Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Up On the Corner, Out on the Street

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of a Miles Davis touchstone

The cover of Miles Davis' On the Corner
The cover of Miles Davis’ On the Corner

In the early autumn, I was heading back into the city of Boston on the subway from a leafy suburb where I had watched a football game. There was a large man on the train, whose size made him automatically incongruous. His bulk worked for him, though: Was part of his look, and a formidable, prepossessing one at that. He drank from an enormous cup that might as well have been a bucket, and between sips he sang the names of the various subway stops to the opening four-note pattern of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When he’d had enough of that, he vocalized to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” I observed this man and had one thought: Miles Davis’ On the Corner.

Upon its release in October 1972, On the Corner was reviled. Critics tore into it as if pulling a White Fang, sinking teeth as deeply as possible. The record was derided as an affront to taste, an insult to listeners, a sham perpetuated by a man who wanted to rub your face in something most unpleasant, just because he thought he could. “For shame!” wagged the fingers, as charges of hubris were rampant.

As often occurs in these matters, there was a subsequent pushback, in the form of revisionism that went too far in the other direction. On the Corner has been hailed in recent years as the album that helped birth hip-hop, funk, post-punk, electronica, and just about any other popular music with a repetitive beat, which was quite the feat for a record that not many people have ever listened to. These things need not be true—and they’re overstated at best—for On the Corner to be what it so successfully is.

So what, then, is really transpiring on this particular corner, where Davis and a couple dozen musicians gathered for one holy hell of a grooving, minimalist racket?


We start with what we know. Davis is jazz’s resident restless soul, the musician who needs to morph in order to keep his art alive. I’ve seen scores of comments from people who love his music and wish to love this record, and work to do so, as if listening were a job that one didn’t care for but might in time after settling in. You’ll see these announcements of the epiphanies that have at last come, where listeners declare that finally they get On the Corner, along with tips for those who are still struggling.

“You have to let it wash over you,” for instance. “Once I stopped trying to like it, I began to like it.” “It sounds like the city. You must live in a city to understand On the Corner.”

It does sound like a city, with a city’s farrago of noise. There’s an order to the sounds of the city, which a pop group like the Lovin’ Spoonful grasped. Those noises are aleatoric, but they fit within an urban pattern, which itself is a kind of groove. I walk through Boston, and there are different sounds for different parts of the city. They’re like tracks on an album, which is what Davis had in mind, but with a greater urbanity quotient than the likes of a Boston possess. This is a Harlem urbanity, on a day in July when the air is thick and the horns of cars produce blasts of sound that one can nearly touch.


There’s scholarship in this same brew, though. You don’t approach the studio the way Davis and producer Teo Macero did without classical élan. Miles was in a period where he liked to speed about in his Lamborghini to tapes of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1966-67 composition Hymnen. I picture him turning to a comely friend in the passenger seat and saying, “Dig this musique concrète, baby,” to what would likely have been a blank stare in return.

We talk about Davis as a master trumpeter, composer, bandleader, but not enough attention is granted to Davis the master editor. He and Macero are in so many ways like Orson Welles, who would take a script and then slice and dice it to its essentials, making what was tantamount to a new work. So it went with Miles and Teo, beginning in the late 1960s and culminating with On the Corner; the album was truly made after it was made. The sessions—cut just a few months prior in the early summer—were the raw materials for the urban mill with the classical know-how.

This is a Harlem urbanity, on a day in July when the air is thick and the horns of cars produce blasts of sound that one can nearly touch.

Not surprisingly, a number of the musicians involved were less than thrilled. Cellist Paul Buckmaster, one of Davis’ foremost creative partners at this time, said it was his least favorite album in the whole of the Davis canon. That’s a lot of albums to be beaten out by. No worries, though, for Miles himself. The original release didn’t list individual musicians anyway, just as we really don’t break down the sounds of a city. They’re a collage. A collage comprises separate parts that interact with each other, but a wholeness prevails.


Jack DeJohnette is (sometimes) on drums along with Al Foster—the percussive steward of the record—and Billy Hart. James Mtume features on percussion. You’re welcome to check out the entire roster of musicians for yourself and also to theorize who plays what where. What had become the Davis Regulars are present: John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. McLaughlin’s somatic riffing is a constant, this violent chording that one feels in the body. The rumble of the subway underfoot. His guitar has replaced Davis’ trumpet as narrative voice, insofar as On the Corner has one.

Miles wanted the kids who were into rock. That was the target demo, an audience he’d been courting since 1970’s Bitches Brew. He played for that audience on the psychedelic ballroom circuit, doing so with rock groups—the Steve Miller Band, for instance—that he had no respect for as musicians. Davis thought he was slumming it while sharing such bills, but he also believed in the listening skills of youth, which is usually a wise thing to do. Hip kids find hip music, a truism that will likely always retain its value and utility. The demo-focus became more dialed in with On the Corner: Davis now aimed to reach Black city kids the way that James Brown did, and Sly Stone, or at least the jazz version of the way that they did.

On the Corner is many things. It’s rhythm & blues gone feral via—paradoxically—the city. It chugs in ways that funk wouldn’t, because funk wished to make certain that people could dance. You can’t always dance to On the Corner, but your soul can liquefy and flow as a result of spending time with it. Call it a collateral effect. A listener becomes a form of grooving freshet in the presence of this record.


Critics of On the Corner branded Davis a sellout, saying that he was chasing record sales (as if that were a necessarily evil pursuit). The truth was, Miles’ conversion to fusion had resulted in a depreciation of sales. White jazz fans over the age of 30—and let’s be honest, that’s always been a significant audience stream for the medium—weren’t as willing to wade into the waters of Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. But no harm, no foul, as they say at outdoor basketball courts throughout America’s cities. Davis had a vision and a goal, and with the former he went after the latter.

The iteration of Jimi Hendrix that led the Band of Gypsys is a precursor and influence, but so are Davis’ own live dates from the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. in mid-December 1970. Those gigs represent an outgrowth of rhythm & blues we’d not heard before and haven’t since. Alien, but urbanized, rhythm & blues.

The Cellar Door unit featured DeJohnette, McLaughlin (at times), and Michael Henderson, the bassist who will play a crucial role for On the Corner. Davis tasked Henderson with the album’s job of jobs: to underpin the whole damn thing. Be the glue, sir. Or, in citified terms: provide the asphalt on which we walk.


Henderson played titanic bass back in D.C., and he’s the unifier of On the Corner. Put it this way: If you go to a favorite spot in the city to gather with friends, Henderson—or Henderson’s bass—is always there. You may not be coming just to see that one friend, but if you knew they wouldn’t be in attendance, you might sit out the requisite subway journey for that afternoon. I’d suggest that Davis discovered an approach at the Cellar Door gigs that would lead him to On the Corner. He’d add more musicians, create a soupy mass, then pare back and reorder. Sculpt. It’s like starting with one idea to move away from that idea to return to the first idea, which is now transformed. Miles was perfecting the commuting approach to music, or the composer’s version of a subway ride that requires multiple switches of trains and lines.

But again, we are talking of what we know for certain with On the Corner, and then interpolating and interpreting as the record invites us to do. We know that it was panned and that it didn’t sell. We know Davis’ target audience. We also know that from a certain perspective, this is the end of Miles the statement-maker, insofar as studio recordings went. He lives for another 20 years, but he semi-retires in 1975, and what did he create after that which we feel we must enmesh ourselves within? Not a ton, right? This is not to knock the music he made over the rest of his life. Clearly, though, the drive to morph and find the next true form of being/existence/presence—musically speaking—tapered off.

Miles was perfecting the commuting approach to music, or the composer’s version of a subway ride that requires multiple switches of trains and lines.

Davis’ trumpet playing was nearly a bygone relic for these sessions; he’d decided that he would mostly play organ, with the wah-wah heavily in evidence. The irony is rich for a man who once trashed Ornette Coleman for disrespecting real trumpet players because Mr. Free Jazz insisted on sometimes playing one. But that’s in the spirit of Miles Davis at his shape-shifting best, when he became a living, creating embodiment of the words, “Eh, f— it.” You don’t get hung up on convention, or even what you’ve previously said yourself, when you’re an “Eh, f— it” artist.


You’ve perhaps noticed that we’re not talking much about individual tracks, and that is because there aren’t really any. Yes, we can read the words “Black Satin” and “One and One” in the official track listing, but On the Corner isn’t about where one song stops and another begins so much as it’s about that aforementioned totality of the collage. The sweeping it does over us. Or put another way: We get absorbed by On the Corner. Dance music encourages listeners to lose their inhibitions and cut that proverbial rug. What do we say? Dance like no one’s watching. On the Corner encourages us to listen as though we’re not conscious of listening, sans the strictures we normally can’t help but apply, the expectations we have. That’s why there are those comments about “I finally get it!”

One has to let go as Miles had. This is a different form of being present, or benefits from such. On its surface, On the Corner is not peaceful music. It doesn’t possess the sting of the early-1970s live dates, nor the apocalyptic fury of the recordings made in Japan a few years later, but it puts a body to you, lowers a shoulder into your chest. You walk in the city, and you need to keep your head up. Be aware of your surroundings. Those surroundings are noted subconsciously as much as consciously; that’s how we experience the urban milieu.

And yet, On the Corner is graced by a peacefulness. Davis was himself at peace as an artist. The work dictates the level of that peace—that is, the artist’s understanding of what they’ve created. Clearly he had no doubts about On the Corner, despite the blowback that he knew would be coming. So it goes with great risk-taking ventures in art. Do you think Herman Melville thought he’d be opening his door every day to clear out the latest deliveries of flowers after the publication of Moby-Dick? Miles and Herman would have known common ground, and with regularity.  


I find On the Corner oddly meditative, and I say oddly because right from Corky McCoy’s reach-out-and-grab-you cartoon cover art of African American pimps, prostitutes, gays, activists, and dope dealers, we’re not anticipating anything soothing. Then again, have you ever taken a walk in the city and found tranquility in the noise and bustle? Or worked better because you were doing various forms of work at once? Found your focus as a reader went up at the library because people were conversing? Now we’re talking On the Corner, out in life.

You don’t start with On the Corner if you’re going to listen to Miles Davis. Were I asked where to begin, I’m more likely to suggest the Cellar Door recordings than Kind of Blue, but On the Corner is where you may find that you end up. Picture a long ride on the subway; the conductor announces that your train will be rerouted, and the next stop will be the last. You’re close enough to home that you can adapt and ascend to the street and walk from there. The sound of a new place—or one where you don’t venture as frequently—hits you, almost without your knowing it. There’s a certain harmonious congruity between you and that jackhammer over there, those squawking tourists over there, that student racing to class and cutting in front of you at the light. The air is how you wish it to be. Your legs feel as you want them to feel.

That’s On the Corner. And that’s a lot.


Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature, current events—for a wide range of publications, and talks regularly on radio and podcasts. His most recent books are an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume about the 1951 film Scrooge as the ultimate work of cinematic terror, and the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. Find him on the web at (where he maintains the unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.