Focus Session: Miles Davis

April 9, 2015

By Matt Davis
As jazz educators, one of our foremost priorities is to guide our students in their pursuit of a personal voice for self-expression. We thoughtfully provide to them all sorts of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic tools with the hope that they will eventually use them to craft something of their own. Watching a student take ownership of these tools and subsequently create their own musical voice is profoundly rewarding. I have found nothing more gratifying in my own teaching career than witnessing the individuality of a student begin to speak through the voice they have developed on their instrument. This kind of emerging artistic growth and musical self-awareness gets at the very nature of jazz music and the evolution of its language and aesthetic.

Miles Davis was a master of his artistic vision and personal voice. Regardless of whether or not the musical context was “straight ahead,” freeform, electrified funk, fusion, or pop, his musical voice is always immediately recognizable. Among the many fascinating aspects of Davis’ playing, it is this indisputable fact that has stood out as one of the most impressive.

I am a huge fan of Miles Davis and regularly use his music as an example for students to learn from. Mastering the tools of music is one part of the journey towards creating a personal voice. The other important piece, and in some ways the more difficult, is to develop an artistic vision with which to direct these newly acquired skills into creating something personal. Developing an artistic vision, or personal idea of what one wants to create can take a lot of time. Davis himself once said “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

One of the first Davis records I became enamored of was Miles and Coltrane, recorded in 1958. I must have listened to the track “Bye, Bye Blackbird” from this record hundreds of times. Recently I was listening to another version of Davis playing this same composition, but from several years later. This newer version is from the 1961 recording, Live at the Blackhawk. I was struck by some of the similarities between the two versions, and also by how Davis’ interpretation had evolved. It piqued my interest in learning more about how this interpretation may have played out.

The following pages contain a comparative transcription of five of Davis’ versions of “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” recorded over the eight-year period between 1955 and 1963. For the sake of brevity, only the main melody is included here (without his extended solos). One can see the similarities and repetitions in his approach clearly: the space he uses on bar five and nine of the first section, the shape of his line at measure twelve, the substituting of the Lydian sound on the last section, the ascending G Dorian scale leading into a high “A” note at the beginning of his first chorus, and many more. There is a great deal of repetition here. Despite these consistencies, his interpretation also becomes more opaque and abstract over time. This is especially true when one compares the earliest 1955 version to the last one in 1963. His greater disregard for the original melody, greater use of space, and increasingly varied ornamentation speaks to his changing approach. Historians consider much of this period to be a great transitional period for Davis as his choice of band members, his aesthetic and his style were in all flux. 

What can we, as educators, learn from these five Davis solos? Much can be said of these performances and what they might tell us of Davis’ musical thought processes. One notable observation is that through all of these versions, Davis’ mastery of harmony, rhythm, and melody never outshine his storytelling. His playing is patient, succinct, full of emotion and conviction, and perhaps most importantly, his own ever-changing artistic vision. The basic tools of his trade – namely harmony, rhythm, and melody – are just that: tools. They serve only as a means for him to create evocative and personal musical ideas, and are never the center of the music itself – a good lesson to remember for any jazz student pursuing their own artistic vision.

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mattdavisstepsMatt Davis is a jazz guitarist, composer,  and educator in NYC. He performs regularly with his own critically acclaimed large group, Aerial Photograph, as well various trios and small ensembles. Davis currently serves as senior lecturer of jazz guitar at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. www.mattdavisguitar.com

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