Monday, December 14, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Miles Davis

[Submitted for your approval, I am beginning a series of posts on, what else, art. Not just art—art that changed my life. Silly, really, as all art has changed my life. The very phrase is ridiculous. Even bad art, or art that I deem bad, has changed my life considerably. Fuck, everything changes one’s life, should we decide to look at things that way. Art, love, cigarettes, booze, coffee, college, paper cuts…

Nevertheless, I am still posting on art that has “changed my life,” loathsome as the phase may be. I will start with some thoughts on music, as that is the art that has had the earliest impact on me. Let’s go!]

I could start this in any number of ways, but I want to talk a little bit about Miles Davis. We’ll get to the Boredoms and Mr. Bungle and Bongwater soon enough. This is not in chronological order, by the way, as the Miles years start in 1991. Why do I know that? Well, you see, Miles died on September 28, 1991. On that very day I was sitting in a classroom on the Moraine Valley Community College campus, waiting for my new favorite teacher, Tom Sullivan, to show up and decimate my presentation on Anne Sexton. My pal Brian Jany was there, though he was squatting in the classroom, or, as they also say, “auditing.” Jany received no grade, but he sat next to me and, though we liked the class and loved the teacher, we scrutinized everyone there and laughed at John Dunne’s “Oh My Black Soul!”

When Sullivan arrived, he brought with him the news that a legend, Miles Davis to be exact, had died. He decided that we should end class early and invited us to come to his office and listen to some music. I agreed, though I was the only one. Yeah, I was kind of a kiss ass, sure, but I liked the idea of listening to music with a teacher. That was the first time I listened to Miles Davis. My only other exposure to what is traditionally thought of “jazz” was via an early Tom Waits album (more on that soon). I was impressed, but not “blown away” as these kinds of stories usually state. Really I was just reacting to a form of music that was completely different from what I had ever heard. There were no guitars, no pounding drums, no vocals, no ‘80s synths, nothing loud, nothing obvious. It was a subtle record, elusive, strange. I liked it.

I want to say that the record we listened to was Kind of Blue, though I can’t state that with certainty. Kind of Blue, for those of you who don’t dig the jazz, is the Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper's of jazz records. Add it to your collection if you want to seem “hip.”

After that first introduction to Miles, I was not necessarily hooked; I was curious. I wanted to hear more, but I didn’t like the idea of buying music I would inevitably ignore. I worked for the PPS Presort Service and made next to nothing. A week’s take home pay could easily be squandered in one night at the bar, so I had to choose my records (actually, at that point, cassettes) wisely. I can say that Kind of Blue was the first Miles record (tape) I ever bought. It is the gateway, though there are definitely CDs (not tapes) of his that I prefer. ‘Round About Midnight is still my favorite of those 1st quintet series (though the Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, Working series is maybe the best).

So if I was merely intrigued, then why is Miles not only on the list of life changing artists but actually the one who is heading off this dubious endeavor of mine?

Cut to 1992: I don’t remember the song, but I remember how I felt the moment I decided to stop listening to rock music. I was so burned out on the guitar/drums/bass/vocal rock thing that I thought giving up on music entirely might be the way to go. Really it was picking up a copy of the '58 Miles Featuring Stella by Starlight recording that got me back into Miles and jazz. From there I expanded to Sonny Rollins, who shared a last name with a punk icon I was also interested in. Then I discovered Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and there was no turning back. It was all so different, so engrossing and completely devoid of what, at that time, was fashionable. Need I remind anyone that I was living in the era when grunge was popular and hair metal had just died, when hip-hop was overtaking America? Need I also remind anyone that I lived in the suburbs where one was not very likely to find a jazz club or anyone who had an interest in anything other than Nirvana (musically speaking)?

So I became obsessed. I felt as though I had found gold in the hills of Willow Springs. I wanted very much to be a jazz freak. I read the Miles autobiography and met Quincy Troupe and listened to his anecdotes about working on the book. I bought records by the people Miles talked about: Amhad Jamal, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock. (Really it was Sonny Rollins and his record The Bridge that summed up what jazz meant to me at that time. It is a very quiet, beautiful record, with some monster guitar work by Jim Hall, that I have since lost and need to re-purchase. Yeah, I rediscovered my love for the guitar around this time, thanks to Hall’s clean chords. The story behind the record helped with the romanticized vision of what it meant to be a jazzman—practicing your craft alone at night, on a bridge in New York. I have never been to New York— though I have long longed to go and will be visiting it next month—due to the fear of it not living up to the city of myth that has become in my head, created partially by the music of Sonny Rollins.)

I definitely had a jazz phase, which, really, is no different than a rock phase. Soon I was buying everything under the sun that was labeled jazz. I loved a lot of it, hated some, wasn’t sure what to make of the rest. But for a solid year I was hooked on the sound of the walking bass line, the snare and hi-hat hit with brushes, the tenor sax, the muted trumpet, the acoustic piano, and the clean-as-a-newborn-bathed-by-its-mother guitar. I ate up that fat 50s-60 jazz stuff and stopped too soon, not letting the stranger, electric or so-called avant-garde era in until way late. Here it is 2009, about to be 2010, and I have finally got a copy of On the Corner by Miles. I heard this once, years back, but never wanted to own it until recently. I’ve just finished listening to it twice in a row and it sounds as revolutionary as anything in rock, jazz, funk, soul, classical, what-have-you. This is music to get excited about. Miles, after all these years, is still surprising me. And there’s so much more to hear! In A Silent Way remains a favorite, but I still don’t know Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky or the Nefertiti.