Miles Davis: the Schoenberg of jazz?

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while–I’ve been incredibly busy with work, etc.  Now that things have calmed down a bit, eartotheground will be back up to speed.  Anyway:

As you may or may not know (I certainly didn’t know the specifics until I read this article), yesterday was the 50th birthday of Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue. That’s cool enough in itself, but what’s even cooler is how Slate‘s Fred Kaplan breaks down the nitty gritty of Davis’ innovative music theory.

Most music in what music scholars call the “common practice” period of European classical music is based on the notion of triadic chords: you’ve heard of a “C major chord” or an “a minor chord,” etc.  Triads in what we call “root position” have their main, or tonic, note on the bottom (i.e. as the lowest note) and then build two more harmonizing notes on top to create the familiar sound.  Plenty of other musical systems rely on this foundational principle of harmony, such as blues, many kinds of folk music and much of the pop we listen to today.  (One of the key harmonic differences among these musics is how the chords are patterned: Muddy Waters’ blues progressions are, for example, different from the progressions you’ll hear in a Mozart sonata, though many of the same kinds of chords may be used.)

Conventional harmony also relies on the notion of a key or tonic: a primary pitch and associated harmony (in D major, for example, this pitch would be D; in e minor, it’s e, and so forth, generally speaking) around which every other pitch and harmony is organized hierarchically.

Jazz was based on this general theory for a long, long time, until Davis came and blew (I’m resisting making a pun) the whole system out of the water on Kind of Blue.  In fact, chord progressions were (and often still are) perhaps more fundamental to jazz than to many other kinds of music due to jazz’s improvisational nature.  Musicians knew what chords were coming next and improvised on them; without mutual agreement on chords, it was impossible for the complex interplay of voices that is jazz to occur.

But in the 1950s, Davis was looking for the next new thing and lighted on his friend George Russell’s theory of modes, an entirely new way of thinking about the relationships and hierarchies among the 12 pitches available within the Western musical system:

Russell threw the compass out the window.  You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes.  “It is for the musician to sing his own song really,” Russell wrote, “without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord.”  In other words, he continued, “you are free to do anything” (the italics were his), “as long as you know where home is”–as long as you know where you’re going to wind up.

One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory’s possibilities–how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations.  Miles realized this was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac.  “Man,” he told Russell, “if Bird [Charlie Parker] was alive, this would kill him.”

Out of this new freedom was born Kind of Blue and an entirely new jazz landscape.  There are a few links in the article which are worth listening to, but better yet, pick up the album for yourself if you don’t already own it.

Also, read this quote.  I hope I’m not the only one who sees (infinitely more exciting and enjoyable-to-listen-to) echoes of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School in this approach:

“When you go this way,” [Davis] said, “you can go on forever.  You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time.  It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are….I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations.  There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

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