A Musicologist Smiles with Miles
CFA Prof traces evolution of a new jazz style| From Commonwealth | By Bari Walsh
Jeremy Yudkin. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
Miles Davis, simultaneously monumental and enigmatic, has been a gristmill for jazz scholars. One of those he has now drawn into his orbit is Jeremy Yudkin, a widely curious musicologist whose past research has run from medieval polyphony to the Beatles, Beethoven, and Bartók.
In his new book, Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop (Indiana University Press, 2007), Yudkin tackles one of Davis’s most inscrutable periods, the mid 1960s, when “the music is very intense and abstract,” Yudkin says. Jazz scholarship has largely ignored the period, he adds.
Miles Smiles, released in 1967, was the artistic high point in that stretch of Davis’s career, according to Yudkin. He had formed a second group, after his quintet of the 1950s had broken up. “The early sixties were very problematic for him,” says Yudkin, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of musicology. “He was ill, both his parents died, his wife left him. It took him a long time to find a new group, but when he did, in 1965, he got very excited about making music again.”
Unlike other figures who made important contributions in one jazz style and stayed with it, like Louis Armstrong, “Miles was constantly responding to what was new, and was himself often personally responsible for making the change,” Yudkin says. Davis is credited with several significant innovations: the shift from be-bop to cool in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the pioneering of a new style in 1959 with the classic recording Kind of Blue, and the fusion of rock and jazz in the late 1960s. Yudkin gives him credit for two other shifts: the introduction in the mid 1950s of hard bop, a “down home, earthy, bluesy, gritty kind of music,” and the development of the style that characterized his work from 1965 to 1967, later called post bop.
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop (Indiana University Press, 2007)
The music is “very serious, fairly difficult, and incorporates elements of free improvisation and a very close interaction among the players,” Yudkin says. “Someone would start to do something in their solo, and the others would instantly react to it. They were such incredible musicians.
“I’ve been looking at videos from the time, and they play with their eyes closed. When they finish soloing — and this is particularly true for Miles and his saxophonist, Wayne Shorter — you can see them opening their eyes and thinking, just for a nanosecond, where am I?”
Miles Smiles is the second record from this group, which also included Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. “It captures a very special moment in their careers, in their togetherness,” says Yudkin. The tunes “rearrange many of the generally received ways of making jazz. Instead of either a twelve-bar blues or a thirty-two-bar song form, for example, they have odd numbers of measures, odd sectionalization.” The harmonies, the relationship between the instrument, the soloing — all are reimagined, he says.
Post bop was radically new, and fleeting. “By the end of the 1960s,” Yudkin says, “Miles was already starting to move in a different direction, adding electric instruments and moving into fusion.”