My First Concert: Miles Davis

Miles Davis: My First Concert



Miles Davis: My First Concert

Wow…I hadn’t thought about the first concert that I’d attended, for many, many years—so this was a nostalgic journey for me, and one that gave me new perspectives. Interestingly this night became a lifetime memory, an experience that would change perceptions and bend, later mold, the mind of an impressionable young boy.

It was a seminal moment in my life.

At the time, I was into my 5th year of playing, or I should say, learning to play the Alto Saxophone. For musicians out there, I think most would agree that practice can be tedious…it’s truly an exercise in maturity and focus…two things I lacked at the time.

A solitary time… pitted against the challenge of notes on a page. Moreover, some of, if not virtually all of the ‘exercises’ are sheer repetition…’not again’ you moan. But, practice, as the old saying goes, ‘makes perfect.’ Little did I know that seeing this performer for my first concert would change my musical thoughts for a lifetime.

Here is the post that I made on Audiogon in December of 2010. After you read, I’ll be back to sum up.

Question: What was the first concert you ever attended? 

My first concert was, Miles Davis, at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY circa 1961. Of course Miles couldn’t actually STAY at the Brown, given the racial tone of the day, and even though Louisville was/is not Deep South, but the Northern Gateway to the South – those prejudices existed strongly back then.

The evening was more than a little bit interesting for a fledgling Alto Sax player such as myself – Miles arrives almost two hours late because of flight delays as we were told. We’re all waiting patiently, when off stage right, I hear these incredible tones coming forth – chromatic scales. For those of you who aren’t musicians, that is an exercise that you learn early on…all notes of a scale, sharps and flats, going from lowest to highest, then back down, quick, quicker, fast, then as fast as you can. It is good for the ‘chops’ AND allows your fingering to be mastered for adlibbing quickly. Of course watching Miles do it was almost like “Music Magic” moreover it was a lesson, I never forgot…if Miles can play chromatics’ I should sure as hell should too.

They played for a couple of hours – some guy in the back wanted to hear, “Bye Bye Blackbird” and screamed out his request at the end of every song. To his incredible patience (though not known for it), Miles played it – he and the whole group did a fantastic job – and oddly enough it was a personal highlight for me. Miles was already a legend of sorts and certainly worth the $5.00 ticket (if I remember correctly).

Later that fall, on New Year’s Eve, I played my own first professional job, at a Catholic Church Dance, earning, what for me at the time was a fortune…$40. for a 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. job. For a thirteen year old boy, this was a launch pad for my love of music that has lasted a lifetime…and, by the way, Miles’ performance that evening was pure magic.

The rest of the story is maybe even more telling. 
After watching this group of men on stage that night, my excitement for playing and practicing, increased pretty dramatically. I remember redoubling my practice routines. Then, and I suppose it was because of some of the subject matter, much to the chagrin of my mother, buying the book, ‘Satchmo’, which was an autobiography of Louis Armstrong. Reading about his life in New Orleans…playing in clubs, his anecdotes about other players…it was ghost written and credited, but it was pure unadulterated Louis insofar as you can discern…stories like, “So and so trumpet player, everybody always said he played TOO LOUD…well, he finally went crazy, you be the judge.” This is a fifty year old memory…so be gentle if you’ve read it and I slightly misquoted. But, wow, could I hear Louis saying that?

I wanted to move to New Orleans, play my sax in the clubs…marry a woman who’d cook me red beans and rice…hell, insofar as I can remember, I wanted to be Black, in an America that was very unkind to Black folks at the time. All this from just hearing some reed thin Black man stand on a stage and play music after having opened with an all too familiar chromatic scale.

The power of music is incalculable—at least for me it is—it moves me in ways that I can never predict or understand—and I can put on a song from some artist, fall in love with it, and put it on repeat, listening to it ALL DAY LONG on a Saturday or Sunday. That used to drive my wife, now ex crazy…notice I said ‘ex’, so you be the judge.

This was, as I said in my original post on Audiogon, a ‘launch pad for a love of music that’s lasted a lifetime.’

And yes…Miles that night was indeed, pure magic. But the age-old questions that precede an analysis of any great talent and remarkable contemporary performances should be looked at in some depth here. Why was he, why were they so great, how were they so remarkable, what made him so special to jazz lovers all over the world, not in just that microcosm of time, but in the 50-plus years hence? Who was in the group that night? Sadly, I have no memory of the other players and I would doubt that anyone could say with certainty who his traveling ensemble was on that particular night…Miles was, even to a little boy of 13, blindingly large star that overshadowed everyone on the stage, at least for me. He was the draw, my draw. His alone, was the musical voice that made the moment…and I don’t feel, even though the memory is half a century old, that I would be alone in that assessment for that evening. One could opine that much of the magic had to be the other players, not a bad bet, as he had, amassed the best names in the jazz world of that era—Alto Saxophone player, Cannonball Adderley (my enduring favorite), Tenor Man John Coltrane, Pianist Bill Evans, Bassist Paul Chambers and Drummer Jimmy Cobb—legends all. But within this musical Rubick’s Cube the answer to the ‘why’ doesn’t have to be one thing…it could be a confluence of events within the currents of time, conspiring, as it so often does, to change reality.

Context, as it is said, is king…what I did not know at that time – what the world didn’t know was – in just three short years, ‘Kind of Blue’ album went on to become the greatest selling jazz album of all time! (thereby enshrining Davis as the most influential jazz musician of all time. In the United States it has in recent years, gone quadruple platinum with astounding worldwide sales). In an attempt to intellectualize this group and its amazing and enduring work of art, we sometimes overreach, asking the unanswerable questions. What made this work so special? Was it the group of players that he’d assembled, or was it the fact that, in contrast to his earlier works based on the contemporary standards of jazz, ‘hard bop style of jazz with its complex chord progression and improvisation these offerings were played in a somewhat (though he’d used it before) revolutionary style…one that struck the fancy of jazz lovers? Just what was the change? Miles and the boys employed what’s known as modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style.

My own impressions are, with the advantage of historical perspective and the ability to now go back and evaluate the ‘before and after’ with regard to ‘Kind of Blue’ as jazz’s seminal work, with Miles and company as the perpetrators, I’d say that it was simply a magic moment in time. All of it, the music choices, the ‘modal sketches’, the players…all of it. But think about this. The ‘straw that stirred the drink’ was Miles Davis. Without him…none of it would have happened.

That, and one little boy of 13 would not have left the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky with a life altering moment under his belt.

L. R. Staples

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