4th Blindfold Test Miles Davis part 1 of 2

June 13, 1968, by Leonard Feather for Down Beat

Four years ago, the last time Miles Davis was blindfold-tested, I remarked that he was "unusually selective in his listening habits." The only record that drew a favorable reaction was one by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, which brought a five-star rave. Everything else was put down in varying degrees: Les McCann, Rod Levitt, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor; even his early favorite Clark Terry and his idol Duke Ellington.

Looking back at earlier interviews with Miles, I am reminded that he was not always such a tough sale. In his first test (September 21, 1955), he gave four stars to Clifford Brown, four to a Metronome All-Stars track, and five to a record featuring Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, and Jack Teagarden. Ellington elicited a twenty-five-star rating - or at least, the wish that there were such a rating. (He now abstains from using the rating system.)

Recently, visiting Miles in his Hollywood hotel suite, I found strewn around the room records or tape cartridges by James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Tony Bennett, the Byrds, Aretha Franklin, and the Fifth Dimension. Not a single jazz instrumental. More about this in the next installment. Meanwhile, here is the first half of a two-part test.

The Records

1. Freddie Hubbard
On the Que-Tee
(Backlash, Atlantic)
Hubbard, trumpet, composer.

I don't dig that kind of shit, man, just a straight thirty-two bars, I mean whatever it is. The time they were playing was too right, you know. It's formal, man, and scales and all that. . . . No kind of sound, straight sound - no imagination. They shouldn't even put that out.

Freddie's a great trumpet player, but if he had some kind of other direction to go . . . if you place a guy in a spot where he has to do something else, other than what he can do, so he can do that. He's got to have something that challenges his imagination, far above what he thinks he's going to play, and what it might lead into, then above that, so he won't be fighting when things change.

That's what I tell all my musicians; I tell them be ready to play what you know and play above what you know. Anything might happen above what you've been used to playing - you're ready to get into that, and above that, and take that out.

But this sounds like just a lead sheet.

Feather: Do you think he's capable of more than that?

Davis: Yes, if he's directed, because he must have other imagination, other than this. I wouldn't even put that shit on a record.

2. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis
(Live at the Village Vanguard, Solid State)
Jones, flugelhorn; Garnett Brown, trombone, composer; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone; Roland Hanna, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Lewis, drums.

It's got to be Thad's big band. . . . I don't understand why guys have to push themselves and say "wow! wee!" and all that during an arrangement to make somebody think it's more than what it is, when it ain't nothing. I like the way Thad writes, but I also like the way he plays when he writes. I like when he plays his tunes, without all that stuff - no solos, you know. It's nothing to play off of.

Feather: There was a long tenor solo on that.

Davis: Yes, but it was nothing; they didn't need that, and the trombone player should be shot.

Feather: Well, who do you think wrote that?

Davis: I don't really know, but I don't like those kind of arrangements. You don't write arrangements like that for white guys . . . [humming]. That ain't nothing.

In the first place, a band with that instrumentation fucks up an arrangement - the saxophones particularly. They could play other instruments, but you only get one sound like that. On that arrangement, the only one that rates is the piano player. He's something else. And Richard Davis. The drummer just plays straight, no shading. I couldn't stand a band like that for myself. It makes me feel like I'm broke and wearing a slip that doesn't belong to me, and my hair's combed the wrong way; it makes me feel funny, even as a listener.

Those guys don't have a musical mind - just playing what's written. They don't know what the notes mean.

Feather: Have you heard that band much in person?

Davis: Yes, I've heard them, but I don't like them. I like Thad's arrangements, but I don't like the guys pushing the arrangements, and shouting, because there's nothing happening. It would be better if they recorded the shouts at the end - or at least shout in tune!

3. Archie Shepp
The Funeral
(Archie Shepp in Europe, Delmark, recorded 1963)
Don Cherry, cornet; John Tchicai, alto saxophone; Shepp, tenor saxophone.

You're putting me on with that! . . . I know who it is - Ornette, fucking up the trumpet and the alto. I don't understand that jive at all. The guy has nice rhythm on saxophone.

People are so gullible - they go for that - they go for something they don't know about.

Feather: Why do you think they go for it?

Davis: Because they feel it's not hip not to go for it. But if something sounds terrible, man, a person should have enough respect for his own mind to say it doesn't sound good. It doesn't to me, and I'm not going to listen to it. No matter how long you listen to it, it doesn't sound any good.

Anyone can tell that guy's not a trumpet player - it's just notes that come out, and every note he plays, he looks serious about it, and people will go for it - especially white people. They go for anything. They want to be hipper than any other race, and they go for anything ridiculous like that.

Feather: Actually, you got that one wrong - it wasn't Ornette. It was an Archie Shepp date with John Tchicai on alto and Don Cherry on trumpet.

Davis: Well, whoever it is, it sounds the same - Ornette sounds the same way. That's where Archie and them got that shit from; there sure ain't nothing there.

4. Fifth Dimension
Prologue, the Magic Garden
(The Magic Garden, Soul City).
Jim Webb, composer, arranger.

That record is planned, you know. It's like when I do things, it's planned and you lead into other things. It makes sense. It has different sounds in the voicing, and they're using the stereo - they can sure use stereo today, coming out from different sides and different people making statements and things like that. That's the way you should record!

Yeah, that's a nice record; it sounds nice. I liked the composition and the arrangement. It's Jim Webb and the Fifth Dimension. It could be a little smoother - they push it too hard for the singers. You don't have to push that hard. When you push, you get a raggedy edge, and an edge gives another vibration.

I liked the instrumental introduction too. We did things like that on Porgy and Bess - just played parts of things.

I told Diahann Carroll about an idea I had for her to record, based on things like that. There are certain tunes - parts of tunes - that you like, and you have to go through all that other shit to get to that part - but she can just sing that part. She could sing it in any kind of musical form - eighteenth century, today's beat, and she can say the statement over and make the background change the mood and change the time. They could also use her as an instrument; instead of the strings under her, she could be in the strings, and have her coming out from each side of the stereo. She told me to set it up for her, and I was trying to do it for her.

Jimmy Webb would be great for her. I think Wayne could do it for her, too; but I told her to get a guy like Mel to put the story together.

Feather: Which Mel?

Davis: Mel Tormé. And you could have the music in between, to change the mood to whatever mood she wanted to sing in. She was interested and insisted that I produce it, but I don't want to get involved in that end of it.

4th Blindfold Test Miles Davis - Part 2 of 2

June 27, 1968, by Leonard Feather for Down Beat

As I pointed out in the first part of this test [June 13, 1968], Miles Davis's hotel room was cluttered with pop vocal records. Why? There are several explanations, but the simplest and most logical, it seems to me, is that when you have reached the aesthetic mountaintop, there is no place to look but down.

Instead of judging other artists in terms of their own ideas and ideals, Miles looks for every other trumpet player, every other combo leader, to achieve what he has achieved.

Clearly this must lead to disappointment, for not every pianist today can be a Herbie Hancock, not every drummer a Tony Williams, or every saxophonist-composer a Wayne Shorter. Finding nothing that measures up to the standards he has set and met, Miles turns to other idioms. He relies on pop music for entertainment and classical music for serious listening.

There is nothing unprecedented about this. Walking into Charlie Parker's apartment, you were more likely to find him listening to Bartók than to some contemporary saxophonist. Similarly, there was nothing Art Tatum could learn from other pianists.

The taped interview was slightly censored; otherwise it represents Davis's precise comments on the records, about which he was given no information.

The Records

1. The Electric Flag
Over-Lovin' You
(A Long Time Comin', Columbia)
Barry Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, composers.

Who was that? Leave that record here, it's a nice record. I like guys that get into what they're supposed to be singing, and the guys that play behind it really get into what they're doing - when the mood changes they go right in it. It makes the record smooth; makes it mean something.

It's a pleasure to get a record like that, because you know they're serious no matter what they do. . . . I liked the rhythm on that. I mean, if you're going to do something like that, man, you've got to do it. You know what I mean? If you're going to play like that - good - but don't jive around.

I like to cop myself - I don't like to miss. I like to get into the meat of things, and sometimes it don't happen and sometimes it does; when it does, it feels great, and it makes up for the times when it doesn't. But if you know it's going to happen one night, it keeps you going.

2. Sun Ra Brainville
(Sun Song, Delmark, recorded in 1956)
Dave Young, trumpet; Sun Ra, composer.

That's gotta come from Europe. We wouldn't play no shit like that. It's so sad. It sounds funny to me. Sounds like a 1935 arrangement by Raymond Scott. They must be joking - the Florida A. & M. band sounds better than that. They should record them, rather than that shit. They've got more spirit than that. That ain't nothing.

Why put that on record? What does that do? You mean there's somebody around here that feels like that? Even the white people don't feel that sad.

Feather: Do you think that's a white group?

Davis: The trumpet player didn't sound white. . . . I don't know, man. You know, there's a little thing that trumpet players play to make a jazz sound, that if you don't have your own sound, you can hear an adopted jazz sound, which is a drag, especially in the mute. I mean you can tell when a guy's got his own thing.

People should have good friends to tell them. "Man, that ain't it, so don't play trumpet." you know what I mean? Or, "Don't play drums, 'cause you don't have anything." I'd rather have that said to me than to go on playing trumpet when it doesn't sound like I want it to sound. I know he doesn't want it to sound like that, so he should work at it, or play another instrument - a lower instrument.

When an arrangement's tight like that, you have to play every chord, because the background parts when they record, like they play them single, instead of making it smooth - and it's hard to play like that. You have to play each chord, then play the other chords or you never connect anything, and in between it's just blank.

3. Don Ellis
(Electric Bath, Columbia)
Ellis, trumpet; Hank Levy, composer.

Who's that supposed to be? It's too straight, man. You know, You'd be surprised, this trumpet player probably can play, he sounds all right, but with a strong rhythm like that - if you have a straight rhythm like that, the band has to play against the rhythm, because the rhythm is never gonna change, and that's very hard to do. The best way to do that is for the rhythm to play real soft.

You don't need a trumpet in something like that. It was just one of those major, minor, major. . . .

It's a kind of mood tune. I would play it slower and have the band way down, so they could have got some kind of feeling into it. You could tell they don't feel like playing this. Somebody was impressed with 5/4 time, but what difference does that make? What's so great about a whole number in 5/4? In our group we change the beat around and do all kind of things with time, but not just to say, "Look at me, I'm playing 5/4!" There's nothing there, but I guess the critics will have something to write about.

Feather: It was Don Ellis. Have you ever heard him?

Davis: Yeah, I heard him. He's no soloist. I mean, he's a nice guy and all that, but to me he's just another white trumpet player. He can't play in a chord, can't play with any feeling; that's the reason I guess they use all that time shit.

Anybody can make a record and try to do something new to sell; but to me a record is more than something new, and I don't care how much it sells. You have to capture some feeling - you can't just play like a fucking machine. You can't even turn on with any kind of dope and get any feeling to play if you don't have it in your heart. No matter what you do, it won't make you play any better. You are what you are, no matter what you do. I can be loud and no good, soft and no good, in 7/8 and no good. You can be black and no good, white and no good. . . . A guy like Bobby Hackett plays what he plays with feeling, and you can put him into any kind of thing and he'll do it.

4. Al Hirt
Goin' to Chicago Blues
(Live at Carnegie Hall, RCA).
Hirt, trumpet.

It's Al Hirt. I think he's a very good trumpet player. For anyone that feels that way, I guess he hits them. He's a good trumpet player, but that's some corny-ass shit he plays here.

They want him to be fat and white and funny and talented, but he ain't. They want something that looks good on television; fat, with a beard, and jovial and jolly. He's like a white Uncle Tom. And he's a nice guy; it's a drag. You know, white folks made Negroes tom a long time ago by giving them money. To do this in front of some white people, to play you to have that kind of personality, like him, it's tomming. I can't see why a guy like Al Hirt . . . I guess if he was thin he wouldn't do it.

Harry James is a good trumpet player, and he never did tom or no shit like that. Harry had some feeling.

For a guy to shake his unattractive body and think somebody thinks it's funny - it ain't funny, it's disgusting. He can't entertain me like that; he can entertain some corny ofays, but all the colored folks I know would say, "Oh, fuck! I don't want to hear that!"

You can find this blindfold test reprinted in Bill Kirchner's Miles Davis Reader, a collection of articles about Miles Davis and his music by various authors, which is still available (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1997)

TOP last update: November 7, 2001