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(Credit: Tom Palumbo)

Music

Revisiting the revolutionary brilliance of 'Bitches Brew' by Miles Davis

@DrewAlanWardle1

If Miles Davis should be known for anything, it should be said that he brought the conservative tendencies of jazz, which were counter-intuitive to the very essence of the genre, out of the dark ages. No one person controls jazz, and jazz is, of itself, a free-form style of art that thrives on improvisation and spontaneity.

In 1969, the musical art form was fizzling out quite a bit, as rock ‘n’ roll became the new popular style of music. “We played a lot of half-empty clubs,” Miles Davis noted in the official semi-autobiography, Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe. “That told me something. I started realising that most rock musicians didn’t know anything about music. I figured if they could sell all those records without knowing what they were really doing, I could too – only better.”

Miles Davis came into musical maturity amidst a cultural phenomenon, namely that of the age of ‘cool’. “The birth of cool took place in the shadows, among marginal characters, in cold-water flats and furnished basement rooms,” author Lewis MacAdams wrote. “Most mid-century Americans were defined by their role in World War II, but cool wasn’t drafted, and cool didn’t serve. Cool was too young, too weird, too queer, too black, too strung out, too alien to take part. Cool wasn’t part of the victory celebration,” he added.

Davis was at the epicentre of this culture and had been since the early ’50s; while not born into poverty, he threw himself, head first, into New York City’s violent drug culture and the wounds a city sustains because of this. To understand Davis’ musical creative process, one should understand the basis of existentialist philosophy, which intersected with the beboppers and the jazz cats in 1959. “One is free to act, but one must act to be free,” French philosopher Paul Sartre dictated. Everything about Miles Davis is the very essence of ‘acting free’.

With this came poverty and deep heroin addiction, which Davis struggled with throughout the ’50s. Despite Davis’ heavy heart, as reflected in most of his music, he had a good childhood; he grew up in St. Louis, Illinois, his father was a surgeon, and his family unit was tight. In 1944, Davis moved to New York City to study music at Julliard University, but he spent most of his University days out on the street; it was here that Davis learned from the best jazz musicians on the planet in the shape of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. 

When Davis entered the studio in New York with his band, he only had a few chord progressions and melody lines in mind. Beyond that, it was very much up to his band to elaborate on his minimal and aspiring ideas. In the studio, the players were sat in a semi-circle, Miles Davis was in the middle with his trumpet. “It was like an orchestra, and Miles was our conductor. We wore headphones,” Lenny White, who is one of the musicians, noted in an interview with The Guardian. “We had to be able to hear each other. There were no guests at that session. No photos allowed. But there was one guest that nobody talked about, Max Roach. All live recording, no overdubs. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three days,” he added.

Bitches Brew was an act of shooting in the dark; it was exploring new territory with no real sense of where they were headed next. The band consisted of Jack DeJohnette on drums, Dave Holland on bass, Chick Corea on keys, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. This was the live band; Also, in addition, there was a cast of other musicians who played in the studio. 

Starting with In a Silent Way, Miles’ 1969 record, and then with Bitches Brew in 1970, Davis introduced electric instruments to jazz as well as other genres such as funk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, thus creating jazz fusion. Even psychedelia found a place in Bitches Brew, and the unusual blending of genres would find a way into the record via Jimi Hendrix. “We had played together and I loved Jimi,” guitarist John McLaughlin once noted, before adding: “Miles had never seen him. So, I took him to this art movie theatre downtown to see the film Monterey Pop where Jimi ended by squirting lighter fluid on his guitar, setting it on fire. Miles was next to me saying: ‘Fuuck!’ He was enchanted.” McLaughlin, along with Chic Corea, played a significant role in making Bitches Brew electric. “In England, I had earned my living playing rhythm and blues, funk and R&B-jazz. So, Miles picked my brain for anything he could relate to,” McLaughlin said. 

The piano player, Corea, also began using an electronics instrument, as explained: “I was starting to make like electronic effects with the Fender Rhoades and the echoplex and ring modulator and some other electronic gadgets. The whole two years I was with him, was a time of constant trial and error of musical ideas.”

This constant trial and error embodied Miles Davis’ style and approach to composition – he only ever created basic starting points for his music. He would have an idea for a chord sequence, melody lines, and shout out tempo changes when in the studio. Davis would give active cues throughout the sessions when his intuition told him to go a different way with the music. During the quieter parts of Bitches Brew, you may even be able to hear Davis’ voice his instructions. McLaughlin remembers Davis saying, “play like you don’t know how to play the guitar. I just closed the score and started playing: no rhythm, no harmony, just playing the melody and casting my fate to the wind. He loved it.” He loved it so much that he called Davis “the Picasso of sound”.

In the summer of 1969, McLaughlin remembers that “it was clear that Miles wasn’t sure what he wanted.” McLaughlin added in an interview with The Guardian, “But he knew what he didn’t want. He didn’t want anything like what he had done before. He wanted it more rough and ready. We didn’t really have any scores, maybe just some chords he wrote down on a piece of paper from the bag he brought his coffee in. He’d set a tempo and we’d start. Every time we hit a groove, a really nice beat, he was happy and then he’d start playing. We just moved from one experiment to the next.” 

Bitches Brew was also revolutionary in the way that it used the recording studio as an actual instrument. When Miles Davis and his band were laying down tracks, the record button was constantly pushed, allowing the musicians to simply lay down a complete spontaneous act of musicality. “He was opening up from his strict little quartets and quintets,” biographer Quincy Troupe wrote. “He had access to a lot of different musicians and he could plug them in anytime he wanted to. And they were all young, energetic and different.” 

What producer, Teo Macero, was able to do with the endless tape of music was cut it up, utilise tape delay, and add other sounds to it. The studio was scentre an extension of the band. Troupe added that everything was “a maelstrom of music. Everything swirling around him, going in different directions at once. And he was at the center, directing everything like a mad scientist.”

On the anniversary of its release, revisit the incredible Bitches Brew, below.