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Was Miles an Insightful Critic, or a Relentless Crank?

Over at Noise Made Me Do It,we are treated to an excerpt from a 1964 Down Beat magazine interview with Miles Davis, in which he is given a blind listening test. In typical Miles fashion, he spares no energy in tearing down his peers. For example, in response to Eric Dolphy:

The next time I see him, I’m going to step on his foot…I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker…The composition is sad.

And upon hearing Cecil Taylor:

Take it off! That’s some sad shit, man…Is this what the critics are digging?

We all know that Miles launched the careers of several of Jazz’s greatest performers. He was, along with Art Blakey and Duke Ellington, one of the great bandleaders. But we also know that it might be a stretch to declare him a trumpet virtuoso; it just happened to be his instrument of choice. So are his scathing remarks about others’ performances unqualified?

Of course Miles was not anywhere near Clifford Brown or Wynton Marsalis in his command of the trumpet. I consider his strength as a soloist to be his ability to contribute to the overall mood and texture of a piece — to create a mystique which frames the performances of his sidemen. Perhaps it was his sensitivity to the dynamics of group interaction that makes him an astute critic.

Personally, I’m somewhere between rejecting his opinions for being contrarian — devised largely to arouse attention and assert his dominance in the arena of musical discourse, and respecting his insights as products of a prolific career that relied heavily on cohesive, smartly directed ensembles. Perhaps the criticisms he offered in this interview might be more easily taken to heart if his demeanor was not so cocksure. Then again, have you or I ever learned anything that was delivered with a “pretty please?”

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