Skip to Main Content | Colorblind Mode: On Off
Chapter
14
The Modality of Miles Davis and John coltrane
Chapter Outline

Miles Davis is a central figure in the 1950s, drawing together different trends in cool jazz and hard bop. We consider his career, which traveled from bebop and cool jazz into the harrowing world of heroin addiction, while his return in 1954 sparked the shift to hard bop. Davis's quintet in the 1950s is the model for a successful post-bebop small group, with the trumpet players' carefully pitched, restrained tone dramatically juxtaposed against the garrulous, harmonically based idiom of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. We explore Davis's interactions with Gil Evans and trace the formation of modal jazz in the late 1950s. Along the way, we consider the music of Bill Evans, who as Davis's pianist provokes the harmonic language of Davis's masterpiece, Kind of Blue.

  1. The Sorcerer: Miles Davis (1926-1991)
    1. Nobody looms larger in postwar jazz than Miles, partly because no one had a greater capacity for change. He changed the rules of jazz five times from 1949 to 1969.
      1. 1949-1950: the "Birth of the Cool" sessions helped focus a younger generation's search for something beyond bop and started the cool jazz movement.
      2. 1954: "Walkin'" started the hard bop movement.
      3. 1957-1960: with Gil Evans he enlarged the scope of jazz composition, big bands, and recording projects while adding a new, meditative mood to jazz.
      4. 1959: Kind of Blue was the culmination of Davis's experiments with modes and melodic improvisation replacing the harmonic complexity of bop.
      5. 1969: Bitches Brew started fusion, shifting the focus from melody to rhythm.
    2. Throughout this twenty-year period, Davis forced a rethinking of harmony, melody, rhythm, and instrumentation, while his approach to trumpet playing remained pretty much the same.
    3. His persona was also very influential: the archetypal jazz musician (cool, romantic) and civil rights black man (outspoken, self-reliant); charismatic, a symbol of his time, imitated for his dress and attitude ("bad dude"); he was mysterious to many.
    4. Childhood and Early Start
      1. Born in Illinois into a wealthy black family that moved to East St. Louis when he was one, he grew up self-confident.
      2. He studied trumpet in school and had private lessons from a member of the St. Louis Symphony. He listened avidly and became friendly with trumpeter Clark Terry. In 1944 he sat in with the Billy Eckstine band next to Dizzy (who advised him to learn piano and harmony) and Bird. Later that year he went to Julliard in New York, where he stayed for around a year before dropping out to learn and play with Bird.
    5. From Bop to Cool
      1. In 1945, when Davis was nineteen, Bird hired him for his quintet. He soloed on a couple of pieces ("Now's the Time" and "Billie's Bounce") but lacked the chops for "Ko-Ko," so Gillespie stepped in. This event encapsulated Davis's dilemma while he was with this band (to December 1948): how to develop his own style in the shadow of Bird and Diz.
      2. He also played with the big bands of Benny Carter and Gillespie. Some thought that his introverted style and relatively mediocre technique made him a second-rate bebopper. Soloing after Bird every night did not help dispel that impression.
      3. In contrast to the high register and notey playing of boppers, Miles preferred the middle register, longer and fewer notes, and a focus on timbre and melody. To compensate he composed harmonically complex pieces ("Sippin' at Bells").
      4. In 1949 he left Parker to experiment with the Birth-of-the-Cool musicians and others. He also went to the first jazz festival in Paris, where he experienced the respect jazz and his own music enjoyed in Europe. At twenty-three, he had his own distinctive sound, characterized by restraint.
    6. Drugs, "Walkin'," and the Harmon Mute
      1. Embittered by the contrast between his positive experience in Europe and the realities of race in the United States, he fell into heroin addiction for four years. During this time he completed Birth of the Cool, accompanied Sarah Vaughan, reunited with Bird, and freelanced as a leader on various record dates, none of them great.
      2. The year 1954 was a turning point. He beat his addiction and made five great recordings for Prestige Records with a rhythm section of Horace Silver (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums), and a number of other great musicians, thereby reestablishing himself.
      3. Davis introduced a new kind of black masculinity in his music and look: tender but invincible. His solo on "Walkin'" helped spur hard bop while not resorting to the high-note and speedy pyrotechnics that typified the bebop trumpeter.
      4. Two months after "Walkin'," with Sonny Rollins, he premiered three Rollins pieces that have since become standards. He also introduced the Harmon mute, which created an intense humming sound that augmented Davis's intensity.
    7. Star Time
      1. In 1955 Davis played Monk's "'Round Midnight" at the Newport Jazz Festival using the Harmon mute to great acclaim. He soon signed with Columbia Records, a major step up. But he was still under contract to Prestige for three years so he made five albums in two marathon sessions to fulfill the conditions of the contract. The sheer number of albums released by Miles during the late 1950s boosted his reputation.
      2. His first Columbia album 'Round about Midnight (1955) featured Davis's first great quintet: John Coltrane, Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Gil Evans did the arrangement for "'Round Midnight." The album cover photo was an iconic image of Miles.
      3. Three noticeable aspect of the quintet:
        1. The contrast between Davis's restraint and Coltrane's demonstrative virtuosity reverses the Parker/Davis disparity.
        2. The assertive rhythm section, consisting of Jones's strong attack and Chamber's time and harmonic skill
        3. The repertory was diverse: originals plus pop songs from the 1920s or borrowed from Broadway.
      4. Sources for pieces came from Red Garland's encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and Frank Sinatra's simultaneous career revitalization. Davis opened up the jazz repertoire by using unlikely titles (considered "corny") like "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and "If I Were a Bell."
    8. Gil Evans and a Night at the Movies
      1. Miles's Columbia producer wanted to do something completely different for the second album (1957) since all the Prestige material would be released annually. Miles Ahead was the result. Gil Evans arranged a nineteen-piece ensemble with Miles as the only soloist, composed transitions in between selections, and used post-production techniques to correct weaknesses due to inadequate rehearsal and recording time. It was a hit with the public and the critics.
      2. Davis disbanded the quintet and went to Europe, where he was offered an opportunity by director Louis Malle to provide music for a film (Elevator to the Gallows). Malle asked him to improvise the music with some local musicians while watching the movie. Davis improvised on scales rather than chords and used slow, drawn-out phrases. It was a Eureka moment. He returned to the United States eager to explore this new way of playing.
      3. He first had to put a band together. He chose Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), whom he had played with on an earlier album; John Coltrane, whom Davis had fired earlier for drug use but was now clean; and his old rhythm section, consisting of Garland, Chambers, and Jones.
      4. Three weeks later he went into the studio with Gil Evans to record a version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935). There was the third Evans-Davis collaboration. The 1960 Sketches of Spain was based on Spanish classical and folk music.
  2. Modal Jazz
    1. Between Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960), Miles made his most celebrated album, Kind of Blue, an album that is the culmination of his work in modal jazz and one that influenced generations of musicians. Miles kept things fresh by keeping the compositions simple but unseen until the recording session.
    2. Bop was harmonically busy music. By 1959 improvising in bebop came to be an endlessly imitated task. Modal jazz went in the opposite direction by decreasing harmonic density so that melody became the focus. This was not new in jazz (blues, melodic paraphrase), but modal jazz provided a revitalization of the relationship between improvised melody and its harmonic foundation.
    3. Davis was not alone in trying to move jazz beyond bop. Mingus (minimal harmonies), Brubeck (odd-numbered meters), Russell (theoretical underpinning), and the avant-garde (breaking the rules) also contributed.
  3. Kind of Blue
    1. One of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, it suited Miles's mid-range lyricism and reserved approach while, at the same time, providing a vehicle for Coltrane's exuberant style.
    2. Davis changed some of the rhythm section for this album. Adderley's drummer, Jimmy Cobb, replaced Jones because of Cobb's more restrained style.
    3. Hard bopper and bluesy Wynton Kelley played piano on "Freddie the Freeloader." Otherwise, Davis used Bill Evans, who had been in the group in 1958. He was a major part of the album's success.
  4. Bill Evans (1929-1980)
    1. Evans first came to public attention with his cadenza on Russell's" Billy the Kid." But this was not typical of his playing. Evans usually was more introverted and meditative, with a clearly recognizable style.
    2. As a child he studied piano and violin. He played in dance bands as a teenager, but did not seriously take up jazz until he graduated from Southeastern Louisiana College. After his work with Russell he was invited to record with is own trio in 1956. New Jazz Conceptions introduced his "Waltz for Debby," which became a standard and showed him to be a promising composer.
    3. For two years Evans refused to make another album as leader because he was not satisfied with his first album. During this time he worked with Miles, Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Gunther Schuller, and others. Then, in 1958, he made Everybody Digs Bill Evans, which included an improvised "Peace Piece."
    4. Breakthrough Trio
      1. Nineteen fifty-nine was an important year for Evans. He recorded Kind of Blue and his third album, Portrait in Jazz. Drawing on his knowledge of classical music and modal jazz, he developed an original approach to chord voicings. By loosening the root from the rest of the chord he found original ways to add harmonic extensions to existing chords and to substitute chords in standard progressions. These techniques were clearly apparent in his adaptation of standards, some of which were unusual choices.
      2. Portrait in Jazz also marked a new approach to the jazz trio, a much more interactive approach especially on the part of the bass player.
      3. His trio was made up of Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass. The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961) shows the group at its peak. LaFaro's death in a car accident derailed Evans for a while. But he continued to record and compose challenging pieces such as "Peri's Scope" and others.
      4. Evans's "Blue in Green" composed for Kind of Blue is a ten-measure chord sequence that is circular. His use of quartal harmonies adds to the modal quality of the album by not suggesting any specific progression (as on "Flamenco Sketches"). The piece that popularized the album is "So What."
    5. "So What"
      1. This has a standard AABA thirty-two-bar chord structure with one harmonic change: from D Dorian mode in the A sections to E-flat Dorian on the bridge. Davis uses the basic notes of a D-minor triad for much of his solo.
      2. The introduction is thought to have been sketched by Gil Evans. Chambers's three-note phrase prompts a piano figure, which in turn leads to a piano and bass figure followed by some Spanish-style chords and the bass's introduction of the main theme. Davis's solo has had lyrics put to it and Russell orchestrated it for a big band. Davis continued to record at ever-faster tempos. By the early 1960s modal jazz was everywhere.
  5. John Coltrane
    1. Within the world that Miles Davis created through his choice of musicians and their lasting influence, none looms larger than John Coltrane. Coltrane fully explored the modal world and the cultural, musical, and ethical avant-garde of the 1960s in his short-lived and controversial career.
    2. Although the same age as Davis, he made no significant recordings until 1955, as part of Davis's quintet. Over the next few years he recorded many albums establishing himself as the rival of Sonny Rollins. He organized his own band in 1959, around the same time as Davis's falling off after Kind of Blue. Coltrane filled the leadership role vacated by Davis.
    3. Davis returned with his second quintet in 1964, the same year Coltrane released A Love Supreme, an album that garnered both critical and popular acclaim. But both Davis and Coltrane were dissatisfied with their music. They each went in different directions: Davis to fusion, Coltrane to the avant-garde. Both rested on modality.
    4. The Long Apprenticeship
      1. Born into a racist community in North Carolina, Coltrane lost his father at the age of twelve and became distracted from his studies while becoming obsessed with music. At fifteen he switched form clarinet to alto saxophone, practiced his instrument, and took odd jobs to help support his family. He moved to Philadelphia after high school.
      2. He enrolled at the Ornstein School of Music and took theory at the Granoff Studios, where he became fascinated with scales, which he practiced for hours. He worked with some local rhythm and blues bands until he joined the navy. Once out of the navy, joined the big band of his friend, saxophonist Jimmy Heath.
      3. Coltrane and Heath listened to bebop and classical music while trying to extend the upper limits of the alto saxophone. In 1949 Dizzy brought them to New York, where Coltrane switched to tenor and worked with various bands, some famous (Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic), some less so. He discovered Nicolas Slonimisky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), which codified scales. While Hawkins emphasized chords, Coltrane tried to play every note in every chord creating what Ira Gitler called "sheets of sound."
      4. When Davis hired him in 1955, Coltrane's sound was pretty well in place but he was also addicted to narcotics and alcohol. Rollins invited to him to record with him ("Tenor Madness"), but Coltrane was criticized for his harsh tone and long solos.
    5. Awakening
      1. Davis fired Coltrane twice for drug dependency. After the second time, in 1957, Coltrane cleaned up his life after undergoing a religious experience that led him to devote his life entirely to music. He spent a year playing with and being educated by Monk. He freelanced, composed ("Blue Trane," "Moment's Notice"), and exhibited a facility with rapid tempos and romantic ballads. In 1959 he signed with Atlantic Records.
      2. In 1959 he also recorded Kind of Blue with Davis and albums with Adderley and Milt Jackson. In May he recorded his landmark album Giant Steps with bebop pianist Tommy Flanagan, Davis's bassist, Paul Chambers, and hard-bop drummer Art Taylor. Coltrane composed all the pieces including three that became jazz standards: "Giant Steps," "Naima," and "Mr. P.C." This music extends modal jazz. "Naima" is based on two scales; "Impressions" has the same harmonic structure as "So What" with a bridge based on Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante defunte."
      3. Coltrane explored the relationship between chords and scales as he composed more complicated harmonic sequences. "Giant Steps" is an example. Harmonically busy and with a rapid tempo, it is like his farewell to bebop and a reply to Kind of Blue.
      4. "Giant Steps"
        1. This sixteen-bar piece is characterized by having one chord per melody note. The progression is unusual, and Coltrane only showed the piece to the musicians on the day of the recording, hoping to spur fresh ideas in the musicians.
        2. Not only is the harmonic progression difficult, the tempo is very fast This makes it very difficult to play, as heard in the solo of experienced bebop pianist Tommy Flanagan, who struggled with it. Even Coltrane, who had been working on this progression for years, relied on repeated patterns. The import of the solos lies in its overall energy, not the details.
      5. "My Favorite Things"
        1. Improbably, this fifteen-minute 1960 recording became a hit. It made Coltrane a jazz star while popularizing the use of modes.
        2. This version of the piece is underpinned by a persistent percussive vamp and its pitch material is reduced to two scales, one major, the other minor, resulting in a incantatory quality. Coltrane also plays soprano sax, which hadn't been used since Bechet. It gives the recording an Eastern feeling.
        3. This is also the first recording of the defining Coltrane quartet, which included McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. Jimmy Garrison joined a year later. Tyner starts the recording with a modal polyrhythmic accompaniment. Tyner's quartal harmony persists throughout, as does his forceful touch on the piano.
        4. This piece suggested an approach to other standards that Coltrane recorded including "Greensleeves," "Softly as the Morning Sunrise," "Body and Soul," and others.
    6. The Quartet
      1. Philadelphia-born Tyner met Coltrane at the Granoff Studios in his teens. He modeled himself after Bud and Richie Powell, Tatum, and Monk. Although Coltrane had played with first-rate bop pianists, he found that Tyner had the combination of harmonic sophistication, a partiality for vamps, musical economy, rhythmic strength, and the sense of dramatic purpose that he was looking for.
      2. Elvin Jones matched Tyner's intensity. Jones was part of a well-known jazz family (Hank on piano, Thad as band leader, composer, and trumpeter). In the 1950s he worked with Miles, Mingus, Rollins, and J.J. Johnson without much recognition. With Coltrane he burst loose, taking Philly Joe Jones's style to a new level.
      3. Elvin Jones used two approaches to polyrhythm, resulting in a free and propulsive quality that matched modal playing in its open-endedness.
        1. Playing two simultaneous rhythms himself
        2. Playing a different rhythm from the rest of the band
      4. This sometimes led to duels between Coltrane and Jones, during which McCoy would stop playing.
      5. Philadelphia-born Jimmy Garrison came to New York as a protégé of Philly Joe and played free jazz with Ornette Coleman. While sitting in with Coleman, Coltrane hired Garrison on the spot. Jones claims that Garrison's aggressiveness lifted the whole band.
      6. "Chasin' the Trane"
        1. In 1961 Coltrane signed with a new label, Impulse-"The New Wave in Jazz"-and recorded a sixteen-minute blues live at the Village Vanguard in New York. It split his audience in two: those who thought it was "anti-jazz" and "musical nonsense" and those who thought it gave new hope to jazz.
        2. This piece occupies one whole side of an LP; it is very fast, relentless in its driving energy during Trane's eighty chouses, and uses multiphonics, squeals, cries, no piano, and free playing (although Garrison and Jones pull Coltrane back by marking off the twelve-bar structure).
        3. The intensity of the performance makes it seem that there is no beginning or end, just a middle. This intensity, with no melody and rhythm that one can easily latch on to, left some listeners cold, but others invigorated.
      7. A Love Supreme
        1. Coltrane continued to go beyond the conventions of jazz performance, eventually alienating even Jones and Tyner. But in 1961 and 1962 he recorded with singer Johnny Hartman (Ballads) and with Duke Ellington on a series of recordings in which pure melody takes the foreground.
        2. In December 1964 Coltrane recorded a four-part suite and canticle called A Love Supreme. The reviews were good. Musicians and listeners saw him as a leader in the march to the new music.
        3. This piece refers to his 1957 conversion and liberation from addiction in four movements: "Acknowledgement," "Pursuance," " Resolution," and "Psalm." The music gradually moves from common harmonic practice to chromaticism. The public found this kind of avant-garde approachable, attracting both his old and new fans.
        4. Acknowledgement
          1. The liner notes for this album contain a description of his religious experience and a psalm, the syllabic content of which inspired the fourth movement. The first movement is a culmination of his music up to that point using scales, pedal points, multiphonics, free improvisation, and shifting rhythms. A vocal chant near the end signals a key change.
          2. Coltrane's sound and use of pentatonic scales is distinctive. The four-note vocal figure is one of four themes for this movement that he uses to improvise. Throughout, Coltrane uses persistent motives that move to tonic chords.
          3. Some criticized Coltrane for abandoning musical coherence in favor of faith to guide the music. But this piece is strictly ordered.
    7. Ascension
      1. After A Love Supreme Coltrane formed a new group with avant-garde musicians Rasheid Ali, two or three drummers, and his wife, Alice, on piano. (Later, after Coltrane's death, she built a reputation as a composer of religious-themed music that elaborated on her husband's interest in African, Indian, and Middle Eastern music.)
      2. Garrison continued to play with Coltrane in a quintet that included tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He was considered one of the freest of the free-jazz musicians.
      3. After Coltrane's death in 1967, Sanders backpedaled from modes to chords to less improvisation altogether. Coltrane's foray into the avant-garde was a product of its time (the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement), but it left a legacy of free improvisation and a broadened sound pallet.
      4. Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension consists of an improvisation by ten musicians on a minor triad and some ground chords. Free solos alternate with ensemble improvisations. But even here, there is some logic. Coltrane never understood what the criticism was about.
  6. Miles Davis's Second Quintet
    1. After Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, the future was not clear. Coltrane, Adderley, and Evans left to start their own careers, and Miles despised the avant-garde. He continued to release records, one with Coltrane, but his music did not consist of anything new.
    2. Then, in 1963, he assembled a new quintet with young musicians, creating his second great quintet. It included pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, seventeen-year-old drummer Tony Williams, and George Coleman on tenor saxophone
    3. In 1964, Wayne Shorter took Coleman's place. Shorter and others contributed original compositions as well as taking the band closer to the avant-garde.
    4. Jazz at this time was beset by the avant-garde on the one hand and rock on the other. Before Davis entered his fusion phase, he adapted modal jazz and elements of the avant-garde in a postbop style that included harmonic ambiguity, original compositions with new kinds of harmonic frameworks, and a looser sense of rhythmic underpinning. Some of the original pieces encourage free improvisation.
    5. The rhythm section of this group acted with more freedom than most. They all seemed to solo at the same time. In this context, Davis became a more expansive trumpeter. He began to explore the upper register, faster tempos without regard to the occasional fluff, and jettisoned the older repertoire. Between 1965 and 1968 he made his own way to the avant-garde.
    6. "E.S.P."
      1. The 1965 album of the same name is the first studio recording of the new quintet and contains seven new compositions. The music is fast and audacious, a far cry from the jazz romanticism of the earlier Davis. This piece is thirty-two bars long but more complicated than "So What."
      2. The melody is based on fourths. The A section is built around an F scale; the second A closes with easily handled cadences. The solos are relatively free, rhythmically and melodically, as is the playing of the rhythm section.
      3. The younger public, musicians, and critics received this album and succeeding ones well, but none of them had the broad acceptance of Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. By 1965 rock and roll could no longer be ignored. Davis was forced to respond.
Print This Page

Norton Ebooks

The ebook version Jazz offers the full content of the print version at half the price.

Norton Ebooks

The Norton Gradebook

Instructors and students now have an easy way to track online quiz scores with the Norton Gradebook.

Norton Gradebook