by Phil Freeman
[The following is the text of a paper I delivered at the 2012 EMP Pop Conference in New York last week, under the title "From the Corner to Carnegie Hall and Beyond: The Urbanization of Miles Davis 1972-1991." Thanks to all who attended.]
I think On the Corner might be the most important album Miles Davis ever released. Naturally, when it was released, critics hated it. One of the most infamous reviews came from Down Beat. It read, in part, “Take some chunka-chunka-chunka rhythm, lots of little background percussion diddle-around sounds, some electronic mutations, add simple tune lines that sound a great deal alike and play some spacey solos.” If you’re not a jazz nerd, you might be thinking, “Wow, that sounds awesome,” but you would be wrong. Here’s the thing, though: Subtract the bit about spacey solos and couldn’t you be describing the Bomb Squad in the late ’80s, or Timbaland in the late ’90s? You can hear hints of half the important developments in black music of the last 40 years on that record.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that On the Corner finally got its due. In the booklet for the 2007 boxed set The Complete On the Corner Sessions, percussionist Mtume, a member of Miles’ band from 1972 to 1975, said, “Sometimes some music has to wait for a new generation of listeners; we had to wait for a new generation of critics to come along before On the Corner got true respect.”
On the Corner was received the way it was because Miles Davis was still regarded as a jazz musician in 1972. In fact, he’s still seen that way today. The entire second half of his career is regarded as a weird, vaguely shameful tangent, rather than as an important development unto itself. This is willful blindness, basically, rooted in market forces and status anxiety. Because the more you look at the landscape of mainstream black pop culture at the time, the more sense On the Corner makes. Between the beginning of 1971 and June 1972, the month On the Corner was recorded, Earth, Wind and Fire put out their first two albums; Sly and the Family Stone released There’s a Riot Goin’ On; Isaac Hayes put out the soundtrack to Shaft; and Funkadelic released America Eats Its Young. These are records that combine hard, gritty funk with complex orchestrations and ambitious production techniques, and On the Corner fits much better with any of them than it does with jazz. But the jazz industry, and its adjunct, the jazz press, continued to insist on ranking Miles Davis with the players of the 1940s and 1950s like Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, all of whom were still making bop-rooted music and playing standards on stage.
But On the Corner is much more than just a funk record. Musically and symbolically, it’s a complex, multilayered statement about New York City and Miles Davis’s place within it, and it kicks off a two-decade stretch of engaging with, and impacting, contemporary black pop culture in ways he’d never done before.
First of all, the album sounds like New York. The rhythms are funky, but they’re constantly interrupted by jarring noises. A percussive rattle here, a squiggly saxophone line or a stab from a keyboard there. It’s like when you’re sitting in an apartment, wondering if the siren you just heard is part of the movie you’re watching or not. The combination of instruments—electric guitar, keyboards, percussion from India, Africa and Latin America, sitar, and horns—is like walking down a Manhattan street and hearing six languages in as many blocks.
Second of all, and this might be even more important, the album looks like New York. On the Corner’s cover art is infamous, because it was unprecedented. Think about the albums Miles had released up to that point. Even in the years immediately preceding On the Corner, you had In a Silent Way, where he was wearing a turtleneck and gazing pensively skyward; Bitches Brew, with its psychedelic van art; A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which was pure macho ferocity; and Live-Evil, with more psychedelic van art. So when On the Corner appeared, wrapped in a sleeve so yellow it practically glowed and covered with cartoon pimps, hipsters and black militants, all caricatured in a style like a cross between Fat Albert, which had made its TV premiere only months earlier, and Ralph Bakshi movies like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, nobody saw it coming. Even his former bandmates—Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, the guys in Weather Report—none of them were putting out records that looked like that. Their albums mostly looked like hippie meditation soundtracks.
Miles was changing his personal image, too. He’d worn tuxedoes onstage with his acoustic quintet, but that stopped when that band broke up. since 1969, he’d been wearing bell bottoms, open shirts and scarves, and gigantic sunglasses both on stage and off. But the band presented a significantly tougher collective persona. Guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, bassist Michael Henderson, percussionist Mtume, and drummer Al Foster all dressed like they’d stepped straight off the streets of Harlem and onto the stage. They wore leather vests or dashikis, had large Afros or tight braids, frequently hid their eyes behind sunglasses every bit as oversized and dark as the boss’s, and played their instruments through a wall of Yamaha amps painted red, black and green. The sole white member of the group, saxophonist Dave Liebman, wore tie-dyed T-shirts and a head scarf.
Miles and company were embracing a multifarious black identity in the ’70s, combining street style with an equally fashionable Afrocentrism that was echoed in the work of players like Pharoah Sanders, Joe McPhee, and the musicians affiliated with the Black Artists Group, among others. The four side-long tracks that made up the 1974 double live album Dark Magus were titled one, two, three and four in Swahili. The track titles on the double live album Pangaea, recorded in 1975, were “Gondwana,” the super-continent that later split into the continents we know today, and “Zimbabwe.” It’s worth remembering that in 1975, Zimbabwe was not the name of the country yet, but that was the name two different rebel armies, one led by Joshua Nkomo and the other by Robert Mugabe, were using. Miles also paid tribute to other prominent black figures through track titles, most notably boxers. In addition to the album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box offers tracks called “Ali,” “Sugar Ray,” “Johnny Bratton,” “Archie Moore” and “Duran.” And in interviews from the ’70s, as well as his autobiography, he specifically mentioned a desire to be greeted in black neighborhoods the way boxers were.
Fast forward five years. When Miles reappeared in 1981, having stayed out of sight for the majority of the disco era and fusion’s darkest days, he must have been keeping an eye on the street from his window, because his music had changed to suit the times. The sprawling, jamming funk-metal band he’d fronted from ’73 to ’75 was gone, replaced by a swaggering five-man squad of players half his age. The only returning member was Al Foster, and the music was taut, melodic funk that sounded like it could have been hip-hop backing tracks.
The cover art to We Want Miles, recorded at his comeback shows in 1981, makes an immediate statement about who he wanted to be and how he wanted to be thought of. While the only one of his 1970s albums that featured his face was Get Up With It, We Want Miles was a solo shot reminiscent of Jack Johnson. He’s wearing a tank top, pants and boots, just like in 1970, but set against a bright yellow background like the one from On the Corner. Miles Davis, not the band, is the star. Is a star.
That’s what Davis was about in the ’80s—stardom. Beginning with 1983’s Decoy, his albums featured his face prominently on the cover, staring down the listener. He was selling himself as a celebrity as much as he was selling the music he was making. He’d let the music do the talking for a while; when On the Corner was first released, it didn’t even include a list of personnel, one more way he was trying to break free of jazz rules. But in the mid-’80s, Miles was making a concerted effort to turn himself into a star, and that meant selling his face, his voice, and his totally contemporary image anywhere and everywhere he could.
The 1985 album You’re Under Arrest represents the high water mark of Miles Davis the star. This was the record on which he covered three recent pop and R&B hits—the Michael Jackson song “Human Nature,” D Train’s “Something On Your Mind,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” He’d actually been planning an entire album of pop covers, but most were scrapped. Both the Lauper and Jackson tunes got radio play, though, and were actual hits in Europe. In concert, they became highlights, and stretched beyond the 10-minute mark at times. You can hear the crowd’s excitement when he plays them on the Complete Miles Davis at Montreux box that documents eight or so ’80s live shows.
You’re Under Arrest begins with a track that’s almost like a skit on a hip-hop album—in fact, it reminds me of when the police roll up at the end of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Miles is driving fast and making loud coke-sniffing sounds when he gets pulled over and arrested. He’s yelled at by a variety of cops in a variety of languages—one of them is Sting, speaking French. But he gives as good as he gets, arguing back in his familiar hoarse rasp. I can’t think of a single other musician of Miles’ generation who would open an album that way, in 1985 or at any other time.
The music on You’re Under Arrest owes a lot to ’80s R&B; it sounds like Prince, or Cameo, or any number of other groups having big radio hits at the time, just with a trumpet instead of a lead vocalist. But the mainstream music press continued to guard the divide between jazz and pop, making sure to keep Miles on the same side of the fence he’d been in the 1950s. Rolling Stone gave the album to Francis Davis, a jazz critic, to review, and while he noted the “reinforced guitar and synthesizer licks, which suggest that Miles, like the rest of us, has been listening closely to Purple Rain,” he still concluded his review by saying, “Poor Miles. As a thinking man’s pop star, he’s unbankable in a market that increasingly depends on conditioned reflex. As a jazz blue blood, he’s been trading on credit for far too long. To judge from the cover photograph, what with his embroidered jacket and leather trousers, even his fashion sense has deserted him: in jazz, smart Italian suits are back in, thanks to Davis’ anointed heir and label mate, Wynton Marsalis.”
Note all the assumptions at work in those four sentences. Miles Davis wasn’t an independent artist pursuing an individual path, creating something new. No, he was an aging jazz musician who’d gone astray somehow, but maybe Wynton Marsalis, his anointed heir—anointed by whom?—could lead him back onto the path of righteousness.
But none of Davis’s senses had deserted him, fashion or otherwise. He was dressing the part of who he wanted to be—an across-the-board black celebrity. He used his music as a springboard in the ’80s, earning himself acting roles on Miami Vice and Crime Story and making TV commercials for Honda scooters in the US, and tapes and liquor in Japan. It’s worth noting that the other artists hired for Honda were Lou Reed, Grace Jones and Devo, and Miles looked more like them than any jazz musician his age. He worked so hard to break out of the jazz ghetto in these years. He hosted videos on VH1. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes. He played on the Arsenio Hall show and Saturday Night Live. He made a cameo in the Bill Murray movie Scrooged, and actually acted in the movie Dingo. He was doing everything he could to get people to see him not as a jazz musician, but as a star—and, crucially, a black star. He noted in his autobiography that when he’d been playing acoustic jazz, he couldn’t get on late night TV. But in the ’80s, returned from exile, those opportunities were strewn at his feet like rose petals, and he took pretty much every one that was offered.
He changed his approach to the music, too. Miles understood that if you wanted to gain a new audience, you had to at least meet them halfway. Where in the 1960s, with his acoustic quintet, and in the 1970s with his funk-rock band, he’d played uninterrupted shows featuring extended collective improvisation, his ’80s concerts were all about discrete tunes with concise structure, spotlit solos, and breaks for applause. He even acknowledged his bandmates and the audience far more than he’d done in the ’50s and ’60s, often smiling at the crowd and announcing players’ names after their solos. He even made music videos for the title tracks of both “Decoy” and “Tutu,” the latter clip directed by Spike Lee.
And just as he’d done in the ’70s, he made small, subtle political gestures part of his art in the ’80s. Africa was hip again by 1988 and ’89, with rappers temporarily setting gold aside in favor of black leather medallions and talking about apartheid. Miles was ahead of this curve, calling his 1986 album Tutu after Bishop Desmond Tutu, and his 1989 album Amandla, a Zulu word meaning “power.” He also played on two tracks from the Sun City anti-apartheid benefit album in 1985.
Musically, he grew even more street after You’re Under Arrest. As the decade drew to a close, his band, in the studio and especially on stage, began to draw more and more explicitly from funk, go-go and hip-hop. Miles’ last live drummer, Ricky Wellman, was a former member of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Ultimately, the full-on embrace of hip-hop heard on his final, posthumous album Doo-Bop was inevitable. And now you should all brace yourselves, because I’m about to speak positively of Doo-Bop.
Was Miles Davis’s final studio album great? No. The three tracks with vocals are embarrassing. What he plays is fine, but the raps are so bad they’ll make you want to saw your own ears off. Omit those, though, and you’ve got a better than decent six-track EP that lays trumpet improvisations over non-cheesy, non-pop-oriented hip-hop beats. And once again, as he’d done with funk and rock in the ’70s and postpunk (remember, he covered Scritti Politti on Tutu), R&B and go-go in the ’80s, Miles wasn’t selling out so much as taking what was coming out of radios in the street and putting his own spin on it. Would it have been the final stage in his musical evolution, had he lived longer? I doubt it. Even in the months prior to his death in 1991, he had a full touring band. Employing rappers and hip-hop production was an experiment. But it proved that he was as able a talent scout at the end of his life as he’d been throughout his career—after all, the producer he chose, Easy Mo Bee, went on to work with Notorious B.I.G. and Alicia Keys.
But from the jazz business perspective, all this stuff is one big footnote. None of Miles’s ’80s albums have gotten the same reissue treatment as his ’60s and even ’70s releases; hell, We Want Miles and Star People have never been domestically available on CD. Those pop covers I mentioned from 1985? Nobody’s ever bothered to look for them in Columbia’s vaults. Rhino was supposed to put out a box of his Warner albums a decade or so ago, but it never happened. Last year was the 20th anniversary of his death, the perfect time to reassess this material, but that’s just not going to happen, and I think it has everything to do with marketing. These records are not jazz records. Period. And the jazz business needs Miles Davis to be its standard bearer. So do jazz critics, many of whom were deeply wounded by his change of direction because it flew in the face of the idea they hold most dear, which is that jazz is somehow innately superior to all other forms of music, especially those that outsell it by a factor of ten. So we get the sellout myth. It’s a shame that an entire decade of vital, creative work can be shoved aside just because it presents an inconvenient narrative, and doesn’t help sell the latest repackaging of Kind of Blue.