Miles Davis, b. May 26, 1926

May 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In May of 1964, I was staying at a small hotel in Akasaka, Tokyo’s entertainment district. The other guests were mostly secondary acts at the local night clubs — a husband-wife dance team from Australia, three young African American who were the back-up trio for a singer named Damita Jo (Ms. Jo herself was staying at the Hilton), an Indian who did hand-shadow pictures, some acrobats who spoke a language nobody understood.

There was small bar off the front lounge. One night I came in to find the three Americans sitting at a table listening to a reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder they had lugged from the States. Electricity in Japan was 50-cycle, not the 60-cycle American machines were built for, so the music was slower in tempo and lower in pitch, but I recognized it instantly. “On Green Dolphin Street,” the first track on Side B of the Miles Davis album Jazz Track.* Sixty-one years later. It’s still a great recording.

We listened silently — Bill Evans playing the first chorus unaccompanied, Miles soloing not far from the melody, followed by Coltrane’s incredible “sheets of sound” solo, impressive even with the 17% reduction in pitch and pace. We, the four of us at the table, nodded in approval. Then guy sitting across from me, the piano player, looked up and said. “Now Cannonball comes in and spoils the whole thing.”

I was stunned. Cannonball regularly won Downbeat polls, both critics and readers. Yet here was this unknown piano player contradicting received opinion and doing so with complete confidence. I said nothing. But in later years, I came to understand.

* Miles had done the soundtrack for a Louis Malle film “Ascenseur pour l'échafaud,” Those cuts were the A side, and the idea of a movie soundtrack consisting of nothing but Miles improvising with four Paris-based jazzmen was the supposed selling point, hence the album title “Jazz Track.” There wasn’t enough music for a full LP, so Columbia added three tracks by Miles’s working sextet. The music from the Paris session was quickly forgotten. The three tunes recorded became legendary and later appeared on other albums.


David J Littleboy said...

Hmm. My reading was that that was a piano introduction followed by Miles stating the theme and then soloing. YMMV, I guess.

But, yes. The CA solo doesn't fit. Interesting. It's not quite as wild a mismatch as the Davis + Sonny Stitt European tour. I love Stitt, but not with Davis.

That movie was pretty good, too.

Jay Livingston said...

The track starts with Evans playing the entire 32-bar song rubato. Then the famous vamp in tempo and Miles playing the melody. Then everyone has two choruses (trumpet, tenor, piano – all block chords btw). Miles’s solo, as I said, seems to keep the feeling of the melody, especially compared with what the horns do in their solos.

Your comment about Stitt reminded me of this 2003 article by Brad Mehldau. A bunch of musicians would sit at the table, someone would toss out a name pair — Elvin Jones or Joe Jones? Wynton Kelly or Wynton Marsalis? Paul Chambers or Paul Gonsalves? — and everyone would have to choose. No explanations, just pick one or the other.

But “Sonny Rollins or Sonny Stitt” led to a major disagreement and then argument based, says Mehldau, on ideology. I think it's this ideological conflict that's the basis of the Cannonball objections of the piano player that night. (Decades later, I figured out that it was Kirk Lightsey. One week, when he was playing at Bradley’s, I went down there and asked him about it. He seemed to remember, or at least he recognized it as the kind of thing he might have said. But now he hedged his judgment and was much less dismissive.)

I guess the 3-story, wooden-frame Hotel Kanagawa is no longer there, probably replaced by some sleek skyscraper.