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How Miles Davis and John Coltrane Ruined Jazz

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.