Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 5A

There’s no real delineation between the decades. Those zero years are just easy markers.

In the early 50s, Miles Davis didn’t exactly drop out of the scene, but following his return from a 1949 tour of Paris, fell into heroin addiction. For about four years he performed a bit, recorded quite a lot, and “lived the life of a hustler” (Wikipedia’s phrase – I don’t know what this means in context, however). In the late 1980s I read a biography of Miles that suggested he played in a recording session with Billie Holiday during this period, but I’ve never identified what those recordings might have been. He finally quit cold turkey in 1954. While his work from the late 40s and early 50s (addiction or no) show him to be a musician of incredible talent and vision. I’d argue that from 1955’s first quintet sessions through to 1975’s Agharta and Pangaea live albums, Miles was the center around which everything new in jazz revolved/evolved. (Between 1975 and 1981 he recorded little and didn’t perform in public at all, due primarily to illness and exhaustion. Many of his recordings and performances after returning to the public eye are less innovative and very much of their time, but there are still some intriguing gems in that late work.)

In 1951 he signed with Prestige records and recorded with a revolving cast of musicians that often included Art Blakey on drums and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. Blakey later led the Jazz Messengers and Rollins led his own bands from 1957 onward.

Harold Arlen’s It’s Only a Paper Moon, from 1951’s Dig with Rollins was a hit in the 40s for Nat King Cole. While Miles’ lines hew to Cole’s vocal version, we get long improvisatory solos from Rollins and Davis.

On the subject of improvisation, in a recent interview with the All About Jazz web site, Kawabata Makoto of the Japanese psychedelic collective Acid Mothers Temple had this to say:

 AAJ: How do you go about staying creative as a musician? What inspires you to play?

 KM: I believe I haven’t created any music. Always, my cosmos teaches me what I should play. I don’t need to be inspired by anybody. I just try to be the best radio tuner for my cosmic that gives me music all the time. I try to play with “self-annihilation.” Any personal, egoistical idea makes the pure music [I think there might be a translation error in that last sentence. -JS]. I have to play without any of my personality or my own ideas. So I’ve tried to be a better tuner to receive and replay— to recreate—this music for people. But if I add any of my ego—my personal ideas of this music—this pure music will be a different thing. For example, if a musician gets any new technique, they want to show it to other people. Then this musician tries to add this new technique to his music. But I believe music must be played without any musicians’ egos. Music must be played as pure!

 While this may apply to certain more recent schools of music than 50s era Miles, Makoto is not the only one to suggest that he is only a conduit for his virtuosity. John Coltrane made similar assertions. It’s worth keeping in mind as we delve into the improvisational nature of jazz as the form moves on from 3-minute recordings to longer forms.

Bluing was recorded at one of two 1951 sessions from which the Dig album was compiled, though originally released as part of the Blue Period 10” album (along with Blue Room and Out of the Blue). At almost ten minutes long, Miles and Rollins both take the space to get into this Davis composition. Rollins’ tenor sax solo starts at about the 4 minute mark. He and Miles alternate for a bit before Jackie McLean’s alto comes in at about 6 minutes. Each one takes a route around the theme before Miles takes it back around the 8th minute. He finally restates the theme, introduced by Walter Bishop’s piano in the opening, in the piece’s closing bars.

Smooch, recorded in 1953 and released on Blue Haze is notable, again, for the line-up. Charles Mingus (who usually plays bass, but plays piano on this track) would soon record a string of influential albums starting with Mingus Ah Um in ’59. Drummer Max Roach, who founded the Debut record label together with Mingus in ’52 ,continued to record and perform with figures including Duke Ellington (1962’s Money Jungle, also with Mingus). Bassist Percy Heath and pianist John Lewis (not on this track, but on the rest of Blue Haze) had co-founded the Modern Jazz Quartet (usually abbreviated MJQ) the previous year and would continue to perform and record under that moniker on and off until the early 1990s.

Around the same time as the Blue Haze recordings, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Mingus, Roach, and pianist Bud Powell released Jazz at Massey Hall, Toronto. The show is remarkable for a number of reasons; one is that it was the last time Gillespie and Parker shared a stage. I’ve included a smoking rendition of Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia (which you heard first back one of the 1940s entries). Again, we get extended solos from many of the participants – Powell’s is particularly tasty. I’d like to be able to point to the interplay between Powell and Mingus, but in the original release of the album, the bass was overdubbed because it had been too low in the mix. A later reissue removed the overdubbing. I’m pretty sure the one in the Spotify playlist is an overdubbed version.

Django, a Lewis composition and early MJQ recording, is a tribute to Django Reinhardt who passed away in 1953. Despite having no guitar, it has the feeling of some of Reinhardt’s tunes especially in the closing movement. I think it’s fair to say that this song progresses through distinct phases that might be called movements akin to those in a sonata. The song isn’t relaxed but has a distinct lack of hurry that’s very appealing.

Art Blakey, the drummer on the Dig sessions, first recorded under the name Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with the Café Bohemia albums recorded in 1955. Their rendition of the 1939 hit What’s New is almost a duet between Doug Watkins’ bass and Horace Silver’s piano – Blakey really only comes to the fore at the end of the song. On the other hand, the band’s rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s Like Someone in Love shows off each musician’s talent. Kenny Dorham’s trumpet work is well balanced against Hank Mobley’s sax. Dorham’s another journeyman who led his own small groups and was a sideman for many others. A few years later Mobley would join the Miles Davis Quintet for Someday My Prince Will Come (but I get ahead of myself).

Coming around the other way, we have John Coltrane whose tenor saxophone would grace the work of the first great Miles Davis Quintet from ’55 to ’57, was already recording in the early 50s. Between 1949 and 1951, Coltrane recorded several sessions with Dizzy Gillespie (including one which featured Dinah Washington, which I can’t find the Washington tracks on Spotify), but We Love to Boogie gives a taste of the power he was already showing pretty early in his career. The swinging Used to Be Duke, is from a 1954 stint with Johnny Hodges (an alto sax player who worked with Ellington in the 30s and participated in that great Benny Goodman show at Carnegie Hall). Miles admired Coltrane for, among other things his ability to play both loud and fast, while maintaining complete control of the instrument. You get a taste of that in both of these tracks.

There’s more to say about Coltrane and the other people who played with Miles during this very rich period. In a couple of massive sessions in 1956, Miles and Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones would record enough material for four albums, enough to fulfil Davis’ contract with Prestige and allow him to jump to Columbia Records in ’57.

Next up, however, we’ll visit Billie Holiday’s later work.