Miles Davis Dishes Dirt on His Fellow Jazz Musicians: “The Trombone Player Should be Shot”; That Ornette is “F‑ing Up the Trumpet”

Cre­ative Com­mons pho­to by Tom Palum­bo

The wan­der­ing bards of old dis­ap­peared when the print­ing press came to town. So too have the great band­lead­ers large­ly van­ished in the age of the super pro­duc­er and jet-set­ting DJ. But for a time in the jazz and rock worlds, Olympian fig­ures like Frank Zap­pa and Miles Davis played sev­er­al impor­tant roles: find­ing and men­tor­ing the best musi­cians; mas­ter­ing old forms and mak­ing them new again; serv­ing as cura­tors, arbiters, and con­trar­i­ans… issu­ing loud pro­nounce­ments on any­thing and every­thing as unspar­ing cul­tur­al crit­ics.

Do we need tongues as sharp as Zap­pa and Davis’s in con­tem­po­rary pop cul­ture? Maybe, maybe not. They didn’t seem to enjoy much of any­thing they weren’t direct­ly involved in cre­at­ing. But man, was it fun to watch them dis­pense with the niceties and speak their bru­tal truths. We’ve heard from Zap­pa on every­thing from his loathing of the Vel­vet Under­ground to the fas­cism of the PMRC to the mor­bid­i­ty of the entire music indus­try. Davis’ obser­va­tions  were equal­ly cut­ting. “His fas­ci­nat­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy,” writes Kirk Hamil­ton at Kotaku, “is loaded with shit-talk­ing, dis­missals, and gen­er­al acer­bic jerk­i­ness. It is fan­tas­tic.”

But you needn’t pick up Miles’ book to get an ear­ful of his acid-tongued judg­ments. We need only revis­it the series of “blind­fold tests” he did for Down­beat mag­a­zine in the fifties and six­ties. These exper­i­ments had famous musi­cians lis­ten to new music, “try to pick out who is play­ing,” then offer their off-the-cuff takes. Davis’ first ses­sion, in 1955, began char­i­ta­bly enough, though not with­out some sweep­ing crit­i­cisms. He dis­missed all of the soloists on Clif­ford Brown’s “Falling in Love with Love,” for exam­ple, except for a Swedish pianist whose name escaped him. But he gave the record four stars all the same. “The arrange­ment was pret­ty good.”

In 1958, Davis sat for his sec­ond blind­fold test, with mixed results. He near­ly oblit­er­at­ed Tiny Grimes and Cole­man Hawkins’ “A Smooth One,” giv­ing it “half a star just because… Hawkins is on it.” But in an effu­sive moment, he gush­es over John Lewis’ “Wareme­land (Dear Old Stock­holm)” with a ten star rat­ing. “All the stars are for John,” he says. By 1964, lit­tle evi­dence of that rare enthu­si­asm remained in the third blind­fold test. Davis was at that moment, writes Richard Brody, “torn apart.” In a par­tic­u­lar­ly irri­ta­ble state of mind he “flung insults at Eric Dol­phy,” Son­ny Rollins, Cecil Tay­lor, and a few more greats. His com­men­tary “per­fect­ly cap­tures his gen­er­al dis­taste,” writes Hamil­ton, “for, well, every­thing.”

Of Dolphy’s “Miss Ann” (above), he says, “nobody else could sound that bad!” Of the Jazz Cru­saders’ “All Blues”: “What’s that sup­posed to be? That ain’t noth­in’.” Of Duke Elling­ton, Max Roach and Charles Min­gus’ “Car­a­van”: “What am I sup­posed to say to that? That’s ridicu­lous. You see the way they can fuck up music?” Like anoth­er infa­mous trash-talk­er who cur­rent­ly dom­i­nates every con­ver­sa­tion with his unbe­liev­able  ego­ma­nia, Davis toss­es out the con­de­scend­ing adjec­tive “sad” at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. Clark Terry’s “Cieli­to Lin­do” is a “sad record.” Dol­phy is “a sad moth­er­fuck­er.” Cecil Taylor’s “Lena” is “some sad shit, man.”

It’s not all bad. Miles loves Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s “Desa­fi­nan­do,” giv­ing the record five stars and its two star play­ers the high­est of praise. Four years lat­er, his typ­i­cal mood had not improved. In 1968, Davis sat for his last blind­fold test. He tore into Ornette Cole­man, mis­tak­ing him for Archie Shepp on “Funer­al.” Of Fred­die Hubbard’s “On the Que-Tee,” he says, “I wouldn’t even put that shit on a record.” Sun Ra’s “Brainville” gets a seri­ous slam: “They must be joking—the Flori­da A&M band sounds bet­ter than that. They should record them, rather than this shit.” It ain’t all pure cat­ti­ness. Davis tends to like music that stays out of his musi­cal lane, like The Elec­tric Flag’s “Over Lovin’ You,”—a “nice record,” he says. “It’s a plea­sure to get a record like that.” Like­wise, the pro­logue from the Fifth Dimension’s Mag­ic Gar­den gets a thumbs up.

When Down­beat­’s Leonard Feath­er vis­it­ed the iras­ci­ble trum­pet play­er in his hotel room for the last test, the crit­ic “seemed shocked to find records by the Byrds, James Brown, Dionne War­wick, Aretha Franklin, Tony Ben­nett, and the Fifth Dimen­sion scat­tered around his room,” notes Davis biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed. “Miles seemed to have lost all inter­est in what was then con­sid­ered jazz.” No doubt about it, no musi­cian then or now would want to be on the receiv­ing end of his crit­i­cal barbs. Per­haps the only jazz play­er he nev­er put down was the “young savant drum­mer” Tony Williams. Oth­er­wise, “at some point or anoth­er,” writes Hamil­ton, “Davis lays low just about every oth­er lumi­nary in the his­to­ry of jazz.” But behind the vit­ri­ol lay true genius. No one was as competitive—or as demand­ing of him­self as he was of others—as Miles Davis.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Miles Davis Opens for Neil Young and “That Sor­ry-Ass Cat” Steve Miller at The Fill­more East (1970)

Chuck Berry (RIP) Reviews Punk Songs by The Ramones, Sex Pis­tols, The Clash, Talk­ing Heads & More (1980)

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Toad says:

    Yes, the Blind­fold Tests are great in gen­er­al, though they were very frus­trat­ing before the inter­net, because I pret­ty much nev­er hap­pened to have the record­ings they were dis­cussing. I was using Down­beat as a guide to help me nav­i­gate into jazz from my rock and roll youth, so I did­n’t have much of a col­lec­tion when I was read­ing it. Now that you can Google up the record­ings and lis­ten along, these Blind­fold Tests that they did (and pre­sum­ably still do) for many decades are a very inter­est­ing form of jazz crit­i­cism; they could be very harsh some­times, and they were impressive–I aspired to be able to hear music as well as these peo­ple could…playing like them was not even a dream.

    As for Miles’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, yeah, it’s an enter­tain­ing mon­stros­i­ty of a thing, but I think it’s not so great when peo­ple get too famil­iar with the man before they know the music. In a lot of cas­es, not just Miles.

  • Chris says:

    How on earth does the author com­pare Miles with Zap­pa. One is arguably the best musi­cian of the 20th cen­tu­ry and the oth­er is a cir­cus curios­i­ty.

  • Kevin Merritt says:

    That’s exact­ly what came across my mind as I read that pas­sage! I actu­al­ly could­n’t believe that he men­tioned Zap­pa in the same breath of Miles and before Miles!! I was insult­ed to say the least! And any­one that knows any­thing about music would’ve been just as insult­ed. Hell, Zap­pa him­self would be appalled that he was men­tioned in the same breath of Miles Davis!!’

  • Kevin Merritt says:

    I also have to total­ly agree with Miles on the cut by Eric Dol­phy. It’s the worst I’ve ever heard him!! I have nev­er heard Dol­phy play that way. Now if you want to hear some good Dol­phy lis­ten to “Green Dol­phin Street”! That’s Eric Dol­phy at his best.

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