Miles Davis died 20 years ago, on September 28, 1991.
I later heard a music critic say, "The two greatest composers of the 20th century are Igor Stravinsky and Miles Davis."
I'll give him Stravinsky, but maybe now is a good time to see if such an accolade for a jazz trumpeter is deserved.
There's no doubt that Davis was a mover and shaker in jazz. His long career ran through many styles, but he didn't just follow styles. Miles (that's what we Milesophiles call him) defined and redefined jazz with a restless talent that couldn't stay put. From bebop to funk, from cool to fusion, from big band to Latin rhythms, he sometimes pulled and sometimes pushed jazz to new territory. Think about his album titles: "Kind of Blue," "Birth of the Cool" and "Milestones." These are not just tunes, but statements about a whole genre.
Miles could strut and he could swing. He could quick-step, saunter, lay back and ramble about. And he consistently assembled musicians who could keep up.
I remember one night in the mid '70s, sitting on a balcony, transfixed by Miles in electric funk and fusion mode, pounding out hypnotic phrases, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind the beat, extending tunes past the 10-minute mark, squeezing out every bit of musical potential.
He could leave listeners behind, too. A fellow discussing classical music once said, "I like jazz, some of it, not Miles Davis or anything, but the good stuff." People said the same thing about Stravinsky and Picasso, too.
Miles is music's Picasso. His huge role in shaping modern music is akin to the painter's legacy in many ways, from the prodigious ability constantly searching for new outlets to having an equal genius as a counterpoint. For, if Miles is a Picasso, then he had his Matisse in Louis Armstrong. It's been said that Matisse was a better painter, but Picasso a better artist. Miles's technique was certainly not as precise or brilliant as Armstrong's, but his playing was somehow edgier, deeper. And not for everybody.
David Brooks, the political columnist, acknowledged this July 3: "Being led by Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern." A bit of a slap at the president, perhaps, but a compliment to the music.
To make up your own mind, try the crisp drive of "Milestones" and the laid-back insouciance of "So What."
Then, step it up a notch. Miles isn't just in the jazz hall of fame, he's in the rock-and-roll one, too, His versions of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" are as classic as John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" adventures.
My favorite, though, is a version of Cyndy Lauper's "Time After Time," from the album, "Miles Davis Around the World." Recorded a couple of years before his death, Miles shapes and stretches the pop song into a tour de force. Here, it seems as though there are emotions pouring out of his horn, as well as musical notes. This is what makes Miles one of the greatest composers. His genius touched not only the craft and art of music, but on a deeper level, helps us feel what it means to be human.