best 'dance' music. A visit to a local club would find people not only listening but dancing to popular jazz tunes. Why? Jazz was not only accessible musically but the rhythms made you move your body. The improvisational aspects of jazz were intense but the structures were understandable and the rhythms and tempo allowed it to be danced to. You couldn't stand still you just had to dance. The dancing aspect can not be underestimated. Dancing allows personal interaction with the music. The development of bebop changed that in at least 2 fundamental ways. In my opinion, Bebop was a type of jazz that was developed by jazz musicians FOR jazz musicians. First, the complex musical structures were understandable by most of the incredibly gifted jazz musicians, but not by the public. It became almost like a contest among jazz musicians to see who could come up with the most complex music anybody could imagine. Not just the many chords, but the frequent KEY changes confused the ears of the bulk of followers who were not musically gifted enough to follow the often very subtle resolutions that seemed purposely hidden. In fact, sometimes there is no resolution at all in bebop tunes. Hidden or even lack of resolution confuses the ears. The second trait of bebop is the breakneck speed at which many of the tunes are played. Again, the ears of those not musically gifted strain to keep up with the musical logic which in hindsight was apparent only to the musicians themselves. I believe it may be that that the public didn't abandon jazz as much as jazz abandoned the public with the development of bebop. People by and large fled what they could no longer understand and interact with, and embraced rock's simpler musical structures and danceable rhythms and tempo.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
There's a similar trajectory in poetry. Allen Ginsberg was actually a beautiful writer of sonnets. Trained traditionally, when he broke free from form poems to write blank verse and free verse, he brought that technical craft with him.

It was the tension between the iambic discipline and his deviations from it that made his writing (if not his silly, tedious themes of rebellion) beautiful.

The generations of poets who followed him, those who lacked the training and classical grounding, simply spun out inanities, for the most part. I always started my students with rote memorization and form poems. Including Ginsberg's, to show them that you cannot improvise from nothing.

As a very smart professor once told a student who claimed that he could write like Coleridge if only he took opium like Coleridge did: First teach yourself Greek and Latin, Italian, and French; immerse yourself in classical texts, rhetoric, philosophy, and history; write for hours every day, eschewing everything else, then pop a few vicodin and see if anything comes of it.

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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