July/August 2006 By Nat Hentoff
Keeping Jazz the Center of Gravity
The induction of Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 13 was so significant to the New York Times that it devoted an editorial, “Miles Davis, Genre Bender,” and a long article on that momentous day by Ben Ratliff, “A Jazz Legend Enshrined As a Rock Star?” In celebration, the editorial said, “There were several vibrant versions of Miles Davis. The version installed this week at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of them.”
I did not join in the jubilation. Ben Ratliff did. There’s nothing objective in expressing musical preferences. Duke Ellington so abhorred categorizing music that he didn’t like the term, “jazz.” As for matters of taste, Duke would say firmly, “There’s good music and there’s bad music.” But that dictum—without anything more—simply underlines the subjectivity of taste. Lee Wiley once said of Billie Holiday: “She sounds like her shoes are on too tight.” I greatly enjoyed both of them.
What surprised me about Ben Ratliff’s enthusiasm for Miles’ elevation to the pantheon of rock stars was his explanation for Miles’ initial move into that terrain: “By the mid-1960s [Miles] sensed correctly,” Ratliff noted, “that jazz’s greatest age was closing.” There should have been an obituary by now, right? But I missed it. I often talked to Miles Davis before Bitches Brew came out and he never told me of the coming interment of jazz, but maybe he didn’t want to depress me.
Ratiff went on to say accurately that “Miles listened to everything, from Karlheinz Stockhausen to… Herb Alpert.” So did Charlie Parker, who once told me that hearing a Bartok composition spurred him to try something along that line. But where the usually astute Ratliff puzzled me was the assertion that “Miles couldn’t stand being permanently linked with jazz if it meant his becoming second class.” In everything he did, including his boxing, choice of cars, and clothes, Miles never seemed concerned that he was becoming “second-class.” Ratliff added: “He wanted the music industry to take him even more seriously than before.”
What Miles wanted from the music industry—and record buyers—was even more serious money that he merited for being so singular. Before Bitches Brew was made, I remember Miles saying of the rockers that “these white boys are making a lot of money with that, and I could do much more with that music than they can—and make more money.” But that was not the primary reason he kept exploring rock, funk, and anything else that challenged him to transmute whatever interested him into Miles music. Ratliff is half right that Miles “came into contact with rock ‘n’ roll simply by being himself and resisting decline.” He was indeed being himself once the possibilities of what he began to hear during Bitches Brew stimulated him to continue. But I doubt very much that fear of “decline” was part of his motivation. He was always listening ahead.
Getting back to the subjectivity of taste, I listened to his “rock” recordings during that period, but seldom more than once. When I told him that, it caused the end of our friendship. Like just about all jazz musicians, his music was as serious to him as life itself. So, while I missed his company, as acerbic as it sometimes was—and his sulfurous comments on certain musicians and most jazz critics—he was entitled to dismiss me from his presence, if I could no longer enter his musical universe.
Being a reporter concerned with fairness, Ratliff ended his piece by quoting the chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ahmet Ertegun—whose long productive musical career spans rock, soul and jazz at Atlantic Records. (Walking into an Atlantic recording session once, I heard a rock-and-soul singer with a backup trio: two young women and Ahmet Ertegun!) Chairman Ertegun told Ratliff that he didn’t vote for Miles for that Hall of Fame because “he felt his most significant work had nothing to do with rock.” Ertegun emphasized, moreover, that he had voted, “early and strongly” to include Miles in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. So did I.
Recently, hearing a radio interview with one of my favorite musicians regardless of genre—Toots Thielemans—my inability to salute Miles Davis as a rock and roller became more meaningful, at least to me. Toots has worked with Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and many other jazz creators—as well as with Paul Simon, Billy Joel and other non-jazz performers. But he said in the interview, whatever the gig, “My center of gravity is jazz.” While Miles Davis could never purge his music of jazz—nor would he have wanted to—the performances that resulted in his becoming, posthumously, a member of rock royalty, did not have jazz at their center of gravity. There are jazz musicians, influenced by Miles in those years, who could strongly disagree. And that’s why there’s a Letters section in JazzTimes.
Occasionally I get sent recordings by quite young jazz musicians. One, a while ago, was from an instrumentalist not yet twenty, whose chops are stunning but more to the point, the swinging force of his imagination is so energizing that I kept coming back to the recording. Then he sent me a rock recording he made. It was so clamorously and repetitively electrified—in sound, not in what it did for me—that I never returned to it. Jazz was not at its center of gravity. The young of every generation cannot help but be affected by the range of music at that time. But, as Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Greg Osby, and other continually evolving players have demonstrated, it is entirely possible to be contemporary and still keep jazz at the center of gravity in their music.
Originally published in July/August 2006