Miles, Marsalis, Mayhem
I know, Miles has been getting a lot of posts lately. For a guy who has been dead over twenty years, it must seem like overkill. Last one for a while, I promise.
But today being the 86th anniversary of his birth, it got me thinking about an old conflict in a new light. Of course, I’m referring to the ‘feud’ between the aging Miles and the emerging young lion Wynton Marsalis, back in the mid-80’s. It peaked with the infamous incident at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in June 1986, when Wynton (who was scheduled the following night) appeared uninvited onstage, horn in hand, during Miles’ set. As he started to play, unbidden, Miles stopped the band and refused to start again until Wynton left the stage.
Putting aside whatever philosophical and/or musical differences that existed at the time between the two–and there were many–can you imagine walking onstage with your instrument, uninvited, during a Miles Davis set? The level of sheer chutzpah is mind-boggling.
Anyway, we have something today that we did not have in 1986–perspective. In June 1986, Wynton Marsalis was 24 years old, and Miles Davis had just turned 60. Today, Miles has been In The Sky for over 20 years, and Wynton is fifty. So let’s take a look at that.
See, this is one of the problems with getting famous at a young age. You have to watch your mouth and your actions, because some things aren’t necessarily forgotten or forgiven. And hypocrisy is definitely one of those things.
Whether you are a Miles fan or not, it is indisputable that he changed the face of music at least three times. He caught the tail end of bebop, and injected thoughtfulness into the frenzy. He collaborated with Gil Evans and created Cool Jazz, melding classical themes to improvisation with Sketches of Spain. He pioneered Hard Bop, introduced John Coltrane to the world, then re-invented everything all over again with free-bop in the 1960’s with the Second Great Quintet of Hancock, Shorter, Carter, and Williams. Oh, and then on a slow weekend, he invented jazz-rock fusion in 1970 with the release of Bitches Brew.
What has Wynton done with his thirty years?
A lot, actually. He was probably the first musician to chart with both jazz and classical recordings. And he has been a big mover in jazz education, which is near and dear to my heart. And he had some good early sessions as leader, including Black Codes from the Underground, Think of One, and J Mood (all of which owe a debt to Miles, by the way).
But in terms of innovation, which is the life blood of jazz…I’m afraid there’s no comparison. The problem is, after a great start, Wynton started to believe his own press releases. And he became the self-appointed Savior of Jazz.
Against what, I’m not sure. But in came the Deification of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And out went Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, Lester Bowie, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, James Blood Ulmer, John Zorn, Sun Ra–pretty much everything interesting that was happening in the 1960’s and 70’s, actually.
Now that Jazz has been Saved–what has Wynton been doing lately?
Well, let’s see. He’s recorded twice with Willie Nelson and once with Norah Jones. He released an Edith Piaf/Billie Holiday tribute with a French accordionist. I’m sensing a pattern here. Dogs can’t look up, and Wynton Marsalis can’t look forward.
By my reckoning, on the Scale of Musical Innovation of 1 to 10: Miles scores 11, Mid-1980’s Marsalis scores a 3, and Marsalis: The Reboot doesn’t place.
Say what you will about Miles Davis in the 1980’s–his covers of Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson, his dubious collaborations with producers who were not always his musical equals, his frequent personnel changes and freakish wardrobe–but the man had his day. And his day lasted 25 years, easily.
Find me Wynton’s 25-year day. No hurry, I’ll wait.