Blowing up a storm

So Miles Davis produced little of note after 1975? Not so: the jazzman's move into rock and electronica, and his artworks, was way ahead of its time, says Sholto Byrnes

Miles Davis died 14 years ago, but once again the "Prince of Darkness" is everywhere. The work of the trumpeter who was the most important single figure in the history of jazz, and one of the great cultural icons of the 20th century, is being celebrated in an exhibition of his paintings in London; the 50th anniversary of his signing to Columbia is marked by reissues of albums from the Sixties and Seventies; and a new book offers a critical re-evaluation of the final decade of his life.

Miles Davis died 14 years ago, but once again the "Prince of Darkness" is everywhere. The work of the trumpeter who was the most important single figure in the history of jazz, and one of the great cultural icons of the 20th century, is being celebrated in an exhibition of his paintings in London; the 50th anniversary of his signing to Columbia is marked by reissues of albums from the Sixties and Seventies; and a new book offers a critical re-evaluation of the final decade of his life.

For those who think of him solely as a musician, the exhibition at The Gallery in Cork Street will come as a surprise. Andy Clarke of Balmain Fine Art, which owns much of the work on show, says: "It wasn't a hobby; it was almost a second career for him in the latter part of his life." The exhibition consists of 125 drawings and sketches and a dozen canvases. The drawings date from 1981 to 1985, when Davis was living with a German girl called Giulia Trojer. In these, his fascination with dancers is evident: most are figurative, and many feature Giulia dancing. The sketches are light and delicately drawn.

The paintings are another matter. Mostly abstract, on canvas and paper, using acrylic paints, pencil and pastels, ranging in size from 2ft by 3ft up to 5ft by 6ft, they are much denser and darker. Davis created them with Jo Gelbard, the New York artist who lived with him for the last five years of his life. The last picture he painted is in the show. Clarke says: "In Jo Gelbard's words, the picture is full of his imminent demise. It has dark, ghostly figures and dripping blood." It was completed two days before his death. While he was alive, Davis had selling exhibitions in Munich, Barcelona and Miami, and one with Jo Gelbard in New York. His works were expensive: as Clarke says: "Miles never did anything cheap in his life."

However, it's the critical re-evaluation that is the most important. There is a surprisingly widespread view that, in terms of the merits of his musical output, Davis might as well have died in 1975, when he retired for five years, or even 1968, when he began to go electric. There are those who argue that the music he made from his comeback in 1980 was not jazz; that he compromised his art for fashion, fame and money; and that his recordings and performances during those years are irrelevant, an inglorious coda to a previously illustrious career.

Many books skate over this period in Davis's life for precisely these reasons. Individuals have been more vocal; the most dismissive view comes from his fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who once told me that Davis was "a genius who decided to go into rock, and was on the bandstand looking like, basically, a buffoon".

The war over these views continues, and it represents a battle for the very soul of jazz. Should it be something rigidly defined and codified, with strict boundaries determining what kind of instruments and influences are allowed? Or is jazz an art form, with improvisation and certain harmonic touchstones at its core, that constantly evolves as its practitioners search out the new? What is its relationship with popular music culture - or should there be no association at all?

In The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991, George Cole contends that this period, in which Davis delved deeply into rock, funk and electronica, was a much more fruitful time than his detractors would have it. I would go further: to me, the Eighties showed Davis continuing to explore all the major themes of his life - the pursuit of the new; his hugely important role as a leader and teacher of younger musicians; the anger he felt about racism; and the conscious presentation of a defiant image, which helped him then - and still does now - to remain the ultimate icon of what he called "the only worldwide cultural contribution to come out of America" - jazz.

In considering Davis in the Eighties, one must remember where he'd been in the previous five years. It wasn't a very savoury place. In his autobiography, Davis claimed to have decided to take a break in 1975 for spiritual and health reasons. He'd certainly been very unwell, with his drummer Tony Williams reckoning on being able to set his watch by when Davis would be sick every day from the previous night's excesses (12 noon). Davis's approach to recovery was unorthodox: "Mostly during those years when I was out of music, I just took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point) and fucked all the women I could get into my house," he said. "Sex and drugs took the place music had occupied in my life, and I did both of them round the clock."

Although a certain amount of licence must be allowed for braggadocio, there's no doubt he was indulging himself in both activities. And he wasn't doing much else. He spent a lot of time with the blinds down and the television on, and his house on West 77th Street in New York became squalid. He briefly went back into the studio in 1978, but refused to take hold of his trumpet, which had been brought in specially for him. By 1980, he hadn't played his horn for nearly five years.

When he did pick it up again, after his sister Dorothy and his old lover Cicely Tyson took him in hand and instituted something approaching a health regime, getting his chops back in shape was a slow process, and it took him a while to put together his first real band of the Eighties.

In the meantime, the music scene had been changing. In 1980, 18-year-old Wynton Marsalis joined Art Blakey's legendary finishing school, the Jazz Messengers, and signed to Columbia. Marsalis and his saxophonist brother Branford were soon hailed as the brightest stars in what became known as the Young Lions movement, which looked back to the pre-electric jazz era.

Although many fine and less narrow-minded players were to spring from this movement, at its core was a neo-conservative agenda Marsalis has pursued with increasing enthusiasm ever since. Swing rhythms, acoustic instruments, smart suits and the study of the past were in; rock beats, synthesisers and anything that could be seen as an accoutrement of the pop scene were out. Davis was to investigate the latter throughout the Eighties, so he was at odds with the Lions.

Despite the fact that he and his peers were heavily influenced by Davis's late Sixties (acoustic) quintet, Marsalis didn't hold back in criticising what the older trumpeter was doing. In a 1982 interview in Downbeat, he said: "They call Miles's stuff jazz. That stuff is not jazz, man. Just because somebody played jazz at one time, that doesn't mean they're still playing it." The next year he went further, talking to Jazz Times: "Miles was never my idol. I resent what he's doing because it gives the whole scene such a letdown. I think Bird would roll over in his grave if he knew what was going on."

Davis had no time for this attitude. "When I hear jazz musicians today playing all those same licks we used to play so long ago, I feel sad for them," he said. "I mean, it's like going to bed with a real old person who even smells real old." He was more switched on both by the new, and by young people into the new. By the time he had recorded his first album after his extended break, 1981's The Man with the Horn, his band included the electric bassist Marcus Miller, the guitarist Mike Stern, the percussionist Mino Cinelu and the saxophonist Bill Evans. All would make names for themselves, as did later members of Davis's Eighties groups, such as the guitarist John Scofield, the electric bassist Darryl Jones and the saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Bob Berg.

Dizzy Gillespie recognised Davis's talent for nurturing - and learning from - younger players. "Miles raises leaders," he said, "a lot of them." He always did: Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans in the Fifties; then his Sixties rhythm section of Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock. The roll call of Davis alumni is a list of honoured names in jazz, including the likes of Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland.

And this is just one of the seams from Davis's earlier career that continued in the Eighties. "Being with Miles," Scofield told Davis's biographer Ian Carr, was "like being back at school. I'm learning all the time." For this alone, his achievements in that decade deserve to be esteemed.

But none of this redeemed Davis in the eyes of his critics. In 1990, Marsalis's mentor, the writer Stanley Crouch, labelled Davis "the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz," and "the most remarkable licker of moneyed boots in the music business, willing now to pimp himself as he once pimped women when he was a drug addict". Crouch's comments were not just about Davis's output in the Eighties; they were aimed at everything he * * had recorded since In a Silent Way in 1969. In implying a continuity of approach he agreed, from the other side of the fence, with Davis's associate from the Forties, Mike Zwerin. "I can't really separate the Seventies and the Eighties," Zwerin said. "It's all his 'rock' period." The difference is that Zwerin went on to say: "Miles in the Eighties with David Sanborn or Bob Berg is as much fun to listen to as Miles with Trane [in the Fifties]."

Crouch et al were infuriated by Davis's adoption of rock and funk rhythms and electronic instruments, and have done much to put across the view that Davis's Eighties period was worthless. (The continuing popularity of both In a Silent Way and 1969's Bitches Brew has perhaps made their task harder.)

Ken Burns's mammoth TV series on the history of jazz consigned all fusion and most of Davis's later career to the margins, which is no surprise when one learns that Wynton Marsalis was the series adviser. Programmes of jazz education in the US, with many of which Marsalis is associated, also tend to be informed by this neo-con bias.

Yet it is risible to suggest that Davis's interest in the rhythms and instrumentation of popular music was purely down to an attempt to make money. He turned down vast offers to reform his Sixties quintet. In the Eighties, as in the rest of his career, he was interested in the future, not the past. Those who were obsessed with the tradition, he said, were lazy. "I'm not like that, and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn't about standing still and becoming safe."

He'd always been involved with or instigated change. From playing with Parker in the Forties, being part of the start of hard bop in the Fifties, through his extraordinary orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans, to the landmark album Kind of Blue and the arrival of fusion in the late Sixties, Davis was always at the forefront. And if he wasn't, he wanted to know why. So it was entirely natural that in the last decade of his life he was interested in Prince, who he thought had the potential to be another Ellington; took tips on performance from the vocal group Cameo; and discussed the idea that "the next Charlie Parker might come from out of rap melodies and rhythms".

With the young British saxophonist Soweto Kinch mixing swing with rap, Davis's comments now seem prescient. In his last studio album, 1991's Doo-Bop, he went down this route himself, recording with Easy Mo Bee and other rappers. The neo-con disapproval was not just musical. Marsalis once expressed his opinion to me of hip-hop and rap. "They take your drawers off for you, they show your ass, they sell bullshit, they call themselves 'niggaz' and the women 'bitches' and 'hos' and it's fine with everybody. That's what the essence of decadence is."

Doo-Bop may not be Davis's finest recording, but even when he went wrong, he did so for all the right reasons. As Marcus Miller, who was involved with many of Davis's Eighties recordings, particularly Tutu (1986) and Amandla (1989), says in Cole's book: "The reason we have all this beautiful jazz that people have created is because of mentalities like Miles. If Louis Armstrong had thought like some of these critics, he would never have taken a step to create what he did. Dizzy wouldn't have done it. Bird wouldn't have done it. And we wouldn't have gone beyond King Oliver."

Other criticisms - for instance, over Davis's adoption of modern pop standards such as "Time After Time" and "Human Nature" - are historically inaccurate. "Pop music has always been part of the language jazz has drawn on," says Dave Holland, Davis's bass-player. "In the past it was Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin. [Davis's] music was all about integrating with the current developments." Wynton's brother Branford takes a different view: "By the time he got to 'Human Nature', it was like ear candy for middle-of-the-road jazz fans," he says. "Jazz is supposed to be hard, it's supposed to be difficult, it's supposed to be unpopular. That's why I play jazz."

This matches with the idea of jazz as "America's classical music" and Wynton Marsalis's repertory approach to the past. It cleaves to respectability, both artistic and social, and an overt formality of presentation, in the process often contriving, tragically, to make the music of Armstrong and Ellington dull. It's a very different idea of jazz's place in America and the world from that held by Davis.

The neo-cons don't want to rebel. They want to be welcomed as warmly, and taken as seriously, as classical performers. Making waves politically doesn't fit the game plan. In the Eighties, however, Davis was making political statements with his music. You're Under Arrest (1985) attacked what he saw as the readiness of white policemen to victimise blacks. He himself had been assaulted outside Birdland in 1959 by a drunk officer. Tutu and Amandla were about South Africa in the death throes of apartheid.

A White House visit in 1987 found Davis typically unawed. Already infuriated by a white woman on the car journey talking of his "mammy", when he arrived he felt he was being patronised by another white woman. A heated exchange ended with her asking what he'd done that was so important. "Well, I've changed music five or six times, so I guess that's what I've done," he said. "Now tell me what you have done of any importance other than be white, and that ain't important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is."

Pugnacious, truthful, proud, having no care for the niceties of convention, this was Davis the man in the Eighties. He'd also continued to produce new, distinctive music which, above all, featured the sound of heartbreak and the sound of fury - his trumpet - all the while suffering from poor health. Live concerts, it is agreed, reached an even higher level. Davis's biographer Ian Carr describes one in 1987 as "an astonishing event, almost religious in its intensity". As Dave Holland says: "When you have a great master like Miles, there's not much they can do wrong as long as the integrity is there - which I felt it was all the way through his work."

A soul cannot be bound by rules that forbid this rhythm or that instrument. And in his constant searching and reinvention (shown also in his artworks), there is no better figure to represent the soul of jazz than Davis. To those, like Marsalis, who would cut him off in 1968 and scorn his last 10 years, Davis had an appropriate riposte. Marsalis (and this applies to other carpers) knew, he said, that "he can't hold a candle to all the shit we have done and are going to do in the future". He was right - even though Miles Davis is dead, he is still the sound of the future.

Miles Davis: The London Exhibition, The Gallery in Cork Street, 28 Cork Street, London W1 (020-7287 8408; www.galleryincorkstreet.com), Monday to Saturday. 'The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991' by George Cole is published today (Equinox; £25). Sony BMG is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's signing to Columbia with the re-release of eight albums on Monday

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