Gotta Be Me: Miles Davis’ Music And Style In The Fifties

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“Protean” is a word often used to describe Miles Davis. And while it’s become a cliché nearly 25 years after his passing, the latest Bootleg Series release, which came out last week, illustrates just how true it is. The Miles reissue parade has focused largely on specific groups, mammoth recording sessions, or complete concert experiences. They usually give us Miles in a singular time and place. This new release offers a great chance to hear just how constant — and profound — the changes were in the music of Miles over time.

But a wonderful side effect of taking a broad temporal view of the man—the series presents Newport performances recorded between 1955 and 1975 — is seeing the changes Miles made to his personal style throughout the years and hearing a clear correlation with his sonic experiments.

I have to pause here and make a personal confession: I love Miles Davis. All of it. I’m in from “Birth of the Cool” through “Doo-Bop” and beyond. But I’m in for the sartorial side, too. Sure, peak Miles is the one from the Gap ads, the slyly subversive appropriator of the Ivy League Look—a man who was referred to as a warlord in Weejuns. But I’ll take the balloon pants, too. And the fringed suede vests. And the bell-bottoms. And the silk neckerchiefs.

So it was shocking for me to see, in the liner notes of this new set, that the most dramatic change in Miles’ style wasn’t the transition from super-suited bad muther to fringed firebrand god of free funk. It’s a slight change, one probably only visible to someone who has spent too much time looking at pictures of him. Between ’55 and ’58 — years when Miles was actively incorporating elements of Ivy and American casual wear in incredible ways – we can see the dawn of confidence.

At Newport in 1955 Miles played with a hastily assembled group of soon-to-be legendary names in jazz, including Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan (a man whose discography is in as desperate need of reappraisal as his style). The music is great, but loose and tinged with the feel of a jam session, which it was. The standout number is a long, spacious version of “‘Round Midnight” in which Miles’ horn sounds as fat as I’ve ever heard it, as he weaves like Joe Louis between Monk’s jabbing accompaniment. But the music lacks the unimpeachable authority of later recordings.

Likewise, his clothing. He looks beautiful: seersucker jacket, club collar, rakishly askew bow tie. All the elements that would make him the best-dressed man in America are present, except one. Miles beams with defiance in the photo – like some kid brother who has finally grown enough to fit into his dad’s duds, but knows they aren’t his clothes.

It’s hard to notice the missing element until you flip the pages and see this oft-reproduced image from three years later. Miles is laid-back cool personified here: the supple linen shirt with banded collar, the camera, the shades, and a seersucker jacket that looks as easy as your favorite night shirt. All the defiance is gone. Miles is simply a bad motherfucker.

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For the performance that night, Miles changed into a double-breasted tan seersucker jacket with a solid-color knit tie. The music is explosive; every player in the group a superstar, all tilting at full throttle in one of the greatest combos that ever played the music. This is the “Kind Of Blue” band, one of the most fawned-over and super-archived in all of jazz. This is Miles at his most photogenic, the version of the man most people know. These recordings give us a chance to pause and look and listen in a fresh way.

In 1955 Miles Davis dressed in Ivy clothing. By 1958 he was wearing Ivy elements, but dressing like Miles Davis. The lesson is that the clothes make the man as much as the man makes the clothes. But fret not if you don’t get it: as Miles himself once said, “if you understood everything I said, you’d be me.” — SIMON GADKE

Toronto-based Simon Gadke digs clothes and jazz. He manages a consignment furniture store and is working on his first novel. 

10 Comments on "Gotta Be Me: Miles Davis’ Music And Style In The Fifties"

  1. Bags' Groove | July 24, 2015 at 11:59 am |

    Frankly, anyone who loved Miles Davis, bought his albums, saw him perform, knows all this, and more.

  2. Davis and Coltrane. Blue in Green. It’s raining. Carpe Noctem.

  3. Wow, that’s kind of a beautiful little haiku-like poetic nocturne.

  4. Miles is one of the few who could dress in the prevalent “Ivy League style” yet still maintain an authentic individuality. Can you imagine any other Ivy icon pulling off a band collar shirt like that?

  5. Excellent article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  6. Bags' Groove | July 25, 2015 at 4:33 am |

    @ Joey
    Miles could have dressed like a Buddhist monk and still maintained an authentic individuality. As for other Ivy icons pulling off a band collar like that, you’ve obviously never seen me in mine.
    Well if you can’t introduce a little levity on a Saturday morning, when can you?

  7. Band of outsiders.

  8. What kind of sunglasses do you think he is wearing?

  9. Great article and clip. George Wein, whom I knew only by name, turns out to be a very interesting character.

    On Miles as a genius: he didn’t miss anything, “he absorbed everything around him.”

    It makes me think of Henry James’s advice to novelists: “Be one of those people upon whom nothing is lost.”

    If one pokes deeper it often turns out that artists of all kinds have very broad tastes. How many of Miles’s fans also like Ravel? But Miles liked Ravel, and no doubt absorbed lessons from him.

  10. William Richardson | July 30, 2015 at 2:03 pm |

    Who can be considered cool today? Miles Davis’ recordings pre-dating 1967 (give or take) were full of invention and musicianship, but most notably to me, subtle cool. I became sadder and wiser one day in my early teens when I took out a recording from the library called Bitch’s Brew and realized that Miles Davis had lost his cool. Balloon pants, frilly collars, silk handkerchiefs, and generally low standards for most things came from the mostly regrettable 1970’s. It takes a lot of work to keep your cool.

    All this being said, when my wife and I drove my baby daughter home from the hospital, I made sure that the first thing she heard on the car radio was Miles Davis’ Boplicity from the Birth of the Cool album. My daughter does not ask to hear Lady Gaga or any other bilge being called music today, she asks to hear Bach, Miles Davis, MJQ, The Four Freshmen, Annie Ross singing I Feel Pretty with Gerry Mulligan, and sometimes Barracuda by Heart. She is five now. Will she be cool? We’ll see.

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