How the tireless musical innovator came to make, in Bitches Brew, one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time
Between 1945, when he hustled his way on to New York's new bebop scene as Charlie Parker's teenage trumpeter, and the turbulent year of 1968, Miles Davis couldn't help being hip. Though tentative in the Parker days, he had a characteristically soft sound and coolly-timed patience of phrasing that became steadily more eloquent and assured through the 1950s and 60s, despite big changes in the musical structures around him.
From his personal stylistic breakthrough at 23 in 1949, when he was involved in the gracefully orchestral Birth of the Cool sessions, through the mid-50s years in a devastating quintet with the young John Coltrane, up to 1959's meditative, scale-based Kind of Blue and then the formation of another groundbreaking five-piece with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis was always at the cutting-edge of creative American music.
But by 1968, Davis was into his 40s, and young audiences were listening to Motown soul and funk, to James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone - not to unplugged contemporary jazz, however good it was. Davis was already edging his way toward a funkier sound within the edgy jazz setting of the Hancock/Shorter group. He was beginning to introduce the sound of the Fender Rhodes piano, and then the electric guitar, first with Joe Beck and then George Benson. In spring 1968, the quintet and Benson quietly slipped this revealing track into the otherwise freebop setting that had produced such classic mid-period Davis albums as ESP and Sorcerer.
Paraphernalia from Miles in the Sky
As Neil Spencer revealed in his interview with Davis's new partner of that time, the model and singer Betty Mabry, the trumpeter's musical transformation, influenced by Mabry, was soon to move into overdrive from these toe-in-the-water beginnings. It wasn't in Miles Davis's nature to go into a life-change cautiously. He declared in his autobiography about this period: 'Betty was a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life. She introduced me to the music of Jimi Hendrix - and to Jimi Hendrix himself - and other black rock music and musicians. She knew Sly Stone and all those guys, and she was great herself. If Betty were singing today she'd be something like Madonna; something like Prince, only a woman. She was just ahead of her time.'
Davis had hired Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the mid-60s because they were innovative young artists who played in ways he didn't know (but soon learned), and a mixture of happenstance and restlessness was making him ready to do the same all over again. By 1968 the quintet was dissolving, with bassist Ron Carter unwilling to go electric, and the others increasingly absorbed in projects of their own. Davis was also spending time with Hendrix (they discussed a collaboration defeated by the guitarist's premature death), and considering how to create a Hendrix sound within a jazz-rooted ensemble.
Two English musicians, bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John McLaughlin, came into the band, as did pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul (initially alongside Herbie Hancock), and the result was a fresh new sound, somewhere between the cool of Kind of Blue and the blues-funk feel Davis was after, on the album In A Silent Way. Then in 1969, following an initially fractious and then productive dialogue between the trumpeter and rock-minded Columbia Records boss Clive Davis, the seeds of a radical new approach took root.
Miles Davis began sketching pieces for multiple keyboards, with rhythm-patterns drawn from funk, but coloured by his old partner Gil Evans' approach to layering, harmony and texture. In August 1969, he brought his sketches and his new circle of musicians into Columbia's 52nd Street studios, and over three days struck a spontaneously jam-like balance between composition, open-ended jazz improv, funk and Latin-rock grooves and studio technology (with the gifted producer Teo Macero) that would transform jazz and contemporary music all over again.
Spanish Key from Bitches Brew
Bitches Brew was released in 1970, and became one of the biggest-selling jazz album in history - a landmark revisited with exhaustively-documented commemorative packages on its 40th birthday this year. Miles Davis's albums usually sold 60,000 or so - this one made half a million. Many traditional Davis fans didn't like it, but it was the diametric opposite of the commercial sell-out the cognoscenti always fears - the leader's blazing trumpet solos, John McLaughlin's razor-edged guitar or Wayne Shorter's plaintive soprano sax confirm this music to be as freewheelingly creative as anything Davis had recorded. It heralded the birth of jazz fusion, triggered solo careers for Zawinul, McLaughlin, Corea, drummer Jack DeJohnette, organist Larry Young and others - and nourished later chemistries of jazz and funk that have led to creative crossovers with hip-hop and other pop forms today. It was a breakthrough in music-making that seismically shifted jazz.