Miles Davis – highs and lows at Newport

Miles Davis

When the Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954, it became a barometer for all that was hot in jazz in 1950s America. As such it was the backdrop behind the singular career trajectory of Miles Davis, gloriously documented in Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 – The Bootleg Series Vol.4 (Columbia/Legacy). The wide-ranging music provides a parallel live soundtrack to Davis’ studio career that saw him rise from the lows of drug addiction, to new musical highs – Kind of Blue among them – and back again to poor health and his semi-retirement in 1975. Stuart Nicholson takes an in-depth look at this extraordinary career arc and how his appearances at Newport were of singular importance in jazz history and in creating the legend of Miles Davis

If any person’s career could be defined by being in the right place at the right time, then it was Miles Davis. The place was the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The time was the third concert on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955. Billed in the festival programme as an ‘All-Star Jam Session’, the innocuous 20 minute spot was there to give the festival crew time to clear the stage and dressing room after Count Basie’s set in readiness for a performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, then enjoying enormous popular success. Guest emcee that evening was none other than Duke Ellington, who joked that the jam session musicians “live in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach”. Outer space, in other words.

After introducing Percy Heath and Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet on bass and drums respectively, Ellington raised his voice, “and we go on down to Miles Davis, trumpet, Miles Davis!” Davis stepped onto the stage a picture of sartorial elegance in a white striped jacket and black bow tie. His appearance was completely unscheduled. Jaws dropped in the press gallery. For most of the 1950s he had been struggling with drug addiction and had come to be regarded by both music business insiders and fans as inconsistent and undependable. He was considered, even by the best informed critics, to be a figure from jazz’s recent past, underlined by the release two months earlier of eight instrumental nonet sides from the 1949-50 Birth of the Cool sessions on a 10 inch Capitol album called Classics in Jazz – Miles Davis (the first time they had appeared on vinyl). Yet here he was, looking the complete antithesis of received opinion.

 

“They launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead

 

Ellington introduced the remainder of the sextet – Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax and Thelonious Monk on piano – and they launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent, despite the brisk tempo, was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead. It translated into an electric solo, and by now he had the attention of both critics and crowd. Another Monk tune followed – ‘’Round Midnight’ – and again Davis shone, playing with both economy and emotion. The group rounded out their brief spot with Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’, a piece Davis had recorded with Parker in 1945 when he was a member of the saxophonist’s quintet. The sextet left the stage to a standing ovation; Metronome magazine noting that Davis’ performance was “dramatic enough to include [him] in all the columns written about the festival”.

This performance has been released as a part of the Columbia/Legacy set Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975. The Newport Jazz Festival – founded by promoter George Wein and wealthy Rhode Island socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard – was the first annual outdoor music festival in the USA. It began in 1954, and the four CD set documents Davis’ appearances in 1955, 1958, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1975 at Newport, Rhode Island, New York City’s Lincoln Center, Berlin and Switzerland, all produced by Wein under the Newport Jazz Festival imprimatur. It includes four hours of previously unissued material and the set is both a commentary and obbligato on Davis’ pace-setting role in shaping jazz of the period. It is also rich in historical significance, not least his 1955 ‘’Round Midnight’ solo.

In the audience that evening was Columbia record producer George Avakian and his brother Aram, a photographer. They had box seats since George Avakian was a charter member of the festival board. Nothing much had been expected from the ‘All Star’ sextet while Davis’ inclusion was an afterthought, added too late to the festival roster to even be mentioned in the programme. Both Avakian brothers had known Davis since the late 1940s. “Soon after I set up a pop album department in Columbia in 1947,” recalled George Avakian, “Miles started this little campaign. Whenever I’d run into him, he’d say, ‘Hey George, when are you going to sign me up?’ He would say it in a charming, winking kind of way. But I always knew he meant it.”

Unfortunately, there were two problems standing in the way. One, Davis was under contract to Bob Weinstock’s Prestige record label and two, Davis was a junkie. Although Davis had been a member of Charlie Parker’s Quintet (Parker was also a notorious junkie), he did not succumb to addiction until 1949, after he had left the group. “I didn’t want any part of junkies,” Avakian said later. “I’d been around them enough to know they’re nothing but trouble. It was terrible to see it in Miles. Around 1952 he was hardly working and would come and sit-in at New York’s Birdland on Mondays when they had an open door policy. He looked slovenly and his playing had deteriorated… he looked like a bum. He went downhill so badly he didn’t shave or bathe… it was a sad thing.”

In mid-1953, Davis returned to his parents’ farm in Millstadt, Illinois, some 14 miles south of East St. Louis. There he shed his addiction ‘cold turkey’. He returned to the jazz scene in early 1954 determined to make up for lost ground, signing a three-year record deal with Prestige that resulted in the album Walkin', recorded on 3 and 29 April 1954, which received a rave review in Downbeat magazine. That record is now a bona fide jazz classic. Davis’ comeback may have got under way but club owners and booking agents remained wary. “He used to cancel out at the last minute so club owners saw him as absolute poison,” recalled Avakian. “He had a terrible reputation for not showing up and leaving owners hung-up with the financial bill.” Nevertheless, Avakian checked out “the clean Miles Davis” at the Birdland open door sessions and felt reasonably sure the trumpeter was back on the straight and narrow, “Increasingly he was beginning to sound like the Miles of old,” he concluded. And still, with a cheeky nod and wink, Davis kept asking, “When are you going to sign me?”

So when he strode onto the Newport Festival stage that evening in July, 1955, Avakian’s professional interest was awakened. Halfway through his solo on ‘’Round Midnight’, Aram turned to his brother and said, “Sign him – now! After tonight everybody will know he’s back”. By the time the band were into ‘Now’s the Time’, George was on his way backstage. As soon as Davis caught sight of him in the dressing room, he threw him a big grin. They agreed to meet for lunch the following Tuesday at Lindy’s, just up the street from Avakian’s office at Columbia. Davis came with his friend and adviser Lee Kraft and his lawyer Harold Lovett.

Avakian offered Davis a two-year contract with options and a $2,000 advance for two albums against a royalty of 4%, which was only a point below what Doris Day, a big Columbia star, was receiving. An agreement was reached with Bob Weinstock of Prestige; Columbia would record Davis right away, but not release anything until the Prestige contract expired. Weinstock agreed, recognising the promotion Davis would receive from the Columbia publicity machine would help leverage sales of his Davis’ albums on Prestige. Also, Avakian insisted, Davis must have a regular, working band. Long before the waiter brought two Nesselrode desserts and four forks, a working plan had been thrashed out.

But a verbal contract is, as they say, not worth the paper it’s written on. The proposed deal almost didn’t happen. One, Columbia Vice-President, Albert Earl, knew of Davis’ reputation, “George, think about this,” he said, “this guy might be dead by the time you can record him.” Avakian succeeded in getting Earl to sign-off on the deal, based on his success with Dave Brubeck, and all parties signed on the dotted line a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, news of Davis’ Newport success spread fast, and by November, Downbeat magazine was reporting: “After a time of confusion and what appeared to be a whirlpool of troubles, Miles Davis is moving rapidly again to the forefront of the modern jazz scene,” going on to report a recent contract with Birdland that guaranteed him 20 weeks’ work a year and his recent addition to a three-and-a-half week Birdland All-Stars tour.

But Avakian had not signed Davis as a hard bop player, even though his debut with Columbia, Round About Midnight, might have suggested otherwise. “I saw Miles in a different way,” he said. “What struck me was that Miles was the best ballad player since Louis Armstrong. I was convinced that his ballad playing would appeal to the public on a very large scale. While his bebop playing had established his reputation among musicians and jazz bands, I knew bebop would never connect on a large scale. It was ingenious music but far too complicated for the average ear and too hard for the mass market to follow the melodies. It’s really Miles’ melodic playing that put him across with the public on a wide scale. That happened first with our album Round About Midnight in 1956.”

When Round About Midnight was released, it flew out of record shops thanks to Columbia’s promotional campaign. It resulted in a nice surprise when Davis received his first royalty cheque, which was substantially above his advance. He promptly bought a Mercedes two-seater sports car. The Davis legend was gathering momentum. However, for his next album Avakian was ready to put his plans into action. He had a title for the album – Miles Ahead – but wanted to get away from the small group concept that had defined Davis’ work on Prestige. He suggested an orchestral album and Davis asked for Gil Evans as arranger to build on the kind of ensemble concepts he had explored on Birth of the Cool. In 1957, the Round About Midnight quintet disintegrated, but Davis was concentrating on recording Miles Ahead and made no small group recordings that year. “The release of Miles Ahead in the fall of 1957 eclipsed everything Miles had ever done and started him on his way as one of the biggest selling jazz artists of all time,” said Avakian. “It sold one million copies and established him internationally.”

In 1958, Davis was back with a new group, recording Milestones in March. Meanwhile, Avakian left Columbia around this time to help set up the Warner Brothers label, but Columbia would largely stick with his long term plan for Davis. However, while Davis’ appearance at Newport in July that year is documented on the Columbia/Legacy Newport set, this concert is rather perfunctory – despite being the legendary Kind of Blue band live. Tempos are too fast with ensemble playing falling apart on ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’, while the band appears uninterested. “Unfortunately the group did not perform effectively,” was Downbeat’s verdict. What also seems odd is that Davis did not join in the tribute to Duke Ellington (who was in the wings and whose band would climax the evening) by playing an Ellington-themed set, as festival producer George Wein intended. Dave Brubeck, for example, who followed Davis, did exactly as asked, his performance released by Columbia as Newport 1958.

If Wein was disappointed that Davis did not acknowledge Ellington he did not say publicly, but for whatever reason the trumpeter did not appear again at Newport until 1966. By now his celebrity in the jazz world had grown exponentially, helped by the huge success of Porgy and Bess, which he began recording in August 1958, and Sketches of Spain, which he began recording in November 1959, two major collaborations with Gil Evans. Also in 1959 came Kind of Blue, which today is Davis’ most famous album.

By the time of his 1966 Newport appearance, he had the most sophisticated ensemble in jazz with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. In December 1965, a Columbia recording remote had caught them at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago and Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel represents jazz-making at the highest level of creativity. That their Newport appearances in 1966 and 1967 did not quite reach this intense level of artistry – both are documented on the Columbia/Legacy set – in no way diminishes the remarkable achievements of this band or the value of these performances.

From 19 October to 12 November 1967, the Davis group, together with roster of top jazz talent, headed for Europe with a tour called Newport Jazz Festival In Europe, organised and promoted by George Wein (their London concerts, between 23-29 October were called Jazz Expo ’67). On the final leg of the tour, Wein and Davis had a falling out over money, with Davis pulling out of the tour. In June 1968 came evidence of change in Davis’ music again as subtle inferences of rock music seeped into Filles de Kilimanjaro, but because of the falling-out between Wein and Davis, the trumpeter did not appear at Newport that year. He was there in 1969, although Wayne Shorter was held up in traffic and failed to show, by which time the change in his music embracing the tone colours and rhythms of rock was well underway, with a ramped up version of ‘It’s About That Time’ from the album In a Silent Way, which had been recorded in February that year, and a preview of what was to come with ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ and ‘Sanctuary’, both of which would be recorded again in six weeks time for the seminal Bitches Brew.

Davis was touring with Santana in 1970, so did not appear at Newport that year, neither did he appear there in 1971. Instead, the Columbia/Legacy set documents Davis’ Newport Jazz Festival in Europe concert that year at Switzerland’s Neue Stadthalle in Dietikon, presented by George Wein during an Autumn European tour that took in 12 cities in three weeks. Once again Davis’ music had changed, Keith Jarrett was on a twin keyboard set-up, saxophonist Gary Bartz was the latest recruit through the revolving saxophone door following Wayne Shorter’s departure, Motown bassist Michael Henderson was on hand with percussionists Don Alias and Mtume and an interesting feature was the presence of drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler. The music is edgy and in a constant state of becoming; collectively it is a powerful statement but Jazz Journal felt Davis’ playing at the London concert had, “too much of the hot declamatory outburst and less of the natural rhythm. The Davis who had swept along with the rock sounds had become bogged down by them.” Meanwhile writer Leonard Feather noted that Davis had become indifferent to touring, aiming for a “policy of semi-retirement.”

In 1972 came On the Corner, a year when Davis was again involved in a falling out with George Wein, but this time it was highly publicised. The festival, now transplanted from its Rhode Island home to New York, advertised the Davis’ concert for 4 July. He did not appear, a Freddie Hubbard group playing instead. Davis complained to the New York newspapers he had not been offered enough money, and besides he added, he had never agreed to the concert in the first place. The fact that his festival appearance would have been his first concert date in months lent speculation as to whether the fee was the real issue. Later in the year he broke both ankles in an accident in his Lamborghini, completing a year when he was inactive for the first four months of the year and completely inactive for the last two.

 

By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained

 

In 1973, he reformed his band with Dave Liebman on sax, and spent the second half of the year playing in Europe, where he had not appeared since 1971 because of his health. The first tour was in July, the second as part of a Newport Jazz Festival in Europe package but before he embarked he was in the studio working on Get Up With It. The second trip lasted three weeks opening at Malmo on 24 October. The Columbia/Legacy set includes the Berlin Philharmonie concert on 1 November. The band is introduced by Britain’s Ronnie Scott, but the concert is a somewhat rambling affair, Davis dependent on morphine to dull the excruciating pain from an arthritic hip which had become an increasing distraction. But at least Scott has six amusing minutes to himself at the end. Yet despite his health, Davis was now performing more than he had for some years, and in March 1974, Columbia recorded his Carnegie Hall concert for release as Dark Magus. By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained. By the summer of 1975, he was aware he couldn’t put off surgery much longer.

When Davis played a midnight concert on 1 July 1975 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York – billed as ‘The Midnight Miles’ – most reviewers noted that it was his first return to the Newport Jazz Festival in New York since refusing to play in 1972. This concert is only partly documented by the Columbia/Legacy set with a lacklustre performance of ‘Mtume’. Distracted by both pain and painkillers, Davis’ music was now only attracting lukewarm reviews and this concert was no exception. While the liner notes claim it was his last concert of the year (before taking his much publicised six year furlough from music) he in fact played the Schaefer Festival in Central Park on 5 September, The New York Times noting that, “Miles Davis’s ability to leave his listeners languid was given pointed display”. Two days later, Davis’ band members and equipment were in Miami, for a concert at the Gusman Hall. Davis failed to make it, cancelling at the last minute with the promoters impounding his equipment to set against their losses. One more concert, on 12 October at the Auditorium Theatre, had been planned, but again Davis pulled out, finally recognising treatment was his only option.

Davis would not be heard of again until his ‘comeback’ concerts in 1981, the most publicised event in the history of jazz. It leaves Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 as an absorbing counterpoint to the albums that were released during his lifetime – some of the best-crafted, emotionally serious and aesthetically satisfying albums in the whole of jazz. Yet for all these great achievements, the Newport set awakens a thought that lingers in the mind. From his July 1955 performance at Newport that announced his rehabilitation from heroin, to his final Newport concert in July 1975 where the creative flame that had lit up his music had all but been extinguished, it is impossible not to wonder how this remarkable career, and by extrapolation the history of jazz during this period, might have turned out if Davis had not made that fateful Newport Jazz Festival appearance on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955 in Freebody Park, Rhode Island, or George Avakian had been looking the other way.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Jazzwise. 

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