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(Credit: Tom Palumbo)


Why do so many rock stars love Miles Davis?

“Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.” – Miles Davis

There is no genre on earth quite as divisive as jazz. It achieves a level of bipartisan polarity that a political Twitter breakdown of the texture of mushrooms could only dream of achieving. The word jazz is often exclusively followed by the word aficionado. It is not a description that you find in the lower brow circles of the music world. For instance, you don’t really get pop or folk aficionado’s; you simply get fans. In short, it is an acquired taste.

However, within the love/hate realm of music’s most challenging handshake is the unifying force of Miles Davis whom every rock star under the sun seems to hold in enlightened esteem. 

The trumpeter was responsible for spearheading the evolution of jazz through the ages. He pioneered ‘cool jazz’ in 1949-50, he then led the charge to ‘hard bop’ in the mid-1950s, then onto ‘modal jazz’ and ‘Avant bop’, before arriving at ‘jazz rock’ in the later years of his career. 

As he made his way through the variants of jazz in a kaleidoscopic blur of rhythmic invention and rule rehashing, he concocted a Kind of Blue which is widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time. Thereafter he turned out an album that was perhaps even more influential, particularly in rock ‘n’ roll circles, with Bitches Brew

The melee of influences all swirled together on Bitches Brew was so revolutionary that guitarist John McLaughlin described it as sounding “like the future” and he declared him the “Picasso in sound”. It now resides as the jazz record undoubtedly most ubiquitous amid the record racks of rock stars the world over.

Below, we’re going to be delving into why.

Which musicians like Miles Davis?

Perhaps “like” is the wrong word here, as the amassment of quotes in tribute to the jazzman read more like eulogises penned to the inventor of the wheel.

The list of luminaries in support of his work is every growing, however, amid his definitive notable mega-fans are: Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, John Lydon, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Damon Albarn, John Mayer, Paul Weller, Patti Smith, Mike Patton, Wayne Coyne, Jason Pierce, Jerry Garcia, The Band, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Santana, Steppenwolf, Brian Eno, Portishead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Prince, David Byrne, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Nina Simone…to name just a few.

Miles David has influenced countless musicians. (Credit: William Gottlieb)

Why do they like him?

Miles Davis once said, “I have to change, it’s like a curse.” And this was a mantra ratified by his frequent drumming collaborator, the legendary Billy Cobham, who said that “everything was experimentation. There was not one moment that whatever was put on a piece of paper would not be changed.” 

This endless innovation and drive to the future is mirrored in what David Bowie said when he philosophically declared: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it.” If rock music is about staying ahead of the curve while simultaneously staying true to snatching the surge rising from the void and giving voice to it, then Davis’ soulful propagation of fevered imagination is an ethos akin to the very best fuzzed pedalled leather-clad rockers that followed. 

What’s more, the iconic Bitches Brew upset legions of jazz purists upon its release before amassing a following and this sort of spiritual iconoclasm is what rock stars are always aiming to achieve. Prior to its release, Miles Davis was busying himself playing to 100 people if he was lucky in the mid-sixties, then he alchemically crafted ‘rock jazz’ and ended up performing alongside the likes of The Who and Jimi Hendrix in front of more than half a million people at the Isle of Wight Festival. 

Much like the aforementioned Bowie, he was also a master at creating a cultural oeuvre that broadened an audience’s horizons. Whether it was the beat literature of William S. Burroughs which he continually touted in dispatches as an inspiration or foisting the brilliance of John Coltrane upon the world, like many of the best rock musicians he created a bohemian realm within his trailblazing wake. 

Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Max Roach. (Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

What were Miles Davis’ musical impacts?

In a musicological sense, he also attracts the attention of rock musicians. For instance, in order to create a tonally softer and more resonant trumpet sound he continually innovated with different mutes (attachments to the end of a trumpet), most notably the Harmon Mute. This was essentially the jazz trumpet innovating equivalent of what psychedelic rock artists such as Kevin Parker of Tame Impala propagates with guitar effects pedals in the current day. 

Note bending is also profuse in Davis’ work which highlights the inflexions and intonations that make his sound instantly recognisable. For many guitarists crafting a synonymous sonic atmosphere is the ultimate compliment, thus their admiration for Davis in this regard is one of profound envy.

Lastly, (albeit there is no doubt many more reasons), he was an instinctive musician who played by his own rules. Even the most ardent Davis loving trumpet teacher would be hard pushed to recommend any student arches about the stage like one of those inflatable characters outside of car dealerships in the way that Davis does, and the same could be said for Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth, but in both cases, it exhibits a mastery and sui generis soul that no musician could thumb their nose at.

Howard McGhee, Brick Fleagle and Miles Davis, 1947. (Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

What have rock musicians said in praise of Miles Davis?

Nick Cave told The Quietus: “I love all of those live albums around Get Up With It but I think it’s On The Corner is one that I really like. It really stands out because the band use solos in the same way as a lot of that jazz stuff… with egalitarianism between the instruments that creates this incredibly unique wall of sound that I just love so much. It doesn’t draw you in to any particular instrument like most music does; and I really enjoy listening to music in that way. And the playing on it is amazing. On The Corner… I remember first hearing it and it wasn’t that long ago. Maybe 15-years-ago and it had that [starts stamping on floor and clapping hands to rhythm] hand clap rhythm to it and I remember being as completely knocked out by it as I was when I heard John Lee Hooker for the first time.”

Damon Albarn told The Fader: “Miles Davis attacks. Some of it’s toxin and some of it’s anti-toxin, but you could listen forever because of the way it’s been put together… Miles was taking huge chunks of recordings and chopping them, then piecing them together. It seems like such an obvious evolution from there to where we are now, but that was like 10 or 15 years before the technology was available. And that’s exactly what a leader should do – you should hear a leader say, ‘And I’ve seen into the future’.”

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason told the Telegraph: “Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson is probably the greatest groove album of all time.”

Jeff Beck told the Express: “A Tribute to Jack Johnson got me out of the gutter after my split with Rod Stewart. I was working on a car outside my house when this amazing free-form shuffle came on the radio. Davis’s trumpet comes in randomly with the melody and that freedom appealed to me. McLaughlin played on this as well and gave me my next career move.”

Joni Mitchell told Daniel Levitin “I spent the days after his death painting a portrait of him as I frequently do when I lose somebody that I cared for. I approached him on many occasions to play with me see, and he wouldn’t play with me. When he died, his son inherited his record collection, and he said to me, “Joni, did you give Dad all your records?” I said “no, on a couple of occasions I gave him just a tape that I wanted him to play on and an art print to bribe him, or something.” He said, “well he had all your records. And at the end he moved your print from the bathroom up to the side of his bed.”

Iggy Pop told The Quietus: “25 years ago more or less I found Sketches Of Spain and Jack Johnson on vinyl in a no frills used record shop in NYC. I paid less than $5 for the two. They have been my inspiring companions ever since. The one tears me apart and the other puts me back together.”