Culture  /  Biography

Not Not Jazz

When Miles Davis went electric in the late 1960s, he overhauled his thinking about songs, genres, and what it meant to lead a band.

On May 17, 1968, at Columbia Studios in New York, Davis asked Ron Carter to switch from his usual upright bass to electric bass for recording a track called “Stuff.” Presumably Davis wanted stronger, simpler vamps to go up against Tony Williams’ soul-boogaloo drum pattern. “Stuff” was the start of something, but it was a hip failure, awkward and draggy. Besides, Carter generally did not want to be playing electric bass. Soon after, though apparently not for that particular reason, he quit the group; his departure helped set into motion the quintet’s dissolution.

For about a dozen years, Davis had been one of the rare subjects of fascination and controversy within the tradition of jazz for people outside that tradition. (He keenly hated the word “jazz,” but whatever it is, he was central to it.) Restlessness was part of his self-identity, as was a desire for a greater market share, although he did not strictly want to attend to his audience’s desires. Though his records were often considered the height of taste, the state of the art, et cetera, the power and commercial success he’d commanded across race and genre and nationality with Kind of Blue (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960) were not repeated with the second quintet.

Which is perhaps why he eventually took a suggestion from the record producer Clive Davis: to play on concert bills with rock bands. This involved amplification. If you were insulted by the sound of amplified instruments, well, then, for you his music ended there. But amplification for Davis wasn’t about making music dominating and trendy and feckless. It was about bringing layered drumming and danceable rhythms to the top and adjusting the volume of other instruments accordingly. On stage, with a wireless microphone attached to his trumpet, he could roam and act as conductor. Delay and reverb brought out more colors in his tone. 

Davis’s desire for amplification may have also been about assuming majesty rather than asking for space. He aspired to be the sort of successful artist who could make the ensembles and records and concerts that he wanted, when he wanted, such that he didn’t particularly have to worry about marketing, audiences, and critics; such that a lot of people might listen and perhaps be taken aback or love it, but he would not necessarily care if they did not—because it was not his job to care, only to keep experimenting.