On Miles Davis and Self-Awareness

Due to the ongoing pandemic, I’ve been spending an unprecedented amount of time alone in my tiny New York City studio apartment. With too much time to think and not enough social contact for normal catharsis, my mind has been spiraling to some places it hasn’t been in a while. To times in the near past when I had a lot of feelings, and no ability to name or control them. I’m sure many others further along in their journey remember those times fondly, but they’re quite fresh for me.

But despite the rapidly changing conditions, I’m staying optimistic. I’ve learned over the years that change, even for the worse, creates opportunities for self-growth and self-reflection. It’s a moment to step outside your normal habits and (metaphorically and literally in this case) walk home a different way than usual. In angstier times, I once scrawled across a notebook page:

“We dance from one state to another, never stopping to glance at what we’ve become. We flutter. Until one day we end up crying in our bathtub, tears staining the polished veneer, the cold a welcome embrace. Only then, in our most disadvantageous state, do we stop to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

I think this idea merits more exploration. Why do we only reflect when life decides to terminate our satisfaction with extreme pleasure? Why do we only have access to the truth when we’re on the outs with ourselves? Why does it take Harry a full day wandering the streets of New York alone to profess his love for Sally?

I find it best to approach these kinds of questions sideways. A more direct approach inevitably devolves into abstract musings. Accordingly, I’m going to try to anchor this investigation in the music of Miles Davis and hopefully we will get a glimpse into some abstract truth as we barrel past.

I choose Miles Davis because he is at hand at the moment. Like many in this world, I’m intimately aware of my susceptibility to musical obsession. Due to some extenuating circumstances in my life that are only clear in hindsight, I’ll go through phases where I listen to the same piece of music on repeat for weeks on end. Recently, I’ve been listening non-stop to a Miles Davis recording of “It Never Entered My Mind” from the album Workin’ With the Miles David Quintet.

This music is the latest thing that got me thinking, and since we’re about to perform some metacognition, let’s start there and see where it takes us. We’re going to begin where I’ve been trained to start with all matters, a standard liberal arts analysis:

“It Never Entered My Mind” was recorded in 1956 and is the opening track on the Miles Davis record Workin’ With the Miles David Quintet The chart is an old show tune written by Richard Rogers and has seen multiple popular recordings from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker. It features the who’s who of jazz at the time, Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane on Tenor Sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

To really understand the album or any Miles Davis record for that matter, it’s important to view it, not as an individual piece of music, but in the context of his life, environment, and discography. Like Picasso, Miles went through many artistic periods in his career. His was a philosophy progress. He never wanted to get stuck in one mode for too long and constantly surrounded himself with new and exciting voices. He’s famously quoted saying “I never thought jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered artistic”, and throughout his career, he embodied this ideal.

It’s also important to note the difficulty in telling a complete story about an individual moment in Jazz history. Jazz is a music deeply rooted in its past. The musicians keep pushing forward, but they are the first to admit that they are always building on and reacting to what has come before. This makes it tricky to know where to start, but for this account, we’re going to begin with Miles’ origins as an artist and chronicle his development up until the release of Workin.

Miles’ story begins in St. Louis. He was born in 1926 to an affluent dentist and a music teacher. Growing up, he studied the trumpet and showed great promise. When he was 17 he got the chance to play on stage with two Jazz gods, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It was after this formative performance that he got an urge to move to New York City to “be where the action was”.

In 1944, he decided to study at Julliard giving him an opportunity to move to the city. While at Juilliard, he was famously negligent and never showed up to class or applied himself. He famously got a C- in his ear-training course despite going on to have one of the most influential ears of all time. Instead of attending class, he spent all his time looking for Parker. When he finally found him, since Dizzy had gotten busy and famous, he was given his first real chance, an opportunity to replaced Dizzy in Parker’s quintet.

It was here, however, that he ran into trouble. Gillespie and Parker are widely considered some of the best Beboppers of all time. For those unfamiliar, bebop is one of the most technically difficult genres to play. It’s characterized by rapid tempos and complex chord progressions and showcases the individual virtuosic ability on their instrument. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a listen to Gillespie and Parker performing a tune called “Hot House”. Pay particular attention to Dizzy’s trumpet, and how quickly and effortlessly he plays through the fast tempo and complex harmonies.

Miles simply couldn’t play like that yet; he didn’t have the chops, and his story could have ended right there. The promising young musician who got his big break, but couldn’t hang. I’m sure it would have ended most of us. But, as alluded to earlier, what made Miles special was his ability to adapt, and his reaction was simple and genius. Instead of trying to keep up with Parker and play like Dizzy, Miles decided to play like himself. In a world focused entirely on speed and technicality, he was able to develop a melodic and lyrical style all his own. To illustrate this difference in style, take a listen to his playing on one of Parker’s compositions “Now’s the Time”.

Parker takes the first solo and we hear him play the clinically excellent bebop he was known for. Despite the slow tempo, he can be heard constantly flitting up and down the horn, flipping into smoothly into double-time with apparent ease.

This is in stark contrast to Miles’ solo. He doesn’t play fast and dynamically or running up and down his horn willy-nilly. Instead, one gets the sense that he is choosing his notes carefully. He leaves space and gives the listener a chance to really hear what he is playing. It seems like his playing is more about the anticipation of the next phrase rather than the phrase itself. This sparse, melodic style is something Miles carried with him throughout his career and also anticipated his and the entire world of Jazz’s next iteration, Cool Jazz.

In the early 1950s, some Bebopers realized that, while they were getting faster and better, their music was getting less and less accessible to audiences. They were starting to be able to play faster than fans could think, which meant that only musicians could really dig what they were playing. To really appeal to the masses they realized had to slow things down a bit. At the same time, they also realized that marketing their music was extremely important to pay the bills. This caused them to move to associate Jazz with academics and sophistication. These two changes made up the seeds of the Cool Jazz movement. When you picture a Jazz musician as a mysterious brooding horn player wearing thick sunglasses in a dark basement smoking a cigar while leaning against the wall, you are living proof that their marketing has worked. Cool Jazz became extremely popular with young, white educated and the cool ascetic became all the rage.

As always, Miles was on the cutting edge of this new era. After a short stint with Parker, Miles left to found the Miles Davis Nonet with Gil Evans. The Nonet recorded several sessions during 1949-1950, which were eventually released as quintessential cool jazz album aptly named The Birth of the Cool. The music played in these sessions used slower tempos, strange lingering harmonies, classical influences, and sparse solos to create a completely new sound. Take a listen to one of the tracks on the album, “Boplicity”. You’ll notice it sounds way different from “Hot House” or “Now’s the Time”, but is still uber swingin’. The slower tempo allows listeners to parse all the amazing harmonic complexity of Bebop and the strange instrumentation and classical influences lend the music a certain weighty feeling. Despite its historical heft, it turned out that Miles was a little too far ahead of his time and the album represented a huge commercial and financial flop.

Following the disaster that was The Birth of the Cool, Miles lost himself for a while. He was young, still in his early 20s, and he began to drift as many of us do. He picked up and struggled with a Heroin addiction. He took his first trip to Europe, which was transformative, but on his return, he became depressed due to how poorly African Americans were treated in his home country. He didn’t find a lot of work and eventually returned home to kick his drug habits.

In 1955, he was finally clean, and the stage was set for his comeback. He was invited to the Newport Jazz Festival where he was paired with an All-Star line up of Thelonious Monk, Connie Kay, Percy Heath, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan. During this performance, the group played an infamous version of Monk’s “Round Midnight”. In the recording, we hear a more mature version Miles. He seems to channel the pain and sadness of the last few years into his music. When combined with his sparse melodic style, the result is something that makes your hair stand on end. Besides being hauntingly beautiful, it’s one of the most famous recordings in Jazz history as it elevated Miles back into the spotlight. Critics and audiences loved it and he tied with Dizzy for that year’s best trumpeter. Miles was back.

Following Newport, Miles signed on with Columbia Records, the premier label at the time, and formed the Miles Davis Quintet. In order to finish his existing record deal with Prestige, he immediately recorded 4 of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, Steamin’. Impressively, these albums were recorded in two marathon one-day recording sessions with minimal rehearsal.

With this, we finally arrive at Workin’ and “It Never Entered My Mind”. As we listen to the music, we can hear in it all the parts of the story developed above. From the classical influence in the driving piano line to the sparse emotion-laden solos to the complex bebop harmonies, all the history we just laid out is captured in this one moment in time. The result is a beautiful track from one of the leading artists at the time pushing Jazz to its limits. Miles would go on to release Kind of Blue, the most famous Jazz record of all time, and innovate many more times before his eventual death in 1991.

Naturally, I’ve been forced to leave out just about everything for the sake of brevity. It’s also likely that I’ve unintentionally angered some readers (who actually know what they’re talking about) through some omission or slight inaccuracy, but this is the nature of academic accounts—they’re often better at inciting discussion than uncovering the truth.

But personally (maybe cockily), I think this account would get an A in an introduction to Jazz course and as someone who has had the dubious honor of surviving a well-regarded university, this is something I do believe I am an expert in.

In any case, what is not controversial is that this is how we so-called “intellectuals” at the prestigious schools around the world demonstrate how well we have mastered the material. I’d suggest that this attitude can be quite destructive. While this account is long and seems complete, it unmistakably misses a vital part of the story. I know this because when I close my eyes and really listen, this is what I really see:

The song begins with the melody backed by that driving piano Ostinato.

A man and a woman sit a slightly closer than acceptable distance apart on a bench in Central Park. It’s an unseasonably warm winter day and the kind of breeze that makes the grass stand up and dance is drifting through the air. The bright sun emphasizes the curious juxtaposition between the muted grey buildings of the city and vibrant greens and browns of Central Park. It smells like hot dogs and horse manure.

The pair sit and watch the curious menagerie of bikers, runners, ambulances, and horse-drawn carriages drift aimlessly by. The woman smokes a cigarette, the man covers his eyes with sunglasses and a white brimmed hat, feigning indifference. They know their time has come to an end. They know that life has come to drag them apart and that this is the last time they’ll see each other, maybe ever. They also know it’s a perfect day. They talk about anything else, trying to remember the past in order to forget it. The piano pushes them along—moments of happiness sliding away.

And yet, they are still happy in a funny way. They’re content and love each other very much, but life has thrown something better their way. They both understand that. The fact that as good as things are now, they’re pushing off to happier shores. They know this is true because it has to be. Because they wouldn’t be putting themselves through this if it wasn’t an unassailable universal axiom. At the end of the day, the only thing they want is for the other person to be happy. They love each other more than they’ve love themselves. That’s enough. It has to be enough. They talk for hours.

The piano solo starts.

A cold breeze blows signally the transition to dusk. The two friends stand up reluctantly. They exchange a hug lasting multiple beats. They go their separate ways. They take the subway home and sit alone in their dark, tiny New York apartments. They think about what they’ve done. They don’t know if they’re going to be okay.

The melody begins again.

They both decide that, whether or not they made the right choice, it’s going to be fine. They decide to let life take over. They remember that life is nothing but hello, thank you, goodbye, and it has a funny way of working out, and goodbye now rarely means forever. They both lay down in bed with an unquenchable melancholy they pray will fade.

The song ends with the Ostinato played in double time before coming slowly to a halt.

Their minds race one last time, circling the drain until sleep finally takes them.

What we lose in the academic account is how the music makes us feel. Somewhere in that long explanation of where it came from, we lost what it is. We forgot that it can stand on its own.

Music, or any kind of art for that matter, has the power to remind us of what it’s all about. It transcends the cold, objective reality of what it is and worms its way into the personal subjective realm of how it makes us feel. If we let it in, it allows us to experience all of life’s complexities good and bad. It makes us feel less alone. All this is lost in the rigorous academic accounts we value so highly.

But I digress, being good liberal arts students, let’s return to the million-dollar question: Which account is better? Which one should we strive to promote in ourselves?

To answer this question, I think it’s easy to cop-out and say that the answer lies somewhere in between. Somewhere deep in the Aristotelian middle way. To say that if there’s any magic in the world, in art, it lies in understanding both why something was made and how it makes you feel, and going too far in either direction inevitably proves disastrous. This sounds like abstract nonsense and it is. Of course, doing everything well is preferable to a single part. What this forgets is that we’re only human. we’re imperfect, but that’s also what makes us interesting.

A better answer is one that deals with the harsh reality of the world. Instead of perfection and unattainable excellence, I propose awareness. I submit that true education and wisdom actually lies in the ability to be aware of where we are in the spectrum and where we ought to be, and those we admire for being well-adjusted are ones that have the freedom to move about and know why they are moving.

The disturbing truth is that we all have a default setting by which we construct meaning from reality. As constant consumers of our own thoughts, we rarely stop to question their validity. Instead, we generally automatically accept them as canon.

My boss is horrible for making me come in last weekend, my professor is mean for assigning that tough problem set, my friend is a terrible, manipulative person for acting this way.

These thoughts quickly become part of the donée, and we are guilty of them and maybe we’re right.

But maybe we’re wrong.

It’s not that these thoughts are bad in and of themselves. They’re bad because we never stop consider their validity. They’re so immediate and accessible that we forget to think about the alternatives. Maybe your boss was just trying to get a piece of work done to save the department and keep you from losing your job, maybe the professor knows more than you and working the tough problem will have a severe impact on your future career, maybe your friend was just making the best of a bad situation and did the best they could with what they had.

The truly insidious thing about these default settings is that they are the path of least resistance. It’s considerably easier not to think about all of the above possibilities and barge gleefully along with the armor of blind certainty. Approaching life like this may even make you happier in the hedonistic sense, but while our realities are comfy and safe, they’re also lonely. When we’re wrapped up in our own thoughts, we lose all semblance of empathy for our bosses, professors, and friends.

We are all born with the right to be supreme dictators of our own realities. What we forget is that we are only appointed the position by virtue of being the only one there. As we grow up we learn how to let others in, and as much as it may hurt sometimes, it also makes us feel whole.

So it seems to me that living life to the fullest requires breaking out of these default settings. To have some critical awareness of why you are thinking in a certain way. How you react is still up to you, the answer lies in the awareness, not in action.

And with that, we finally return to answer the ill-posed question from the beginning of this tirade: When we reach our lowest point, our minds force us to exercise this kind of awareness. We are made to become acutely aware of what went wrong in order to prevent it from ever happening again. This is something we call closure. Millions of questions race through our heads, but peace does not come from their answers. Knowing why a break up happened never stops the pain. Instead, solace comes from the awareness of why we’re asking these questions in the first place. It comes from exercising critical choice in what we choose to think about. Over time, we learn to step back from our immediate passions and our default settings and see the world as it is. It’s not the end of the world, everything happens for a reason, they’ll be happier without us, belief in these tropes comes precisely when we gain awareness beyond our immediate passions. Applying this kind of critical control allows us to take our toughest moments and turn them into sacred times we remember forever.

I’d like to close by inviting you to consider what would happen if we could apply this kind of awareness to all facets of our lives? If we could hold the best moments in our lives as close as we learn to hold the worst? That is the power of that this kind of thinking can provide, but the fact is that we spend a lot of our lives in our default settings, caught in the infinite rat race. This is for good reason. It’s incredibly difficult to apply this awareness at all times, but it’s work that is worth doing, and you have to start somewhere.

P.S. I’ve embeded all the music referenced in the post below. Take a listen, it’s good stuff!

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