‘You have to think when you play; you have to help each other – you just can’t play for yourself. You’ve got to play with whomever you’re playing. If I’m playing with Basie, I’m going to try to help what he’s doing – that particular feeling.’
Miles Davis is unusually selective in his listening habits. This attitude should not be interpreted as reflecting any general misanthropy. He was in a perfectly good mood on the day of the interview reproduced below; it just happened that the records selected did not, for the most part, make much of an impression.
Clark Terry, for example, is an old friend and idol of Davis’ from St. Louis, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra has always been on Davis’ preferred list. Davis does not have an automatic tendency to want to put everything down, as an inspection of his earlier Blindfold Tests will confirm (DB, Sept. 21, 1955 and Aug. 7, 1958).
The Cecil Taylor item was played as an afterthought, because we were discussing artists who have impressed critics, and I said I’d like to play an example. Aside from this, Davis was given no information about the records played.
- Les McCann – Jazz Crusaders
All Blues (Pacific Jazz)
Wayne Henderson, trombone; Wilton Felder, tenor saxophone; Joe Sample, piano; McCann, electric piano; Miles Davis, composer.
What’s that supposed to be? That ain’t nothin’. They don’t know what to do with it – you either play it bluesy or you play on the scale. You don’t just play flat notes. I didn’t write it to play flat notes on – you know, like minor thirds. Either you play a whole chord against it, or else . . . but don’t try to play it like you’d play, ah, Walkin’ the Dog. You know what I mean?
That trombone player – trombone ain’t supposed to sound like that. This is 1964, not 1924. Maybe if the piano player had played it by himself, something would have happened.
Rate it? How can I rate that?
- Clark Terry
Cielito Lindo (from 3 in Jazz, RCA Victor)
Terry, trumpet; Hank Jones, piano; Kenny Burrell, guitar.
Clark Terry, right? You know, I’ve always liked Clark. But this is a sad record. Why do they make records like that? With the guitar in the way, and that sad fucking piano player. He didn’t do nothing for the rhythm section – didn’t you hear it get jumbled up? All they needed was a bass and Terry. That’s what’s fucking up music, you know. Record companies. They make too many sad records, man.
- Rod Levitt
(from Dynamic Sound Patterns, Riverside)
Levitt, trombone, composer; John Beal, bass.
There was a nice idea, but they didn’t do nothing with it. The bass player was a motherfucker, though. What are they trying to do, copy Gil? It doesn’t have the Spanish feeling – doesn’t move. They move up in triads, but there’s all those chords missing – and I never heard any Spanish thing where they had a figure that went. That’s some old shit, man. Sounds like Steve Allen’s TV band. Give it some stars just for the bass player.
- Duke Ellington
Caravan (from Money Jungle, United Artists)
Ellington, piano; Charlie Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums.
What am I supposed to say to that? That’s ridiculous. You see the way they can fuck up music? It’s a mismatch. They don’t complement each other. Max and Mingus can play together, by themselves. Mingus is a hell of a bass player, and Max is a hell of a drummer. But Duke can’t play with them, and they can’t play with Duke. Now, how are you going to give a thing like that some stars? Record companies should be kicked in the ass. Somebody should take a picket sign and picket the record company.
- Sonny Rollins
You Are My Lucky Star (from 3 in Jazz, RCA Victor)
Don Cherry, trumpet; Rollins, tenor saxophone; Henry Grimes, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.
Now, why did they have to end it like that? Don Cherry I like, and Sonny I like, and the tune idea is nice. The rhythm is nice. I didn’t care too much for the bass player’s solo. Five stars is real good? It’s just good, no more. Give it three.
- Stan Getz – Joao Gilberto
Desafinado (from Getz-Gilberto, Verve)
Getz, tenor saxophone; Gilberto, vocal.
Gilberto and Stan Getz made an album together? Stan plays good on that. I like Gilberto; I’m not particularly crazy about just anybody’s bossa nova. I like the samba. And I like Stan, because he has so much patience, the way he plays those melodies – other people can’t get nothing out of a song, but he can. Which takes a lot of imagination, that he has, that so many other people don’t have. As for Gilberto, he could read a newspaper and sound good! I’ll give that one five stars.
- Eric Dolphy
Mary Ann (from Far Cry, New Jazz)
Booker Little, trumpet; Dolphy, composer, alto saxophone; Jaki Byard, piano.
That’s got to be Eric Dolphy – nobody else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.
L.F.: Down Beat won’t print those words. [But I do!]
M.D.: Just put he’s a sad shhhhhhhhh, that’s all! The composition is sad. The piano player fucks it up, getting in the way so that you can’t hear how things are supposed to be accented.
It’s a sad record, and it’s the record company’s fault again. I didn’t like the trumpet player’s tone, and he don’t do nothing. The running is all right if you’re going to play that way, like Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan; but you’ve got to inject something, and you’ve got to have the rhythm section along; you just can’t keep on playing all eighth notes.
The piano player’s sad. You have to think when you play; you have to help each other – you just can’t play for yourself. You’ve got to play with whomever you’re playing. If I’m playing with Basie, I’m going to try to help what he’s doing – that particular feeling.
- Cecil Taylor
Lena (from Live at the Cafe Montmartre, Fantasy).
Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone; Taylor, piano.
Take it off! That’s some sad shit, man. In the first place, I hear some Charlie Parker cliches. . . . They don’t even fit. Is that what the critics are digging? Them critics better stop having coffee. If there ain’t nothing to listen to, they might as well admit it. Just to take something like that and say it’s great, because there ain’t nothing to listen to, that’s like going out and getting a prostitute.
L.F.: This man said he was influenced by Duke Ellington.
M.D.: I don’t give a shit! It must be Cecil Taylor. Right? I don’t care who he’s inspired by. That shit ain’t nothing. In the first place he don’t have the – you know, the way you touch a piano. He doesn’t have the touch that would make the sound of whatever he thinks of come off.
I can tell he’s influenced by Duke, but to put the loud pedal on the piano and make a run is very old-fashioned to me. And when the alto player sits up there and plays without no tone. . . . That’s the reason I don’t buy any records.
You can find this blindfold test reprinted in Bill Kirchner’s Miles Davis Reader, a collection of articles about Miles Davis and his music by various authors, which is still available (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1997).
This interview is originally published at Alan Saul website.
Listen to the audio recording of this interview:
Alan Saul: Thanks to Bruce Robinson and Mark Ladenson for providing a tape of this.
Allan Sutherland and Ray Tennenbaum sent me transcriptions of parts one through four below. I did the rest. Corrections are welcomed.
LF: For one thing, I would I would like to make it clear that I don’t think I understand (short pause) as a musician you know certain things I don’t understand about what you are doing and I am, I would like to maybe get them clarified in my own mind so that I can make it clear for the average reader too (ED: uh huh) you know (longer pause) (garbled, unclear) what is happening and what people like you are doing harmonically. It’s very hard to explain, very hard to analyze. Can you put it into words?
ED: Well, it, you know, it always depends on the subject of what you’re improvising on of course, (cough, LF: Yeah.) and then, uh… (pause) what, you know, the subject you are improvising on. Of course if you’re playing freer forms and the harmon…, improvisation is much more freer and you have much more things that you can play. More than.. more more the line is not, er er, the lines are not held to no chord patterns, harmonically.
LF: No, but…
LF: No, but, what I don’t understand is what ARE they held to? I mean what is, what is the difference between the limitations, there must be some limitations otherwise it, you would be arbitrary, you could just play any notes that you like.
ED: Well that’s the idea you CAN play every note that you like. Of course, you only can play what you can hear, and quite naturally… more or less I guess what I hear is not to your hearing, to what you’re hearing. So quite naturally, I hear, uh, more notes on uh, on the same thing that’s been said before.
LF: Yeah, uh…
LF: Well, if your foundation is not a chord sequence, which is what the traditional basis of jazz was, then what is the foundation?
ED: Well it – it – you see, some things like you play are not based on chords, they’re based on freedom of sound, you start with one line and you keep inventing as you go along, line-wise –
LF: Yeah –
ED: – And you keep creating until you state a phrase. And quite naturally you, ah – what is the word, intuitive?
LF: Yeah –
ED: -whatever’s around you, or with you, working together. Course, ah, then there’s another thing that you play, in the modes, and then even though you’re in the mode, you play outside of the mode, coming in and out of what you’re playing. So harmonically, uh, it’s not held down to the old thing of where you have a seventh chord and you- you ah, keep running the chord. Quite naturally, you run the chord, but you use other – other notes in the chord to give you other certain expressions to the song, otherwise you’d be playing what everybody else is playin’. So if I have an F7, I’d most likely play F-sharp! Which is nothing but a flat nine – I’ll play an F-sharp chord against that.
ED: And ah, I’m not sayin’ I would play an F-sharp chord just to play an F-sharp chord, I would – I could play F-sharp chord and, and, and – and it would sound – to me it would sound okay with that F7.
ED: You understand what I mean? And uh [pause] it’s hard to say at the moment, as I’m sittin’ here, because you know, ah, improvisation – the thing only happens at the moment when you do it-
ED: And quite naturally it might change. And uh.
LF: Let me ask you this:
LF: You’ve mentioned the fact that this is greater freedom than for the earlier forms. Do you think that in these terms that Charlie Parker or Dizzy, or the earlier school, lack freedom, or sound old-fashioned as a result of the developments that have taken place?
ED: No, it’s a funny thing, man, I’m glad you asked me that. See, I’ll even go farther than that. I had an experience, I played at a festival in Washington, D.C. and I got a chance to hear the Eureka Jazz Band. And, you hear them play, you just hear the band and you hear the lead trumpet player’s playing the melody, and probably more or less you hear the other sounds, the undertones sound. So, I had a chance to get right, I stood, they were standing one time, and I stood right in the midst of them.
LF: Were these old men from New Orleans?
ED: Yeah. And listened to them play, and I couldn’t see much difference between what I was doing to what they were doing, and the fact that they, more like, they were more tonal, of course, but they had a lot of freedom to what they were playing, because I could hear notes that they were playing, and, they didn’t have any, you know, very strongly, right into, strong chords, like a G chord, or a C chord, they were playing F-sharps, and C-sharps, of course they were passing tones, but they were improvising. And so, they were, I think they were the first freedom players.
ED: [?] and what I could say on that [?]. And uh. I think, as music has progressed, and guys are finding… The more knowledge, as music progresses, it just has led musicians to play this way, to use different forms. You have more to play.
Quite naturally, a musician coming up now, he has had more training. Not to say he’s better, I’m not saying he’s much better. I’m saying he has training, better equipped, that he has a little more technique, so he doesn’t know what to do with it. In the case of myself, I had to find something what to do. Not to say in the sense of finding something to do just to exhibit my technique, but to find something to do to enhance some kind of musical, make some kind of musical sense, and I found that within my playing that I could play notes, not at first, because at first I couldn’t hear these notes, so I wouldn’t play them. But as I play more and more I hear more notes to play against the more common chord progressions. And a lot of people say they’re wrong. Well, I can’t say they’re right, and I can’t say they’re wrong. To my hearing, they’re exactly correct. For my hearing I’m right, and…
LF: You think it’s just a matter of the listener becoming accustomed to it?
ED: Yeah. And, it just, it makes everything much more broader. To me, it gives me a much more broader, it gives me more things to play, it opens up a whole different type of hearing. Now, and, a lot of things, a lot of knowledge I have about, I knew about this quite a while ago but I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t hear, you know, and it’s not a case of just like, going out and you say “Well, I’m just gonna play anything”. I couldn’t make any musical sense out of it. I mean, to spell a line against what I hear. So that’s what I came about it.
ED: You know, like music contains like, rhythm, and pitch, time, space, and all these elements go into [?] improvisation, improvising, you have to take that into consideration. It’s not a question of just running notes. And so, a lot of people say they hear guys playing, they say “He’s just running notes.” Just to be running notes at random. But that isn’t true, because he has something in mind. And then he’s bending notes, and all these things. All this goes into this, this type of playing today.
LF: What about the harmonic point that has been made against, particularly against Coltrane, that he’ll play for 25 minutes on just 2 chords, and that this is actually retrogressive in terms of harmonic development in jazz?
ED: Well, I can’t speak for what Mr. Coltrane would say, but I can speak as far as what I could think. I know from listening and working with him, that he is, he plays SO much, and he has, a big, as we say, a bag, not a bag of tricks, but a bag of ideas that he has. And he gets, he has that moment, if I’ve noticed, he’s never said anything to me, but I’ve noticed from listening, that he doesn’t, he’ll play long sometimes, he can play long anyhow, he has such a thing that he can go through, sometimes he’ll get inspired at that moment, he’ll carry himself over, and I’ve seen, it is true of other players,
LF: Do you think he has enough to say on a limited number of chords to compensate for the lack of harmonic variation?
ED: Do you mean… Let me see if I’ve got that question right. Do you mean that he could say the same thing in a shorter length of time?
LF: No. I mean, that he’s saying the same thing on a very limited number of chords. He will very often play a number that is based only on 2 or 3 changes actually, 2 or 3 chords. Which is monotonous compared with the considerable harmonic complexity of say an Ellington thing, or even a tune like All the Things You Are. In other words, he doesn’t rely on changes.
ED: Yeah, well that’s… You see, that is another complexity in itself of playing on 1 or 2 changes. That is I think,
LF: It’s a challenge?
ED: It’s a challenge, and it’s, not even more of a challenge, but it’s even a, where a creative musician, if he IS creative enough, is to create on that limited an amount of, how should we say,
ED: something to work with. He doesn’t have but so much to work with. He creates out of that amount.
ED: This automatically gives him a little more time to think, and he can play, I’m sure that he can think, and it gives him the chance to unfold a lot more, a little thing, and basically … if music… Not speaking about Mr. Coltrane, but speaking about music in general, of all types of forms, like in Indian music, they only, if we listen to their music, they only have usually 1, in our Western music we can usually hear 1 minor chord, but usually they call it a raga, or scale, and they’ll play for 20 minutes.
LF: Yeah, that’s true.
ED: So, with them, like in talking to Mr. Shankar, Ravi Shankar, they study for quite a while to get enough material to even work with. So, like, not to say that the musicians are just doing this to keep up with the Indian musicians, but I think that it’s a little connection there, because, classical Indian music is the Indian music of the people, and jazz is the music of the American people, especially the American Negro, and it’s their music, so quite naturally, there’s something of a connection there, of people expressing themselves in the same way.
ED: And not only, I can’t say if Indian music and jazz, but to even go into other folk forms of music. I’ve noticed, I’ve heard it said that Bartok and Kodaly collected many folk themes on, what is their music, I forget their music, their particular music and where they’re from, their land…
LF: Yeah, Hungary.
ED: Hungary! I’ve heard records by them where they do things, and you hear them playing, this particular thing goes over and over, and to the listener that doesn’t pay attention close to the notes, the typical sound will get monotonous. But to the person that listens to the actual notes and the creation that’s going on and the building within the players and within themselves, they’ll notice that something is actually happening. So actually, I think that all this in a way has a connection with the artist over here, and everywhere; it’s not a question of anybody trying to outdo them and stuff, it’s just the fact that they’re just going through the same development. And out of this I’m sure will come something else, it just has to go ahead, has to go [?]
It took me a little while to appreciate this. Dolphy didn’t seem so articulate, but when I thought about what he’s saying it was quite enlightening. Basically I think he’s saying that you work to create music by studying but in the end that work is just a way to accomplish the task of making the music that you hear in your head, and that the technical aspects aren’t as interesting as the creative part.
Date created: February 6, 1998
Last modified: December 5, 1998
Copyright © 1997, Alan Saul
Maintained by: Alan Saul