Phil Schaap Jazz

Miles Davis and Hard Bop

During the 1950s, Miles Davis was Jazz: the embodiment of the contemporary sophisticated Jazz musician, with tremendous ability beneath a cool, stylish exterior. After the fires of BeBop had cooled and its innovations absorbed and acknowledged, new styles had begun to emerge, with BeBop as the root “language;” first Cool, then shortly after, Hard Bop. While Cool was essentially BeBop with the phrasing of Lester Young, and Billie Holiday, Hard Bop, on the other hand, was a return to the Blues, with extra rhythmic emphasis. Miles Davis’ foray into Hard Bop helped to codify this approach, establishing it as a style. Hard Bop is in Prestige Records, particularly those from April 29, 1954 forward; and, of those, most boldly the dates that featured his classic quintet. In ’51, Miles had no set group, not until 1955 did he form the first great quintet, considered the classic one. but from the get-go, surrounded himself with the best of his peers: Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Charlie Parker, on saxes, Walter Bishop Jr., John Lewis, Horace Silver, pianos, Percy Heath, Tommy Potter, basses, and (perhaps most importantly) on drums, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Kenny Clarke. The earliest sessions were somewhat limited to the 78-rpm format, keeping the music within the three to three-and-a-half minute range. Prestige didn’t adopt the Lp format right away. The repertoire Davis chose for these sessions represents a mix of standards, and original compositions. Reaching Back to tunes like “Whispering,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “The Blue Room,” (taken at an unusually slow tempo), and “Love Me Or Leave Me.” “Out of the Blue,” “Bemsha Swing,” “Solar,” and “The Serpents Tooth,” represented compositions by Davis and his contemporaries. [Note that “the Serpent’s Tooth” has never be properly attributed to its actual composer, Jimmy Heath.] 1954’s LP Walkin’ represents the culmination, firmly establishing Davis as Hard Bop. The title track, is an astounding fanfare of the music, with a sextet, including: no-less Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums; J.J. Johnson on trombone, Lucky Thompson on tenor, and, on cornet, Miles Davis. The album Walkin’ and all subsequent Davis Prestige dates feature a heavier, approach to drumming, still keeping the emphasis on the ride cymbal, but with more snare, and bass work, as well as cross rhythms. “Four,” with none-other-than Art Blakey, is a superb example of such. [Note that “Four” is very rarely properly attributed to its actual composer, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.] The favoring of tenor sax over alto is another hallmark of Hard Bop. That, in and of itself, giving Davis’ ensembles more “weight.” The less frequent chord changes are another key feature of these recordings, as well as Hard Bop as a whole, essentially allowing the soloist to really “dig in,” rather than constantly running changes. This undoubtedly accounts for the preeminence of The Blues. By 1955 Prestige had long since adopted the Lp format, and that same year Miles formed his first great quintet: Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. The formation of said quintet, along with the ability the LP provided to “stretch out” produced a series of albums, which are the quintessence of Hard Bop: the “’,n” series of albums - “Workin,’” “Cookin,’” “Relaxin,’” and “Steamin.’” An interesting aspect of these albums is the fact that they were all done in two marathon recording sessions, on May 11th and October 26th, 1956! Following Davis’ success at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, he was signed by Columbia, but Davis still had a contract for four albums with Presitege. Thus in May and June of 1956, the quintet fulfilled their obligations. (Prestige likely had mixed feelings about losing Miles: unhappy to loose one of their best and most successful artists, but glad to have the albums “in the can,” and able to release them at their leisure, and with prospective increased sales, through Davis’ far superior exposure with Columbia.) [This whole transition of Miles’ recording contracts has never been fully explained. Davis’ album of Charles Mingus’ (and Max Roach’s) Debut label within days of Miles’ triumph at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival suggests that Miles was UNsigned. From this point, July 17, 1955, Miles seems obligated to record with Prestige Records (likely an option exercised) and Columbia Records (moving in and taking over the entirety of Miles’ recordings.] Repertoire remained the same; standards, Davis’ and comrades’ tunes, and The Blues. Now with a set personnel, including Coltrane (poised to become the most dominant tenor player of his generation and eventually the music’s primary {new} star), and a most solid rhythmic foundation, anchored by Jones, and Chambers, Miles’ playing was deliciously self-assured and dominant. The haunting beauty of “It Never Entered My Mind,” or “There Is No Greater Love;” the blazing virtuosity on “Oleo;” and the soulful call of “Blues by Five,” and “Ahmad’s Blues,” are but a handful of superb recordings off these albums. Miles’ relationship with Prestige was really an optimal one. Davis’ Prestige material represents, not only the quintessence of Hard Bop, but a body of recordings which remain just as fresh and enthralling as they were when they were first released.  [by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]