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Analysis of How Modal Jazz Was Pioneered by Miles Davis 

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Born on the 26th of May 1926 in Alton, Illinois, not far up the Mississippi river from East St. Louis, Miles Dewey Davis III was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He is regarded as one of the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music. Miles Davis ‘adopted a variety of musical directions in a five-decade career that kept him at the forefront of many major stylistic developments in jazz’.

Miles Davis first started playing trumpet in grade school, despite his mother’s desires for him to pursue violin. In school once a week on a Wednesday at 2:30 he along with his class would be taught how to hold a note on the instrument. “Everybody would fight to play best. Lucky for me, I learned to play the chromatic scale right away… so I wouldn’t have to sit there and hold that note all the time”. Miles Davis continued to play the trumpet all throughout school beginning formal lessons in the sixth grade at the Attucks grade school with Elwood C. Buchanan, a professional musician. And later, in his life had lessons with Joseph Gustat, the principle trumpet player of the St Louis symphony orchestra, whom Miles had seen many times. Gustat focused heavily on technique and having proper technique which helped the early stages of his development as a trumpet player. There is a story from the book ‘The life of Miles Davis’ where it states that when Miles first played in front of Gustat he told him that he was the worst trumpet player that he had ever heard, but Miles took the criticism took the criticism in his stride and worked all the harder practicing longer, working on the fundamentals. From a very young got introduced into the jazz community of East St. Louis where he would go and would play in gigs with his own bands or in his teenage years be asked to sit in or play with some of the visiting bands in town such as at sixteen where Miles tried out for Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils at the Castle Ballroom in St Louis where Randall’s band was appearing, Miles auditioned for the band in front of the evenings audience. He was hired and began gaining respect from other musicians and other musicians in the audience. Randle’s group was the house band at the Rhumboogie club in the Elks club where they had a weekly job playing to an audience often accompanying singers, comedians and dancers. During this stint with the band young Miles Davis got to play with artists such as Howard Mcghee and Sonny Stitt who once sat in on a gig with the band. Sonny Stitt was impressed with Miles and later that night came over to the Davis’ house to teach miles some ‘little licks. He also tried to enlist Miles into his band that was touring currently, Tiny Bradshaw, but Miles’ mother would not let him. Over time Miles began to build a good reputation in the area and received praise from other high-profile musicians such as Lester young and other bands such as Illinois Jacquet. Miles went on to play with other amazing bands and artists in the St Louis area including when Dizzy Gilespie asked him to sit in for a trumpet player who had had a haemorrhage in Dizzy’s band ‘Eckstine’ in Club Riviera. This band featured some jazz superstars such as Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Lucky Thompson and the legendary alto sax player Charlie Parker. Miles was substituted in for the ill player and was good enough to last the week in St Louis but not good enough to go on to the next tour location in Chicago with them. During this time was when Miles graduated from High school and would go on to study at Julliard school of music in New York City. However during his time at Juliard Davis left his studies and made his professional debut as a member of Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet, whom he had played with before in Eckstine. He was part of this band from 1944 to 1948. This time in Miles Davis’ life is when his career in music began to really begin with him releasing his own music a few years later.

Miles Davis was considered as a creator and shaper of many different styles of jazz such as cool jazz where albums such as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ helped pioneer this style in 1957 and the style jazz fusion which Miles pioneered through the album ‘Bitches Brew’, the album ‘mixed free jazz blowing by a large ensemble with electronic keyboards and guitar, plus a dense mix of percussion.’ Davis also drew on rock music by playing his trumpet through electronic effects and pedals on this album which led to some critique from other artists saying that this album was not jazz, and that Miles was moving away from the jazz music everyone knew him for. However, the style of jazz music that Miles Davis particularly sticks out as being a pioneer and populariser of is modal jazz. The term ‘modal jazz’ refers to improvisational music that is organised in a horizontal way rather than a chordal vertical manner. By de-emphasising the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means through melody, rhythm, timbre and emotion. A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be derived from the prevailing mode. The creator of said approach to music was George Russell who wrote the book ‘lydian chromatic concept of tonal organisation’ in which Russell’s work postulates that all music is based on the tonal gravity of the Lydian mode. This is the book that influenced certain New York musicians in the 1940s and 50s with Miles Davis and Bill Evans being two of them which led Miles Davis to begin exploring the idea of modal music further.

The first of example we hear of Miles Davis using modal concepts in music is in 1958 when he is set the task of creating the music (soundtrack) for a French film called Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He was keen to contribute to the film, a thriller which starred Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as lovers who conspire to kill Moreau’s husband and then face some sobering consequences. “I agreed to do it and it was a great learning experience,” Miles wrote in his autobiography, “because I had never written a music score for a film before.” Miles wrote the music whilst in Paris taking a tour of Europe, which he did because of the always present racism in America at the time, as the tour only took up a few days during the three weeks Miles was in Paris, the trumpeter was able to spend some time working on the score. “I would look at the rushes of the film and would get musical ideas to write down,” he explained. Reviews stated that his trumpet has never sounded so desolate and forlorn, especially on the opening cut, ‘Générique’, which is slow, portentous and peppered with blues inflections. More melancholy still is ‘L’Assassinat De Carala’, on which Miles’ horn combines with funereal piano chords to depict a murder scene. Brighter moments can be found, however, on the super-fast ‘Diner Au Motel’ and ‘Sur L’Autoroute’, both of which are propelled by Kenny Clarke’s busy brushwork. Stylistically, the revered Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud soundtrack album was also significant because it deliberately avoided the language of bebop, with Miles preferring to adopt a modal vocabulary showing the shift that was beginning to happen in his music (Malle, 1958). The film turned out to be a great success and all though the film has been long forgotten the soundtrack remains one of Miles’ greatest albums as it really signifies the beginning of the modal era of jazz and how Miles really pioneered and began to experiment with modal jazz. Along with that in 1958 came another classic Miles Davis album called milestones which is an album recorded in February and March 1958 by Miles Davis. It is renowned for including Miles’ first forays into the developing modal jazz experiments, as noticed on the piece ‘Milestones’. This album was the first glimpse of Miles starting to experiment with modal jazz. This album is significant in another way as it was also the last time the rhythm section of Jones, Garland and Chambers would ever play with Miles on record.

However, there is another project that Miles Davis did that is quite possibly one of his greatest both for him and not just jazz music but all forms of music. The album that really pushed and changed the course of jazz forever and put modal jazz at the forefront of the music in the 1960’s. This project being known as the ‘Kind of blue’ Album. The album was recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959, at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City, it was then later released on August 17 of that year by Columbia Records. The album features the Miles Davis’ ensemble sextet consisting of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and alto saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, with former band pianist Bill Evans appearing on most of the tracks in place of Kelly. In part owing to Evans joining the sextet during 1958, Davis followed up on the partial modal experimentation of Milestones by basing Kind of Blue entirely on modality. The entire album was composed as a series of modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style. In an interview that year with critic Nat Hentoff, Miles explained the new approach. ‘When you go this way,’ he said, ‘you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. … I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.’ This last sentence about chords threw up a problem for miles before recording the album and that was he needed a piano player who was able to accompany with fewer chords. This was a radical notion. Laying down the chords — supplying the frontline horn players with the compass that kept their improvisations on the right path — was what modern jazz pianists did. Russell recommended someone he’d hired for a few of his own sessions, an intense young white man named Bill Evans. Evans trained at a music conservatoire with a penchant for the French Impressionist composers, like Ravel and Debussy, whose harmonies floated airily above the melody line. When Evans started playing jazz, he tended not to play the root of a chord; for instance, when playing a C chord, he’d avoid playing a C note. Instead, he’d play some other note in, or hovering around, the chord, suggesting the chord without locking himself into its restraints. The clearest example of this style of playing by Bill is a piece, composed by Evans, called ‘Flamenco Sketches.’ At most jazz sessions, the sheet music that the leader passes around to the band consists of ‘heads’ — the first 12 or so bars of a tune, with the chords notated above. The band plays the head, then each player improvises on the chords. But for ‘Flamenco Sketches,’ Evans had jotted down the notes of five scales, each of which expressed a slightly different mood. At the top of the sheet, he wrote, ‘Play in the sound of these scales.’ For the two saxophone players John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley they found this difficult to perform well on as even though they were both incredible improvisers they built their improvisation creations strictly from the chords that would usually be given on a standard chart. This shows the level of forward thinking that both Bill Evans and Miles Davis thought of for their music which at the time was incredibly revolutionary and is why they are considered such pioneers and huge shapers of jazz music and all music alike through this shift from modal jazz and the departure of bebop which before this album was the most played and popular style of jazz to play.

The departure from bebop is clear from the album’s opening tune, ‘So What,’ which would emerge as this new sound’s anthem. Evans describes it on the album’s liner notes as ‘a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, 8 of another and 8 more of the first … in free rhythmic style.’ On the ‘So What,’ Davis improvises on a single scale for any length of time then when Bill Evans signals a shift to a different scale this is when Miles would also change to fit with the movement. Compare this with ‘Freddie Freeloader,’ the album’s only conventional blues. Structurally, it’s similar to the early bebop tunes that Davis played with Parker in the mid-1940s, the melody latched to the pianist’s chord changes, which occur nearly every bar, as in this 1946 Parker recording of ‘Ornithology’ with Davis as sideman. It should be noted that due to this familiarity in bop like tunes this is the only piece that Bill Evans doesn’t play on and the part is resumed to Miles’ usual pianist Wynton Kelly as this piece is more typical of what Kelly is used to. Bill Evans played on all other tracks which incorporated the modal ideas that Miles had come up with and that Bill could comprehend and play beautifully. Now contrast these conventional bop pieces with the most fully developed piece of ‘modal’ jazz’ on Kind of Blue, called ‘All Blues’. It has the same feel as the other blues tunes but the horns blow harmony in the background, they are playing the same notes in each bar; they’re not shifting them to follow the chord changes; there are no chord changes. It sounds ‘kind of blue’ hence the name of the album being called this. Journalist Ed Bradley describes kind of blue as being ‘one of the single greatest achievements in recorded music’ with Herbie Hancock calling it a ‘cornerstone record not just for jazz but for all music’. 

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Analysis Of How Modal Jazz Was Pioneered By Miles Davis . (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from
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