Tag Archives: miles davis

On Bill Evans, Jazz And Heroin

I have been listening to the music of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. He was white, and brought a lyrical, almost Western classical influence to the music. He also had an awful life, dogged by repeated battles with addiction, mainly heroin.

It seems bizarre that some of the most sublime music of the 20th century should have been created under the influence of the worst narcotic known. Heroin, though, was almost as prevalent as alcohol in mid-century jazz circles.

You will almost certain have heard Evans, even if you did not realise. He plays on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz album ever, if you ignore crossover hits like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

He was best known for his work with just bass and drums – Evans pretty well invented the piano trio that has become the staple of the genre, through artists such as Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau. Go onto Spotify or YouTube and listen to Re: Person I Knew, probably one of the most tuneful compositions in modern jazz. Or Waltz For Debby.

Heroin was so prevalent that it would be easier to list the musicians who weren’t users. A number, including Evans, died of hepatitis, one of the complications of their addiction, especially when mixed with alcohol.

Charlie Parker, Chet Baker – who lost his front teeth and, temporarily, his ability to perform after a drug deal that went wrong. More modern musicians such as Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, who once ascribed his fitness to having to walk up flights of stairs in apartment blocks to reach the dealers who often lived at the top.

It is worth asking why heroin had such a hold. Some have said jazz was a black man’s music, and that as the underdog black musicians were more likely to turn to drugs for comfort – except that Evans was white, and suffered a degree of rejection when he replaced Red Garland, who was black, in the Davis band.

Some have blamed the influence of Charlie Parker, who was a demigod among musicians of his generation and seemed able to function without any hindrance from his addiction.

Some have talked about alcohol suppressing the left hand of the brain and allowing the more creative right to emerge. A good excuse, that. Some have blamed the Mafia, who after the War were able to import quantities of heroin.

Jazz musicians were on the outside of society, and were more likely to be in places where drugs were available, like the clubs where they performed. Their lifestyles were understandably different from the mainstream population. The final factor, I suspect, was that the dangers of heroin were as yet improperly understood.

A study by the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at 40 of the greatest performers from 1945 to 1960. It found that a disproportionate number had a family history of psychiatric problems, while more than a quarter were alcoholics.  It is tempting, though I suspect wrong, to see some link between mental illness and creativity.

Go and listen to Re: Person I Knew, though, and wonder how something so beautiful can be the creation of such a disordered mind.


On Modern Jazz

“There is so much to say about this music. I don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself.” Ralph Gleason, US critic, original sleeve notes to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

I have been buying an awful lot of modern jazz. Specifically, anything recorded from about 1960 to 1970, often on labels such as Blue Note or Impulse!

There are two reasons for this. I am trying to wean myself off the sort of miserabilist alt-country that has been dominating my listening of late, to the detriment of my general state of mind. “Excuse me while I break my own heart tonight.” No, ideally not.

The second is that it is startlingly cheap to build up a substantial collection. Those who have never heard of the following, excuse me. But I picked up six John Coltrane classic LPs, in omnibus CD form, for six quid. I wanted Oliver Nelson’s Blues and The Abstract Truth. It was available as a single CD, for a fiver or more, in Fopp in Cambridge. Alternatively, you could have eight Nelson LPs, originally issued on Impulse!, including Abstract Truth, for eight quid.

(Fopp, for those who do not know it, is a chain that inhabits an alternative world where there are prices, but not as we know them. There is a big branch in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, packed with baffled looking tourists carrying baskets full of CDs and trying to work out what the catch is. It is not all cheap, but many of the back issues can easily undercut Amazon.)

Fopp’s Cambridge branch has a large rack of original Blue Note issues, at £3 each. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, before they went electric, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams before he went electric. Freddie Hubbard. Hank Mobley. Lee Morgan.

All classics. Barely a duff one among them. Blue Note and Impulse! were largely the creations of several committed individuals who produced all the albums and hired the studios, often at night. Some of the recordings were all made in the small hours, when rates were cheap. Jazz musicians keep funny hours.

Some of the best record labels creatively, Sun or Chess, were run along the same lines. ECM, the Munich-based specialist in chilly Nordic jazz, is a more recent example. If Manfred Eicher, who owns it and produces everything, doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get produced.

Blue Note specialised in more commercial, groove-based jazz. Some of it will be familiar from adverts or elsewhere. You would recognise Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. The bass and piano line from Horace Silver’s Song For My Father was stolen, shamelessly, by Steely Dan for Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.

The Blue Note sleeves were artworks in their own right, moody, stylised and often, indeed, tinted blue. You really should play a Blue Note on a turntable, for the sound of the stylus hitting the groove, and the anticipation therein. Older readers will know what I am talking about.

Impulse! was the scarier, screamier, more difficult end of the spectrum. Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, Albert Ayler. Archie Shepp. Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, one of the dozen best jazz albums ever recorded. Not much of this made it onto lifestyle adverts.

What the two had in common, along with other jazz of the period, was a sense of freedom, and of possibilities opening out. Much of it was made by black men, who were emerging from that early, bright Technicolor jazz of New Orleans and elsewhere into a kind of music that, in terms of harmonic sophistication, rivalled the best of Western classical music. And they wore sharp suits. And the playing was astonishing, of course.

This is why near-racists such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin despised it. They liked their black music a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’, music that knew its place.

There was also a strong sense of spirituality, and transcendence. Coltrane was a Christian, of a particularly African-American, evangelical variety, and his A Love Supreme, another of those dozen best, is explicitly devoted to his religion. Others were Muslim converts, shaking off the religion of the slave masters.

Looming over it all was Miles Davis, a man who reinvented jazz once. And then did it again. And again. Possibly four times. Depending on whether you rate his later, more difficult work, such as Agharta and Pangaea, as truly revolutionary or the product of a mind at the end of its tether.
There was still Sketches of Spain, The Birth of the Cool, Porgy and Bess, half a dozen LPs by the second great quintet, Davis-Williams-Shorter-Hancock-Carter, In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew.

Yes, yes, Miles Kind of Blue too. We all know that one. Theme music to a few thousand dinner parties. But there is so much more to this music than that.