Trending this week on my social media feeds is the celebration of the 96th anniversary of Miles Davis’ birth. In addition to sparking me to pull up tracks on Spotify that the deep jazz heads are spotlighting from his catalog, it got me to thinking: when I think about artists—not just writers—that I look to as models and lifelong influencers, Miles is somewhere at the top of the list. And I say that as not a super Miles “fan” and he’s not even my favorite jazz trumpeter. (That honor goes to Lee Morgan, though I have been digging into the Spotify crates lately exploring a lot of Freddie Hubbard’s 70s stuff I had never listened to before. He might be gaining on Lee).
I began playing the trumpet in 5th grade; 1979 or 1980 it would have been. If there were five reasons that I picked the trumpet when asked what I wanted to play in the school band class, Chuck Mangione’s smash hit Feels So Good was probably number one. Herb Albert’s Rise would have been number two. Somewhere in a family photo album there’s a picture of an adolescent me mimicking Chuck’s high flying playing-to-the-sun style. Chuck was the man, as he made jazz cool, accessible, and fun to listen to. The art produced was what I wanted to emulate.
A few years later, Wynton would have us kid trumpet players reexamining and rejecting our pop radio heroes, Chuck and Herb. Wynton, the “police” as Miles supposedly called him, had us turning towards the classic jazz greats. My older brother and my high school band director first steered me to specific 50s and 60s cool and hard bop era Miles Davis recordings… via mix tapes for my boombox and scratchy old albums played on school record players. I remember thinking…. this stuff is kind of boring. Listening to old Miles felt like homework. Too serious for my teenage comprehension. I listened dutifully though—and it was OK for background music while doing homework—but I didn’t really listen. Curiously I was intently into Wynton at the time, because even though he was playing “old” style music too, his professorial modern day reflective point of view and preppy youthful and intellectual aesthetic made my ears more eager. This of course was around the time when Miles’ 80s drum machine electronic era was emerging, so as an artist, he provided me with a second chance to engage. He gave me another entry point. When I first heard some of that work, it seemed like weak imitations of the styles of the day– an old man trying to hang with the hippity hoppers, but past his prime. But then Miles put out You’re Under Arrest in 1985, which included the notable cover of Time After Time. I hadn’t even liked the Cindy Lauper original that much, but I wore out Miles’ version. It was the prettiest trumpet playing I had heard…lean, piercingly emotional, soulful… so many adjectives come pouring out upon every listen. How could a pop melody that is fairly simple, be elevated so? Takes an artist to do that. I found something new that I wanted to emulate: The artist who can take “simple” ideas and push them into something new, while honoring the integrity of the source material, the reference points. In lesser hands, with the same instrumentation, it would have been elevator music.
Over the years, I began to see that Miles didn’t stay in one place and wasn’t nostalgic for any particular points in time. He was always in the present. Didn’t rely on pony tricks or the foundational jazz repertoires established and amplified by others, mostly media fanboys, whose adulation I suppose sustains many aging artists. He didn’t care about the jazz “police,” and he challenged his audiences–I still can’t really get into his psychedelic 70s albums– but found entry points for where we could meet his artistry. Wherever he was in life, Miles always had something to say, to paraphrase Andre 3000. Just didn’t seem like he was worried about who wanted to listen.
Who are your artistic influencers? The makers of what’s popular and cool? Those with an aesthetic that you want to emulate? Those that challenge you? Of those who simply produce art that moves you, help bring you closer to your own artistic visions?