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Miles Davis in Jazz Fusion: The Reform and Development

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Among all the music genres, jazz places a significant role in art history. The American jazz critic Ted Gioia states that “Jazz has always been a music of fusion. ‘Nothing from New Orleans is ever pure’ — so goes an old throwaway phrase”. If speaking from the whole course of development of jazz, its history is long. Jazz is the result of black African’s traditional folk music and the European classical music of fusion. They collided with each other in the 19th century. Impure at its birth, jazz separates into a myriad of kinds. And jazz fusion is a hybrid derivative based on the evolution of jazz music. It refers to a specific type of rock-influenced jazz from the 1970s to the 80s. For assimilating more in-depth knowledge on the evolution of jazz, this essay will take an omnidirectional view on the jazz fusion history on the formation and development, and there is an outstanding master influenced a lot in the jazz-rock history: Davis Miles and his band.

After the American Civil War, the African slaves won their freedom but still lived in poverty. Most of them were uneducated. So, they could only entertain themselves by the music cultivated from their hometown. That is the process that how jazz derived from the African- American’s community in New Orleans in the late 19th century. It started from scratch and became the most distinguished native American music art genre in one century. No matter Blues, Ragtime, March or Swing, each of them stands apart from others and owns their unique features. Until today, every category is active on the stage with different interpretations of jazz. The strong and lasting vitality broke the geography, race and national boundaries.

Whenever there is a music style becomes rigid, a more eye-catching one will be generated to satisfy people’s appetites. Jazz fusion is one of the branches of jazz and a typical musical expression form. In the late 1960s, jazz was encountered a crisis: rock music came to the stage, and young audiences prefer to rock music, old audiences were no longer obsessed with abstract and simplex jazz. Hence, musicians realized that if they want to take audiences’ hearts back, they have to add and combine different musical elements to create a unique and novel one to attract audiences’ attention. Since the city’s population was diverse, the music also interacted with another. Jazz fusion absorbed different musical styles from different cultures, and inherited New Orleans Traditional Jazz, and gradually form a variety of fusion music today. The author of Genre of Popular Music Fabian also demonstrates that “This fusion primarily appealed to younger generations but not to specialists with a solid grounding in the tradition. Commercial interests among producers were strong because a musical blend with popular styles has the potential to cross over and thus reach a large market”. The charisma of fusion is it highlights contemporary electric bass instead of using acoustic bass, electronic synthesizer instead of piano, etc. It also adds more integration with classical and rock styles to make it sounds more modern and bolder. Any music element can be used as a recipe to cook the jazz feast, which is refreshing and jazz-colored and is loved by more people. Comparing to traditional jazz, fusion is a big reform in jazz history. From the 20th century, the crossover music went virus throughout the world.

How does fusion come to existence? For elaborating on the existence of fusion, there is one man should be nominated — Miles Davis. Miles Davis was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. Throughout his life, he has conducted in-depth research on many styles of jazz music. More importantly, he is the grandfather of Fusion jazz. He studied in The Juilliard School in New York and left the school and started performing in the 52th street bar. In 1964, when the Beatles went virus in the world, Davis found that the traditional rock music matched the potential market of jazz, and created Jazz Rock, later was known as Fusion, which attracted many rock fans to join the jazz market. He was known for his slow, resentful and singular tastes. He liked to imitate the train, the voice of old men and the electric guitars sound. The author of Miles Davis: A New Revolution in Sound evaluates that “A major characteristic of Davis’s playing was a new and different way of phrasing in which a major emphasis and focus on the relationship of space to tempo and melody (and the intervals between notes) became the hallmark of his style. In the process, Davis dramatically redefined and expanded the expressive and creative range of the tonal palette and instrumental timbre of the trumpet”. The appreciation from Kofi describes Mile Davis’s work accurately. As long as his songs came out, it became of an object of worship for musicians to follow. He is a musician that always hold a learning mood to observe new objects every day and be willing to accept new ideas. His obsession with jazz and his self-subversive persisted for many years and made his success. Miles Davis is a real revolutionist, he has been breaking through on himself and the entire history of music.

Miles Davis’s fusion transformation involves his second impressive quintet. He took a larger variety of musical views into his band. His group has been shifted and changed for several years at the beginning of the 1960s. He finally settled for a classic quintet for four years. The band consists of Miles Davis on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. Davis hired the rhythm section of Hancock, Carter, and Williams in 1963, and Shorter joined the group until September 1964. The group interacted at a high level in the jazz’s history and developed Jazz-rock later. The band incorporated electric bass, guitar, and keys into their sound. Wayne Shorter became the principal composer of the band, and they published six studio recordings from 1964-1968. Miles Davis even took over the composing duty and composed one of his masterpieces– In a Silent Way. While the cooperation with Miles Davis, the quintet explored a host of improvisational and accompanied techniques that departed from standard practice. The performers cooperated with unique strategies and formed their jazz playing style. In the book The Studio Recordings of Miles Davis, 1965-1968, author Waters states that “They (Quintet) also explored a host of improvisational and accompaniment techniques that departed from standard hard bop practice. The players redefined spontaneous small-group interaction, particularly by working through techniques of harmonic substitution and superimposition, metrical conflict, and metric modulation. In works that used repeated chorus structure during improvisation, these techniques had important implications for musical form since they could work either to delineate or disguise important formal junctures.” Through using these techniques, quintet did not flow the ordinary way of cooperation, what they did is to add more extraordinary techniques to make the brand stand out. During the four years, the band released six recordings together: They are: E.S.P, Davis Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. Among them, Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro pointed the fusion phrase of Miles Davis’s career. They differed qualitatively from the earlier recordings, and it was a turning point for the group. The differences are distinctive, Waters demonstrates that “For example, the use of electric piano and bass, and the use of single extended tonal centers for improvisation, and the importation of rock-based straight-eight rhythm all adumbrated an imminent shift to jazz-rock fusion”. The quintet was seminal, through their compositional, melodic and harmonic strategies. With the use of rock rhythms and pedal points of improvisation, Miles Davis and his quintet use electrical devices to alter the acoustic sounds of instruments and entered specific innovations in their work.

On 19 August 1969, after the end of the Woodstock festival, Davis and other musicians have approached soul and rock. His work Bitches Brew was recognized as the greatest jazz albums that have an influential effect on jazz history. Fabian mentioned, “Many of the young musicians in Miles’s band were not initially keen on doing rock-influenced jazz, but this album made fusion seem financially attractive, and they would soon adopt his model and form their fusion bands”. Bitches Brew quickly sold over 400,000 copies and became the first big commercial success of rock-influenced jazz. It is not only a symbol of the beginning of fusion, but also inspires tons of people to imitate and expand the jazz enthusiasm; it is not only a creation of a style but also a refreshing of music worldview and cultural quality. Miles Davis laid the foundation for Jazz Fusion. The song has achieved great commercial success and extended the jazz audience to a wider range. It becomes a revolutionary album and sets a model for other musicians. After Davis underwent a car accident, his larynx constricted his breath and left him short-winded when he played the trump. His drug and alcohol problem deteriorate his health condition. Soon Davis had retired from the music scene.

Another contribution that Miles Davis has been done is the not only constantly broke through his music, but also affirmed a bunch of his cooperators and juniors. Miles Davis is the one who sets the foundation of Fusion, and Herbie Hancock is the one who develops Jazz fusion. Herbie Hancock is a modern jazz pianist, keyboardist, bandleader. He experienced Jazz fusion, funk and electro styles. In 1963, Hancock joined Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet and played as a pianist. After Davis continued his work on Jazz function, the band disbanded. In 1968, he yielded his band, and all the work was all original work composed by himself. The band became the most influential one on Jazz-rock. In 1969, Hancock widely used electronic pianos and other electronic instruments, including some synthesizers. In 1973, Hancock underwent a financial issue, and he was forced to change his band into Jazz-funk, but the style is still fusion. In Herbie Hancock’s discovery in music, he transcended all the limitations and styles, and also kept his unique voice.

Miles Davis’s role goes beyond as a leader of the Quintet, he also invented and created a brand new genre in Jazz. His quintet contributed an artistic inspiration for his innovation, and became not only a notable jazz player but also the founder of Jazz-rock fusion and promoted the development of jazz in music history. Among his supreme honors, the endeavors of Miles Davis are hard to pinpoint.

Works cited

  • Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/pensu/detail.action?docID=689294.
  • Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music, University of Chicago Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/pensu/detail.action?docID=686254.
  • Natambu, Kofi. ‘Miles Davis: A New Revolution in Sound.’ Black Renaissance, vol. 14, no. 2, 2014, pp. 36-39,198. ProQuest, http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1651365034?accountid=13158.
  • Waters, Keith. The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  • https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/pensu/reader.action?docID=679598 

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