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Miles Davis - Precursor of Genre Disillusionment

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

On this, the 85th anniversary of Miles Davis' birthday, I'm thinking a lot about his influence in the genre of jazz, specifically how Miles has done all he could in his chameleonic career. Especially as Miles went into the 1970s, his tastes expanded beyond the seemingly limited jazz pastiche and was met with much confusion and controversy. As Miles' work grew in complexity and influence, he yearned to escape the jazz nomenclature. At the time, fighting to escape jazz's confines seemed quite natural. Even today, seeking out a new title or abandoning genre classifications altogether isn't all that uncommon, but I continually posit that such thinking is unnecessary.

While I believe wholeheartedly in expanding jazz as a genre to include elements of other influences while still holding to its core tenets, there are others who are essentially following these practices while (unnecessarily) abandoning the name. The largest transgressor I’ve seen of this is young pianist Austin Peralta (or at least the one who I feel is most vocal in this thinking as of late). Of course, I stan for Peralta. I stan for him harder than anyone I know. But time and again, I’ll hear him in interviews or read comments of his online about how he’s tossing off the confines of genre, all the while playing the kind of fringe jazz that others of his ilk are playing and not shying away from the title of jazz musician. I find it annoying when traditionalists say that jazz that doesn’t share the exact same attributes as classic jazz pre-bebop cannot be considered within the genre. I find it even more irritating that as the genre continues to sort out these issues and faces more openness than before, people are still trying to flee the title. It may have made sense in the age of Miles (although I still feel he should have fought it out in his time), but with more support today, this seems more like a fight worth having.

At some point, the notion of the sub-genre became peculiarly abhorrent to folks of our ilk. I can't quite discern when it happened, but many in the field of jazz grew to avoid the avuncular titles of bebop, free, or even smooth and instead chose to leave the covering of the jazz umbrella altogether. Maybe it was Miles who tried to be the first, most prominent figure to do this. His rationale may have even been valid-- what he was venturing to do as he entered into his electric period was starkly different from anything the genre had seen before. He endeavored to work alongside Jimi Hendrix before Hendrix's passing. His sound was more in line with Frank Zappa during that period than any of his contemporaries. Still, even Zappa went through a jazz fusion period (with George Duke in tow, at that). Those with whom Miles worked in his electric period like Chick Corea and John McLaughlin eventually ventured off to become vanguards of jazz fusion, another sub-genre of the jazz pastiche instead of an entirely new genre altogether as Miles had tried to state he was doing. (Corea even revisits straight ahead, acoustic jazz from time to time, embracing all he sees fit of jazz's influences whenever he so chooses in his long-standing, very respectable career.) Try as he might, jazz is a genre far too amorphous to either confine to rigid standards or to cast aside those same misconceived limitations.

With this in mind, we must continue to remain cognizant of the lines that separate genres, au courant to the blurring of these lines, but vigilant in the effort to keep jazz vibrant, thriving, and growing. It's a delicate line to straddle and work that will never cease, but music isn't easy, especially not jazz, no matter how much some may want to run away from that title.

We have a lot to learn from Miles: deep listening and attentiveness is important (and sideeye-worth if neglected); sometimes less is more; never be afraid to venture out and try new things; heroin is really no good for you; never ever ever hit a woman, especially not Cicely Tyson, for she was the one who suggested to God the idea of establishing a firmament in the midst of the waters and I hear tell she's related to Duncan MacCleod of the Clan MacCleod. (Okay, one more: Cicely Tyson is so old she was there the first day of slavery.) On this Miles Davis Day, as we should everyday, we should parse what we can from Miles, the good and the bad, and do what works. One of jazz’s greatest figures is worthy of such attention and accolades, but while he was in many respects ahead of his time, jazz is catching up to him in certain respects. The umbrella has widened; there’s little need to fear its cover now.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a co-editor of the online literary blog, SunDryed Affairs, a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.