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Sounding Like Yourself: Miles and you and me

May 12, 2017

John Bohlinger is a real life friend of a real life friend of mine, Jamey Garner.

John’s also one of my favorite participants, observers, and writers about all things from the inside of the music business.

He recently published this — 

Miles Davis went to Juilliard.

While a student in New York, Davis hunted down Charlie Parker, worked his way into some jams with the Big Apple’s jazz elite, then dropped out of school when he landed the gig replacing Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band.

Miles was 20 and must have been terrified. Diz was six years his senior and way past his 10,000 hours. Diz and Parker blew a lot of fast, frantic notes and pushed their instruments to the top of their ranges.

It was not a fair fight. Davis knew he did not have the chops to cop Dizzy’s sound, so he went another direction, sticking to the middle notes and working in more space and slower lines, like a painter leaving parts of his canvas blank.

The gig gave Miles the leverage to land his own deal, leading to the sessions that became Birth of the Cool, starting in 1949, when Davis was just 22. (The tracks were eventually compiled and released as the album in 1957.) Birth of the Cool stood out because it deviated from the bebop trend. If Miles had Dizzy’s chops, the album might not have sounded so fresh. At that point Miles’ style was a product of his limitations, but what he didn’t have, he didn’t need.

Truly creative people are alchemists who turn the ordinary into the extraordinary by refusing to be satisfied with what others have done before them.

By the late ’50s, bebop had become so complex and flashy that it felt lifeless, like early-’90s shred guitar. At age 32, Miles brought his band into the studio with nothing but some rough sketches of changes and almost no rehearsal. They recorded the improvisational Kind of Blue in two days, often keeping first takes. Kind of Blue did to jazz what Nirvana did to hair metal. It revealed how trite and bloated the current trend had become. Total game changer.

Eleven years later, Miles released Bitches Brew. Some critics thought he was selling out—denying his blackness and bowing down to white rock. They complained that Miles’ new work sounded nothing like the guy they had championed. In response to the Miles-does-not-sound-like-Miles complaints, Davis said,


it takes you a long time

to sound like yourself.”

By the grace of God, may you and I get a little bit closer to starting to sound like ourselves today.

And let’s listen to St. Paul giving the Benediction: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

Or, expanded and in a different version, St. Paul says, “God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12)


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