Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Happy Birthday, Miles Davis

Thanks to Timothy Sandefur for reminding me that today would have been Miles Davis’ 78th birthday. Miles is in my second tier of jazz icons. I never cared for the tone of his trumpet playing all that much, it always sounded a bit tinny to me (I prefer the deeper tones of, say, Wynton Marsalis or Clifford Brown), but he was a virtuoso talent and a legendary composer. Like Timothy, I prefer his early and middle work. Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain (which, unlike Timothy, I don’t consider overrated), Porgy and Bess, Miles Smiles, and Kind of Blue are all wonderful. And I certainly agree with him that once he got into his experimental era, most of his music was unlistenable.

On a related note, I’ve never quite understood the animosity that some jazz fans, particularly older fans, feel toward Wynton Marsalis. I’ve had the same conversation with a dozen people, and I know it’s not an unusual thing, who claim that Wynton’s music is technically great, but soulless and mechanical. I couldn’t disagree more. I tend to chalk it up to that natural and common tendency to think that anything modern couldn’t possibly compare with anything older, hence more “authentic”. And I would predict that as Wynton ages, that will turn around. Certainly when future music historians and plain old fans like us look back on his career and his recordings, he will universally be considered among the pantheon of jazz gods, alongside the likes of Dizzy, Louis and Duke. But it’s too bad they can’t appreciate him as he should be appreciated now, when he’s in his prime. There is nothing soulless or mechanical to be found among the aching tones of his Soul Gestures in Southern Blue series. And in addition to his brilliance as a musician and a composer, he has nurtured and helped develop an entire generation of musicians – Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Roberts, Jeff (Tain) Watts, Wes Anderson and many others – who are the future of jazz. If you’ve never heard his work, I highly recommend Black Codes from the Underground, Blue Interlude and Live at Blues Alley. If you can listen to those albums and consider the music soulless and mechanical, there’s something wrong with your ear in my humble opinion.