Miles Davis was only 18 years old when he first sat in on trumpet with his bebop heros, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in New York City. From the first phrase that left his trumpet, jazz fans knew he was different. There was a feeling, watching him play, that he could hear the future. Or, that he was inventing it right then and there. No matter what people thought about his sound, everyone knew Miles was a true blue original.
But before Miles played the future, he studied the past. He’d go to the library when he was young and memorize hundreds of compositions from past composers. When he wasn’t there, he’d take his trumpet into the woods and play along with the sounds of the birds and breeze. At Julliard, Miles studied traditional jazz in the day and went to 52nd street at night, where new jazz played from midnight to blue morning.
Despite his years of dedication, however, Miles struggled to master his instrument. His tone remained cracked and restrained, often out of tune with what was happening around him. He had a tendency to miss notes and his dexterity was considered feeble. Much like his personality, Miles played with a shyness that lacked the wailing confidence and vibrato of his heroes and peers. But over time, these mechanical limitations became his greatest assets. Unable to wail on the high-end, he was forced to play with vulnerability. Soft-tones gave him little to hide behind, and his missed notes created an emptiness and tension jazz fans hadn’t heard before. His playing created drama. These imperfections and quirks of his playing forced him to experiment with new harmonies and pacing, resulting in a style that was his and his alone.
Critics have always had a hard time with Miles Davis because, while his shortcomings as a player are glaring, his impact on jazz and culture is undeniable. There is no conversation about jazz or the trumpet without mention of Miles Davis. Over and over again, throughout his career, Davis reinvented what jazz was and what jazz could be.
Miles lacked the ability to play like his heroes. So, he made damn sure no one else could ever play quite like him.
In today’s data-driven world, we love to analyze success and failure. Success leaves clues, but data tells a story. And there’s more data on what works and what doesn’t than ever before. You too…