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May 2014

SXSW: Ten Miles Davis Tips for Guitarists

SXSW: Ten Miles Davis Tips for Guitarists

6. Consider the Art of Spontaneity

Kind of Blue was largely unrehearsed. What you hear on the album is pretty much the first and last time that exact assembly of musicians played those songs together. It wasn’t a free-for-all, though. Miles gave the musicians charts of modal structures with the idea being to focus on the space around the structures. Great improvisation is a compositional activity.

“The whole record sounds as if it was thought out, prepared and completely sketched out, but we know that wasn’t the case as most of the cuts were first takes.”
-George Avakian

7. Be a Talent Scout

Part of Miles’ genius was his ability to find phenomenal musicians as they were budding and challenge them. Miles often said, “Geniuses are selfish,” but his track record shows otherwise in many ways. He had an innate ability to recognize new talent and wanted to share the stage with those players. He wanted to explore with them. He could have had the most established players with the biggest names on Kind of Blue but instead opted for mostly new, unknown talent. Not surprisingly, those musicians would become stars in their own right: John Coltrane (tenor), Cannonball Adderley (alto), Bill Evans (piano), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums).

“I think that [talent scouting] was one of his greatest talents because he would bring a guy into the band and you’d be like ‘why would he want him here?’ but it would always work out. He always saw what he wanted, even in other musicians.”
-Erin Davis

“The fact that he could throw material at them that would be interrupted and give the guys around him a chance to reveal their own impulsive geniuses was one Miles’ own strokes of genius.”
-Ashley Kahn

8. Regard Music as “In the Moment”

Miles trusted his producers and engineers and didn’t like post production. His focus was on the music in the moment. He didn’t like the idea of editing music to make it sound different than the way it was performed because he didn’t want anyone to second guess a musician’s intent.

“Those things are there and they are done; they were right when they [were] first done. They were done at the right hour, on the right day and it happened, but it’s over. It’s on the record as it was completed.”
-Miles Davis in a 1986 interview with NPR’s Ben Sidran

9. Share What Fascinates You

The panel members talked about how Miles was constantly sharing music with people he worked with, giving them albums and tapes to check out. In other words, there’s a great conversation about music to be had with your band mates that can actually take place when you’re not even in the same room.

“He never listened to anything he did in the past. He was always listening to other people’s stuff and giving it to us like homework. I can remember three albums he specifically gave me and told me to study. Those albums were Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, James Brown’s The Big Payback and Otis Redding’s The Immortal Otis Redding.”
-Vincent Wilburn Jr.

10. Be Like Sinatra

Miles used strategies from Frank Sinatra’s playbook. As Quincy Jones put it, “Miles and Frank had more bark than bite. They just wanted to terrify you.” Like Frank, Miles critiqued his band mates’ performances honestly but did so soon after a show. His band mates were always conscious of his critiques and that brought out the best in them.

“He always said not to listen to ourselves that night after a gig, but he did. After that, he’d call us up and well… you know… but that brought out the best in us. We always wanted to make him happy and proud by playing out butts off for him. Every night was a challenge because he kept raising the bar, so we had to come with it or we wouldn’t be on the tour the next day.”
-Vincent Wilburn Jr.

“He reminded me of Sinatra in that they didn’t believe in second takes. They both just believed in what was produced in that moment was as good as it was going to get.”
-Quincy Jones

Parting Thought

The above tips may not be a road map for creative genius or a successful career, nor are they even applicable to musicians of all skill levels. In fact, those same principals led Miles to record some albums late in his career that can be described as hard to listen to for all but the most die-hard of Miles aficionados. “Not everyone gets it,” is a phrase that has accented discussions about various Miles projects over the years and he clearly preferred it that way. There are certainly Miles projects that people do “get,” however, and none more so than Kind of Blue, the masterpiece of a true musical genius.

“People ask me to play those old songs and I tell them to go buy the record. It’s still there. What you like is on the record, you don’t like me. Don’t like me for Kind of Blue, like me for what I’m doing right now. If I wasn’t an artist or couldn’t create, I’d just want to be dead. It’s selfish, I know, but geniuses are selfish.”
-Miles Davis excerpted from a 1986 interview with NPR’s Ben Sidran

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