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The Gospel According to Miles

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-In-Chief / @retronius

Originally published in Reflections Magazine, an [African-American Reflections] publication.

I have been blessed to write about what I have called time and again “my first love after Jesus.” I find it to be a rather thrilling task to undertake, but it comes with a certain challenge. In essence, I’m speaking about an art form that many consider dead. There are those who when talk of jazz comes up, thoughts go to Nat King Cole or Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Few think about the players today like Vijay Iyer or Brad Mehldau, Gretchen Parlato or Esperanza Spalding. Jazz is a form that continually grows, advances, and adapts to the times but what it doesn’t seem to do is let enough people know about those changes.

Yet, there are purists out there who think these radical changes are heading in the wrong direction. There are factions and splits in the jazz world. Frankly, the more I think about my second love, jazz, I think more and more about my first love, Jesus. There are many parallels between jazz and Christianity. One ideal way to look at this is to find jazz’s Apostle Paul: Miles Davis.

As the Apostle Paul was the priest to the Gentiles, Miles Davis is that universal figure everyone thinks about in jazz who managed to represent every major period in jazz from the 1950s onward, even ideologically to today, in much the same way that Paul spoke at length about the past of Judaism to form the future of Christianity.

There are the obvious parallels. Both had contentious relationships with women. Both were rather stubborn and cantankerous. Both have large bodies of work. Both covered other people’s material (Miles never wrote “Seven Steps to Heaven,” one of his best covers is the Crosby Stills Nash & Young tune, “Guinnevere,” while Paul clearly cited Old Testament texts to explain new Christian ideologies).

But what’s most important is that both of these men stood at the forefront of their respective disciplines. Paul spread Christianity to the masses. Through his teachings, more people were led to that newfangled Savior that folks have been talking about lately. Miles was the one who made jazz palatable to many in his time and managed to do so early on playing bebop, in 1959 when he released Kind of Blue, in his electric period when he refused to play jazz, and in his late period when he went smooth but didn’t sound atrocious doing so. Miles, like the Apostle Paul, managed to change and adapt to the times and be all things to all people but manage do to so uncompromisingly.

Christianity would not be what it is today if Paul did not teach that it’s a wide, open religion, although dictating half the New Testament from a prison cell doesn’t hurt either. Jazz would not be what it is through all its permutations if it weren’t for Miles Davis, always ahead of the curve and leaving others in his dust even today. Through Miles, musicians find the inspiration to move forward in the genre. Where Miles could play with little rehearsal, jazz groups today knock out albums in single takes and do so with irregular time signatures. Where Paul wanted to make sure Christianity was displayed accurately, Miles wanted to do the same with his music, especially when he felt the label of “jazz” musician was too stifling and most certainly a turn off.

Essentially, one must go to the old adage, “you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” Miles Davis has clearly been everywhere jazz was and is today. If you want to begin to understand how great and truly inclusive this genre of music is, it’s not a bad idea to start with Miles Davis. Don’t just stop at Kind of Blue either, but listen to him cover Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” or play with Gil Evans’ orchestra for Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Hear him move into smooth jazz with Marcus Miller on Tutu and Amandla or even in his hip hop hybrid Doo Bop. It’s an endeavor, it’s a journey, but learning to love jazz is well worth it, sort of like Christianity.

Anthony Dean-Harris is 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].