Happy Birthday, Miles
by Roy Beckemeyer
Miles Davis (May 26, 1926-Sept. 28, 1991).
Miles Davis would have turned 93 today. He died 28 years ago. I can’t remember when I first heard him on the old console radio in the tiny unincorporated village in Illinois where I grew up. I had discovered jazz about the same time I discovered Elvis. I wasn’t musically sophisticated but had grown up with my mom listening to big band music and the popular music of the day, much of it set to the wondrous songs of the Great American Songbook. Jazz set something off in my head, though, the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpected directions, the strange departures from the melody line of those great old standards after the familiar opening measures.
I bought my first jazz album soon after I got my driver’s license, in 1957. I worked part-time at Piggly Wiggly, so had some loose change to spend, and could get to the other local towns where records were sold. There were never a lot of 33’s, especially jazz, but I can still remember finding Cookin’. Some of you will recall how it was. The 12” records in their colorful sleeves stacked at an angle on the counter, the way you had to pull them upright with one hand, page through them with the other. That album really stood out, the bold and thick black lines of the almost abstract drawing of a trumpeter’s face, his right cheek, his hand wrapped around the trumpet, fingering the keys. I know my hands were shaking when I found it. A real jazz album there in that dime store! You readers who grew up in the age of music sharing and the internet will never know how it was back then, how finding an album like that in backwater small town America was like finding buried treasure.
Miles Davis had been one of my first discoveries as I learned the names and sounds of jazz listening late into the night to my radio, turned down so it wouldn’t wake up my brother or sisters. His muted trumpet on ballads was lush and soul-stirring to a newly romantic teenager just beginning to think more seriously about girls. I almost wore that album out within a couple months of buying it. No big hi-fi system in our house, just a portable cube of a record player with a heavy arm and dull needle. But I learned every note, every beat of the songs, and to this day I can hum along with the soloists. Some of Miles’ most famous albums were still in the offing then: Kind of Blue in 1959, Sketches of Spain in 1960, Seven Steps to Heaven in 1963, In a Silent Way in 1969, Bitches Brew in 1970. But Cookin’ was the disc that hooked me.
I came of age in those years, graduated college, got married, joined the Air Force, became a father. And I did it all to the soundtrack of Miles and Cannnonball and Bruebeck and Jamal and Monk and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Mingus. And it all started with that first LP.
So Happy Birthday, Miles. You had one helluva journey through life and music, and I was pleased to get to hear you as I went through mine. I still listen to you now, all these years later. I listened to Cookin’ again today. You never looked back with nostalgia on what you had accomplished, always looked ahead to what there was left to do. I kind of do that, too, like to try new things and keep learning. But I also like to go back to those days when everything you played was new and exciting. Thanks for the legacy.
—Roy Beckemeyer, May 26, 2019.
Here’s a short review of Cookin’ I wrote and had posted on my old (now defunct) website, windsofkansas back in 2005:
“COOKIN’ (Miles Davis). Miles Davis – Trumpet; John Coltrane – Tenor Sax; Red Garland – Piano; Paul Chambers – Bass; Philly Joe Jones – Drums. Prestige OJCCD-128-2 (P-7094). Produced by Bob Weinstock, recorded in Hackensack, NJ, Oct. 26, 1956 by Rudy Van Gelder.
My first jazz album, and one that I played over and over again. It made My Funny Valentine one of my favorite songs, and Miles’ muted trumpet almost defines how this tune should be performed (…well, ok, Coltrane’s version in his album named My Funny Valentine is pretty good, too). Red Garland’s intro is clean and precise and delicate, and Miles comes in mellow, his solo giving way to Garland. Blues By Five opens with Garland riffing the melody and building into Miles’ open horn bouncing around the melodic line. Coltrane’s solo roughs the tune up a bit and then Garland’s clean, short notes tinkle out, each distinct, none overlapping, almost as if he was using vibraphone mallets. Paul Chambers takes a turn, Garland comping sparingly in the background. The rhythm section joins together and trades back and forth with Jones solos until Red closes by revisiting the melody. Airegin, a Sonny Rollins composition, is fast and Miles changes the pace to medium hot. Coltrane keeps the pace and blows out a flurry of notes on his solo. Tune Up/When Lights Are Low is really fast, a blowing session for the horns that gets your blood pressure back up a bit.
5 Stars – A nostalgic favorite of mine with the classical and lyrical version of a classy Rodgers and Hart song. Reviewed 9 November, 2005.”