Nick Coleman on Miles Davis

Mouth piece

Nick Coleman on Miles Davis's tone

“I freely confess that there have been times recently when almost anything – the shape of a patch on the ceiling, a recipe for rhubarb jam read upside down in the paper ­– has seemed to me more interesting than the passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo" – Philip Larkin

Miles Davis is in the kitchen of his Manhattan duplex. He is banging pots and pans. He is jerking drawers, disturbing cutlery, slamming the oven door, bringing hard surfaces together abruptly to punctuate his sentences, which are husky and curt. He is teaching Frances to cook, with great cruelty. The percussion is considerable.

Later, after his frustration boils over at his wife's lack of aptitude, her lack of feel for his needs (Davis does not need to be reminded that Quincy Jones is handsome), there is also to be heard the sound of his palm swiped across her face.

You don't actually hear that stuff in his trumpet tone, the cacophony of his abuses. Heaven forbid. That is not what we listen to his music for, nor how we hear it. Certainly not. (Otherwise we wouldn't listen, would we?) No, we much prefer to detect in the shimmer of his horn an abstraction of the adverse events that have befallen him: the cuts and bruises inflicted by an NYPD nightstick perhaps. Or, still more abstractly, the consciousness of historical slavery and the artist's distance from it as the son of a well-to-do East St Louis dentist. We seek contact with a subtle distillation of his many hurts: the whimpering of the over-disciplined child, the choke of casual bigotry, the grip of cold turkey, the chill of loneliness, the tightness of Italian shoes, the cry of a seabird navigating the wastes of an ocean it has no choice but to cross. We hear in that column of air pushed through coils of valved brass the proof of his suffering, not his cruelty.

It is we who bring the seabirds and the whimpering. The seabirds are us, busily inserting ourselves into the thermal created by that shaft of spiritous tone, trying to make sense of it and to catch some buoying updraft for our own benefit, endlessly projecting our feelings into Davis's sound with a civilised hunger borne of… what? Empathy? No, not empathy. Something else. Something to do with our own needs. We do not expect to find poisonous things in there, and we don't find them. We listen hard and we connect as best we can, understanding only implicitly that his tone is the coin of his best choices and impulses, his thoughts, his intelligence, his sensitivity, his determination that the world can be better than it appears, his certainty that the world is complex. His seriousness, in other words. His vulnerability. Miles Davis's tone is, you might say, the world at its best. He is bringing out into the light the very things about himself that allow him to live beyond the nightstick, the humiliations of childhood, the Jim Crow shit, the shivers, the lovelessness, the sense of being lost at sea with no land in sight – the sound of the critical mass of his wounds and, in their face, the dignifying strength of his inner world.

Which would not include the hitting of his wife. Any assertion of personal truth in the context of artistic self-expression is not all-encompassing. It is always selective.

And it changes all the time. I have always been inclined to think of Miles Davis's tone as just one thing, a singularity, a sort of thin monolith. But it isn't one thing at all, if you listen across the piece. Yes, Davis's sound is nearly always recognisable as his and his alone ­­– but it doesn't always sound the same, not by a long chalk. It changes subtly but continuously as it hunts down the best way to function cogently in its present environment, whatever that environment happens to be, from gritty 1940s bop club via posh 1960s concert hall to 1970s amplified rock festival. Personal truth is not only selective but adaptive too.

This adaptiveness is perhaps one of the signal achievements of Davis's career. No other trumpet player was so endowed, that's for sure. Miles's great collaborator Gil Evans used to enjoy pointing out that his diminutive friend represented an inflection point in the history of jazz's most emblematic instrument: Davis was, he said, the point at which the flaring, masculine, technical, extroverted, exuberant, brassy Louis Armstrong model of trumpet style ceased to be the Platonic ideal – an attitudinal style upheld even by the supposedly iconoclastic be-bopper Dizzy Gillespie and his tribe. After Davis, trumpets might weep or sigh, or sound notes like flutes, or issue the mellifluous cornet licks of Bix Beiderbecke. In the hands of some modern Norwegians, trumpets do actually sound as if they're being blown with nostrils, as if into a handkerchief.

Moreover, when we think about a phenomenon as rarefied and idiosyncratic as an instrumentalist's tone, there are always technical considerations to be taken into account too, as well as biological ones. In the case of brass players, we should never overlook the state of their embouchure (or lip), their physical strength, lung capacity, tongue speed, the diameters and tensile reliability of their inner tubing; the very shape of their oral cavity, the number and state of their teeth. Some trumpeters of conspicuous technical facility – the brash Indianapolitan Freddie Hubbard springs suddenly to mind – sound above all as if they want to hear in themselves an archetype of trumpeterliness and they develop their technique and musculature and even stance at the microphone accordingly (should a microphone even be necessary). But not Miles Davis. He wants to sound not like la trompette de toutes les trompettes but like Miles Davis: Miles Davis in this moment not that one; Miles Davis as he is in this environment and not elsewhere; Miles Davis for the history books but also for himself. You? You can take it or leave it. That's what his tone is for, to be the basis of that endeavour. His platform.

One of the more touching anecdotal tidbits that attaches to the Davis myth, and is surely among the most revealing, describes his wedding; that when he married his second wife, the beautiful dancer Frances Taylor, he carried in his suit trouser pocket his trumpet mouthpiece, the one that had been with him for years and had been the common component in every instrument he'd played as a big hitter on the modern jazz scene; the crucible of his tone and the material basis of everything he had to say as an artist. Throughout the ceremony he kept his hand in his pocket so that he might finger his mouthpiece, for reassurance, as children might cling to the transitional objects of their childhoods, such as their teddy bears.

Here are some notes on a few of Miles Davis's tones.

"It Never Entered My Mind": Miles Davis Volume 3 (Blue Note), 1954

"It Never Entered My Mind": Workin’ (Prestige), 1956

"It Never Entered My Mind" is a wistful little number tickled like a reluctant trout from the Rodgers and Hart musical Higher and Higher, one of those tunes with a sigh built into its melody and a certain wavy dreaminess expressed in the way it hovers in the drink of its harmony. Davis was a relatively early jazz adopter of the tune in 1954, following Sinatra's popularisation of it in the late 1940s, and you can see why. This is home turf for Miles: romantic, worldly, tender, slow music; music not loaded with a lyric so sticky that the solo instrumentalist is obliged to "play the words". It's a canvas perfectly prepared for our man.

And I think it is legitimate to take the 1954 Blue Note version as Davis's first great studio ballad performance. This is certainly the first occasion on which, to my knowledge, the high Miles Davis ballad style is rolled out in something like the grand manner jazz fans would come to expect later on in the decade.

Except that the 1954 version is by no means grand in detail. The tune is tightly uttered, even clipped – some of the phrasing merits the expression "sawn off" – and that least Milesian of all effects, vibrato, is called upon ever so delicately and passingly, just to soften the austerity of the soloist's line. It's exquisite, actually, and somehow quietly post-tearful – and this in spite of the fact that in 1954 Davis's tone was only on its way to expressive authority.

He's using a simple cup mute, which hollows out the sound of the trumpet and invests it with a slight buzz, especially in the low register where Davis spends most of his time. There is something of the French horn about the sound, I often think: it's remote, mournful and yet also more breathy than a French horn could ever be. Remote yet also close. Distantly intimate.

Compare and contrast with the 1956 version, which was knocked out hurriedly as an authentic highlight of the second-most famous recording session of the decade: Rudy Van Gelder capturing the first great Davis quintet in Hackensack, just as they came to the boil.

It's a Harmon mute this time, with the stem removed: a thin, stony filament of needling tone stalking the ear over Red Garland's genteel piano arpeggios, and filling out the phrases to the max, like a pro. This is Davis in his pomp and aware of it; perhaps even "preening" a little, in the late Richard Cook's observation, but knowing that he has the floor and will meet no challenge there because of the chill astringency of his distorted voice. It's all there now, the Miles Davis sound. Or so he would like to think. For the time being anyway.

"Walkin'": Miles Davis All-Stars Walkin’ (Prestige), 1954

Davis still had a heroin habit of sorts when he turned up for the April '54 sessions that would result in "Walkin'", a justly famous blues stroll and arguably the world's first ever blast of hard-bop. So it should not have blindsided Prestige Records' Bob Weinstock when the great man announced blithely soon after tipping up at the studio that he didn't happen to have his horn with him that day. Nope. He just didn't seem to have it about his person. Sorry. Oh well.

Presumably it was languishing in a pawn shop somewhere.

So we can only assume that it was while Weinstock and Davis argued the toss over whether Miles was going to hum his solos today or perhaps fashion a kazoo out of comb and paper, that a young studio gopher piped up with the news that he had a trumpet in the boot of his car outside and Miles was welcome to borrow that.

It was an old, cheap and leaky Buescher. The classic heap. But of course Miles did have his regular mouthpiece in his pocket and so, on the basis that the mouthpiece is the bit of a brass instrument that really counts, he decided to be gracious and have a dash at it...

"Walkin'" is an excellent experience, even without knowing the story. And I have never ceased to get off on the cagey articulations of that long first solo: the sound of a man using a borrowed trumpet and cautiously trying to decide whether this is him or not – growing in confidence that, you know, it just might be, despite the leakiness, and then going on to blow some serious shit out of it because, yeah, this really is me even if the trumpet's a heap – and despite the unfulfilled promise of the high declaratory leap he threatens but never actually hits at the start of each and every chorus.

It clearly isn't quite Miles's usual or preferred tone at the time – it's too windy round the edges for that and it lacks for a certain gleam – but it is also quite clearly Miles blowing down the brass pipe and no one else. You can hear his brain working.

"Blues for Pablo": Miles Ahead (Columbia), 1957

Davis's first co-headlining date with the arranger Gil Evans (well, almost: Davis's name is bigger on the album cover) engendered perhaps the most flavoursome gesture of both men's careers: the realisation of their jointly imagined musical landscape in which the blues and Hispanic music grow together in the same loam and somehow intertwine.

Sketches of Spain would formally confirm that vision three years later, and Davis would never entirely cure himself of the desire to explore the riches of the Latin palate (see also Siesta right at the end of his career). But the trumpeter's search for duende actually starts in earnest here, in front of Evans' oddly but successfully balanced 19-piece ensemble – and he does it again without his trumpet. For Miles's entire performance of Miles Ahead is blown through the conical bore of a flugelhorn, an instrument of similar range to the conventional trumpet but of softer, rounder and less gleaming tone and a fuller bottom (it's basically a bugle with valves, in the key, like the trumpet and cornet, of B-flat).

Davis takes to the flugel like a German huntsman. You can hear his ease with the instrument and the stability he finds in the softer tone – and it is easy to imagine the secret gratification he got from the knowledge that he would not on this session be required to engage in any form of pyrotechnics. Flugels don't do pyrotechnics. So this was a vibrato-less, classically trained, reserved, silken, feminine, cool Miles Davis, standing stock still, open-eyed and thoughtful in front of a subtly shifting collage of bright harmony and rhythm, completely free to put himself in touch with whatever takes his fancy in the moment, including the locked-out, watchful little boy who, in the beautiful insight of Kenneth Tynan's small daughter, is always present at his most memorable recordings, looking hungrily in on proceedings through the window to the world outside.

"Teo": Some Day My Prince Will Come (Columbia), 1961

Davis's study of Hispanic music took him out into deep-ish water. Has there ever been a more vivid transcultural jazz reading than this: the classically trained African American bluesman going Moorish?

There is a rhythmic ease to the syncopations of "Teo" that might lull the listener into the assumption that both Davis and John Coltrane (whose last studio session this was together) are relaxing recreationally into a flavoured groove. They are doing nothing of the kind. Coltrane is a muezzin aflame; Davis's cold, hard, metallic, slightly flat intonation tell us this is no more a tone-y genre cruise than it's the music Charlton Heston rejected for El Cid. And Miles is pushing into rarefied altitudes: he hits more high notes here than he does in the whole of Miles Ahead or Kind of Blue. He doesn't split any of them.

"Stella By Starlight": My Funny Valentine (Columbia), 1964

An excerpt. Davis recorded live at the Lincoln Center in NYC: the first four and a half minutes of a thirteen-minute performance of the film-musical tune "Stella By Starlight", in the company of the quintet that would soon become his Second Great Quintet once the redoubtable George Coleman (and then Sam Rivers) had been replaced by Wayne Shorter. So, for now, it's Davis, Coleman, Hancock, Carter, Williams, learning their mutual ropes.

That opening four and a half minutes are nearly all trumpet; trumpet recorded close and mixed loud, elasticating time but followed incredibly closely by the rest of the group, which activates and deactivates in response to Davis's phrasing as if they all share a single nervous system. It's miraculous how they do it, without hesitation or strain. Tony Williams the drummer was nineteen, for crying out loud.

Davis's tone is massive here and titanically controlled, even when choked out softly at the very bottom of his range. He slides from one dynamic register to another as if there were no hidden traps between them and they were all part of one single expression, which of course they are – it's a single theme expressed and then developed in time by an artist completely confident in his artistic validity, one thing leading to another not because that's how they're supposed to go, but because that is how the artist feels it in the moment. And the rest of the group just go with him, listening, adjusting and adapting as they go. There's even a moment when the audience breaks into spontaneous applause and the rush from the auditorium sounds a subtle new presence in the music, like birds passing through the eves of the hall.

So all that's incredibly beautiful.

But it's the trumpet really. The trumpet, with Davis blowing his scowl through it. What a beautiful sound it is and how sustained the beauty, from the little squalls of modal scales which hinge the melody, via the sudden plunges into quiet reflection, to the long notes that stitch so many of his phrases together. Needles. Little stabs of beauty. The piercing seven blasts from the top of Davis's range (at 4:13, with 20 seconds to go) are a fanfare announcing the most beautiful note of them all, the last one, which fades abruptly yet appears somehow to twist in the air before taking its final leave.

What it all means is for the listening soul to discover. "Beauty" is such a difficult thing to think about anyway, now we no longer live in the 19th century. And so it should be – beauty is way too complicated for it to be a sufficient end in itself or a useful measure of anything.

But still.

Davis was asked many years later why the mood onstage in the Hall that night had been so unusually sombre and he muttered about the concert being a fund-raiser for a Civil Rights organisation – and the vibe was fraught with the memory of the recent assassination of JF Kennedy. So that may have had something to do with it. Real life has a way of interfering with beauty and maybe that's what makes real beauty really beautiful.

"Orbits": Miles Smiles (Columbia), 1966

A reptilian melodic stub by Wayne Shorter serving as the excuse for the quintet to solo one after another accompanied only by bass and drums for the duration of four and a half minutes, again, in wholly modal style. Harmony switched off. Very chromatic. As perfunctory as a Davis social greeting. But it does afford the listener raw access to Miles's tone at its fullest and hottest, the air blasted through the tubing without inhibition or even real thought, you suspect. "Do not presume to think", he appears to be saying, "that this music is about anything. It is just the sound of us."

"Time After Time": Royal Festival Hall, London, 1984

Any brass player will tell you that their natural tone never sounds better, fuller, warmer than in the first few seconds after a mute has been removed from the bell of the instrument. It's something to do with the relief of pressure.

It's almost the best thing a mute does, help to firm up a player's unmuted tone; make it big, strong, capacious, lively. Unstopped.

Further to that thought, the most excited state I ever found myself in before a concert was in the summer of 1984, after I copped a ticket for Miles Davis's first appearance on the South Bank. I was beside myself. I was also, when the day came, going down with a serious kidney infection. But I made myself go anyway and sat whimpering in the auditorium with pain and the psychological distress arising from the fact that my feeble body was going to come between my elevated sensibilities and the ecstasy of hearing Davis blow his life's breath through his trumpet in the same room as me.

I have very little memory of the occasion, beyond the abstract recollection of my frustration and growing discomfort. But I do recall Davis's treatment of "Time After Time", the pop tune by Cyndi Lauper, which he picked out through a Harmon mute, note by note, to match the tiny, slow steps he took around the stage apron, dressed in bright motley, bent double, a figure too bowed with his own pain to seem even slightly clownish; too old and broken in his tiny shoes for any of it. I felt a bubble of horror rising in me at the sight of him, his thin, metallic, needle-sharp notes stitching time into a hem, as if time were Davis's shroud and he was sealing himself off from the light, note after note.

My God, I thought, he's playing his own death.

I felt the Harmon-muted trumpet in my renal system, as a surgical probe. I felt it in my ears as a stabbing sensation. My fevered mind toyed with ways to interpret what my body was experiencing: no, he's not playing his own death but his sound is asking questions about his death, all of our deaths – that thinness, its harshness, the slow rip of his phrasing which is so analogous to the act of tearing away... it's a membrane, a skin, a veil, taut as stretched calfskin but very, very much thinner – and on one side there's life and on the other... Miles Davis glimmered through the darkness and the puncturing notes from his trumpet described the perforations in the edges of our lives that make us so vulnerable to... to... the fact that we can be torn out, just like that. Yes, we can. Just like that.

I remember the feverishness and I think I remember him, after a while, for no apparent reason, suddenly removing the mute from the bell of his instrument, mid-phrase, and blowing a long open note bang in the middle of his range, full and open like a massive sigh, and, just like that, death stopping – right there, in its tracks, in the Royal Festival Hall. Death stopping dead.

Miles Davis lived for another seven years after that, growing frailer and frailer, until he died in 1991, within a few days of my gran. My gran was ninety-three, Miles only sixty-five, although he looked ninety-three. That changed a lot for me: the two most intimidating figures of the 20th century suddenly out of the picture, as if they'd been torn out.

Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.