Miles Davis And The Development Of Improvisation In Jazz Music

Miles Davis And The Development Of Improvisation In Jazz Music

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This essay is a discussion of how the way jazz trumpeter Miles Davis changes his way of improvising, looking at two pieces from different times. The solos in the pieces were transcribed by myself and then analysed in detail. From these analyses, several conclusions on the style of improvising were drawn, and then the conclusions from the two pieces were compared. The piece ‘New Rhumba’, showed how Davis was using his technical ability to create an impressive solo, but was also leaning towards a more sparse and spacious form of improvising, where the times he doesn’t play are just important as when he does play, and the solo in ‘So What’, showed this new style in full. The analyses of the two solos also showed Davis’ ability to improvise solos in a way that it seemed as though he had already composed them. They were full of melodic tunes. This was also emphasized by the fact that Davis often would think of a motif, and would then repeat this, developing on it, creating variations of it. This all gave the solo a sense of unity. When people in the audience heard the solos, they would recognize things Davis was playing late in the solo, as variations on themes he was playing earlier on. On a more technical basis, it shows the difference in the two solos, of the amount of time Davis spends on notes outside the chord. In ‘New Rhumba’, the earlier piece, his use of extensions is greater, and there are far more times where he uses flattened, or sharpened extensions. The later piece, ‘So What’, is less active in this area. This essay reveals some of the aspects of Miles Davis’ style, which made him such a legendary, and influential jazz trumpeter.

Topic: A discussion of the development of improvisation in jazz music in reference to trumpeter Miles Davis.
Miles Dewey Davis was born on the 26th of May 1926, in Alton, Illinois. He became famous around the world for his incredible trumpet and flugelhorn playing, but he was also an accomplished keyboard player, and composer.

Although born in Alton, Illinois, Miles Davis lived in East St Louis. He came from a wealthy middle-class background. It isn't surprising to see that a person with the talent of Miles Davis came from a Davis' father musical family. His mother played the violin, and his sister played the piano.

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Although Miles was not very musical himself, he obviously saw talent in his son, and for his thirteenth birthday, bought Miles his first trumpet. Miles was very privileged to come from the family he did, because it meant he was able to have private trumpet lessons. He learnt from a teacher called Elwood Buchanan, who taught Miles all the basics he needed to know, before his natural talent and flare for improvisation took over. Miles progressed quickly at the trumpet, and played in many bands and ensembles at his school. While still in school, he joined his first independent group as a trumpeter. They were called Eddie Randall's Blue Devils.

Many jazz musicians influenced Miles Davis. When Billy Eckstine's band played in St Louis, Miles was able to meet some of these influences; Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. (Trumpeter and saxophonist respectively) At the age of 18, Davis went to study at the Juilliard School of Music, in New York. How ever, what he really wanted to be doing was just playing jazz. He left the school to play in the small clubs of the famous 52nd street. He did much of his playing with one of his idols, Charlie Parker. Davis joined Parker's quintet in 1945. Together, they recorded some of the first true bebop songs - songs such as 'Now's the time'. It was during this time that Miles Davis established his style as a jazz trumpeter.

Bebop was a jazz style which developed in New York, at the end of World War II. It’s distinctive style is created by the use of dissonant chords and complex rhythms in the improvised solos. Davis, always pushing the boundaries of what were the accepted styles in jazz, was at the forefront of this new style, along with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Davis was again ahead of his time as he moved on from bebop to a new style called ‘cool’ jazz, bringing other jazz musicians such as Kenton, Monk and Brubeck with him.

The jazz style known as ‘cool jazz, is perceived as being subdued and understated. It is a very relaxed style of jazz which was in part founded by saxaphonist Lester Young. Miles Davis was the most prominent trumpeter in the coming about of cool jazz. Many other jazz trumpeters drew from his style, and tried to emulate it.

The way Davis improvised was very different from the standards set for jazz trumpeters at the time, and this is why he had such a profound impact on the jazz world. His solos were often placed in the middle register, where he could achieve the most tuneful melodies. His mastery of improvising memorable tunes made it seem almost as though his solos were composed beforehand.

An analysis, and comparison, of two of Miles Davis’ solos, ‘So What’, and ‘New Rhumba’, will show in what ways Davis developed the way he improvised, and what effects it had on his contemporary jazz musicians, and those who followed him.

The piece ‘New Rhumba’, recorded in 1966, featured on the ‘Miles Ahead’ album, begins with a basic chord progression of D, then C/A – which means a C chord being played over an A bass. It then moves onto a more complicated, and cycling chord progression which I will explain when I come to the part in the piece where there is improvisation over this chord progression. When the solo begins, it is difficult to determine exactly what the chords are. I think it can be argued that from bar 49, until bar 65, the accompaniment is based on one chord; D. In this solo, Davis uses the base notes of the chord, but he also uses what is called extensions of the chord. There are four main extensions which can be employed above a D major chord. The 7th, which in this case is a C. The second possible extension is the 9th. A 9th above a D major chord is an E. The third extension is an 11th, which in a D major chord is a G, and the last extension which could be used is a 13th, which in this case is a B. These extensions make up the basis for Davis’ solo in ‘New Rhumba’, but as we will see in the analysis, he often plays on these extensions, and uses flattened extensions, and other notes which are technically not part of the main chord.

Using this for the analysis, in bar 49 – the beginning of the solo – Davis uses the 9th extension, and in the next bar he again uses the 9th and the 13th extensions. Bar 52 has some strange notes which don’t appear to fit. A flattened 7th, and a flattened 13th. However, if one looks at the context that these notes are in, one can see that they are really being used as passing notes, and I don’t think they serve any real technical musical purpose. Bar 54 contains an 11th, and a sharp 11th, but again, the sharp 11th is simply being used as a stepping stone to get back up to the root note, D. For the rest of this section there is more use of the 9th and 13th extensions, and there are other notes which again don’t seem to fit, but when one looks at the whole musical phrase, they are passing notes.

Once we reach bar 65, the analysis becomes much more complicated, as the chord progression has become more complicated. It starts with an Am7 chord in bar 65, then in the next bar it moves to D7. Bar 67 contains the chords G▲, and G7. The next bar has the chord C. Bar 69 moves from F▲, to F7, and then the next bar is Bb7/F. The last two bars of this new chord progression contain the chords EØ/A, and then Gm+b5/A.

Due to the complexity of the chord progression that is used here, the notes that Davis uses outside the chords actually become fewer. He lets the chords guide his improvisation, more than feeling more free about what notes to play. The accompaniment to bar 65 is an Am7 chord, Davis sticks to the chord in this bar. Davis also stays on the D7 chord in bar 66, although there is a sharp 7th, but when it is looked at in the context of the whole musical phrase, it is quite clear that it is a passing note. In bars 67 and 68, where the chords are G▲ and G7, followed by C, Davis stays totally on those chords. Bar 69 has the chords F▲ and F7. Davis stays on these chords except for a 9th extension which he uses in the second half of the bar. Davis plays only on the Bb7/F chord in bar 70, although there is an E at the end of the bar, but this is clearly anticipating the chord change into the next bar. When it does change to EØ/A, Davis employs a 9th extension in the latter half of the bar, and in the last bar of this 8 bar section, which has the chord Gm+b5/A, Davis gives the bar colour with the use of a 13th.

The next 24 bars is quite a strange section of the piece. For the first 6 bars of this section, Davis is playing with a little theme. Each time he plays the theme it is a slight variation on the last time, with changes in rhythm, and in the actual notes being used. Throughout these 6 bars, this theme contains the notes C# quickly followed by D. This gives a strange analysis for this section, as there is a #7 in each bar. However, this #7 is there due to the motif that Davis has found, and is using and varying. In this 6 bar section Davis also makes use of the 11th extension, as seen in bars 75, 76, and 78. By bar 80 Davis has moved on from this motif, but he is still improvising in a somewhat disjointed way. When physically looking at the transcript, one can see that he develops a pattern of playing for a bar, and leaving all rests in the next bar, and then playing again in the bar after that. This gives the impression of having many different little tunes incorporated into the solo, before he begins runs again at bar 90. From bars 80 to 90 Davis is making use of extensions, but he is also using notes outside the chord, which highlights the differences in the little tunes, and the abstractness of the style of improvising. The 7th, 9th and 13th extensions are widely used, but he also uses some flat 13th’s and sharp 13th’s. These are often used as passing notes in an ascending phrase, for example in bar 84, but they are also used in their own right, and this is what separates this section from the rest of the piece.

The next three bars involves a technically difficult run of notes which obviously contains many passing notes, but I think their can be an interesting interpretation of bar 91. It begins on a flattened 3rd, an F. It could be argued that Davis’ use of this F, and then the A and the C at the end of the bar shows that he is super-imposing an F chord over the top of the accompaniment. However, this gives strength to the possible argument that the chords throughout this section are actually the same as the opening, being D then C/A, because it would mean that Davis is super-imposing the sub-dominant chord of D over the top, but this issue remains debatable. After this run Davis returns for a few bars to the disjointed style that we saw earlier. Davis returns to using the flattened 13th’s that he used earlier, and also in the run, but he also uses the 11th extension, and a natural 13th, which is anticipating the 9th extension of Am7 which arrives in the next bar.

Davis uses extensions more often in this section of the solo than in the previous one with the same chord progression (bars 65-72). In the first two bars he makes use of the 9th and 11th extensions. He also uses the 9th extension in bar 101, and then the 7th and 13th in bar 102. He plays on a little 3 note motif in bars 101, 102 and 103, which he varies the rhythm of in bar 103, and then in bar 104 he uses the 13th extension, and then finishes the bar on a D, which is Davis again anticipating the chord change to D in the following bar. The rest of the piece with improvising over the top then remains on the D chord.

In the first two bars of this section, and the last bar of the previous section, Davis is again developing a theme. E, F#, E, D, and again he experiments with different rhythms on this theme. In playing this theme, Davis employs the 9th extension of D major. The 5 bars of rest that Davis leaves after this theme shows that the piece is now heading towards the end. When looking at the whole piece, this section is breaking down the piece to a basic bass line and the solo, in order to emphasis the climatic ending. In this last section Davis last quite a lot of emphasis on the 9th extension of the chord. In this first 16 bars of this last section this is the most predominant extension, with the 11th and 7th also being used. There are a few sharp 7th’s, but if one looks at the music, and listens to it, they can see that Davis never labours these notes, he simply touches on them, usually in passing while ascending or descending to a note in the chord.

In the next 16 bars (bars 121-136), Davis spreads put his use of extensions, while still playing in a relaxed way to keep the music simple so that the ending achieves its full impact. In bar 121, there is another run, in which all four extensions are used, but he quickly slows down, and for the next 9 bars he uses only the 7th and 9th extensions. In bar 131 he uses the 13th extension, and then a flattened 13th, but it in an ascending run leading up to an A, so it is a passing note. From bar 133 to 136 he uses all four extensions again, but he is still sparing in the amount of notes that he plays.

From bars 137 to 152, Davis again uses rests to slow down the feel of the piece in preparation for the ending. His use of extensions has been mainly held back to the 7th, 9th, and 11th. Instead of fast runs involving many different notes, he is instead holding on to notes for longer than a bar at times, and leaving plenty of bars empty of improvisation. The rest of this solo is not so much showing the skill of Davis, in his technical ability, and musical ability, but more winding back the music. It still requires skill to do this however, and this is how Davis helps to create a memorable song, because he doesn’t allow the ending to lose any of it’s impact.

The piece 'So What', recorded by Miles Davis in (date etc) is in the modal style. This means that it sticks to two main scales. Em7, and Fm7. In his solo, Miles Davis plays with these seventh chords, but also uses extensions to give the melodies he plays more colour. The base notes are, for Em7, E, G, B, and D. These are the first, third, fifth, and dominant seventh degrees of the Em7 scale. And for Fm7, F, Ab, C, and Eb. Extensions to this kind of basic chord are the notes that one can put above the seventh. The notes of a minor seventh chord move up in intervals, alternating from a minor third interval, to a major third interval. In Em7, the chord moves from the first degree of the scale; E, up a minor third to the third degree of the scale; G, up a major third to the fifth degree of the scale; B, and then up a minor third to the seventh degree of the scale; D. The first extension is up a major third from the seventh, to the ninth degree of the scale; F#, the second extension is up a minor third from the first, to the eleventh degree of the scale; A, and the third extension is up a major third from the second, to the thirteenth degree of the scale; C#. Miles Davis uses these extensions widely in his solo for 'So What'.

From bars 32 to 49, which is set over the Em7 chord, Davis’ use of extensions in relatively sparse. For the first 12 bars he barely uses them. The ones that he does occasionally use are the 11th and 13th, but in the early stages of the solo, he is merely establishing the key, and the specific chord. In bar 46 he uses the 9th and the 11th and an Eb. As theses notes appear in a run, they are really only passing notes to get back up to the E natural. After this, the 9th and 11th are again used to get back down to E.

During this 8 bar section, Davis uses the eleventh and the thirteenth of the Fm7 chord to great extent. It is as if the chord that here is hearing in his head when he is playing his solo, is one with the eleventh and thirteenth firmly in it, and so he is drawn to them. This use of the extensions enriches the melodic qualities of these eight bars.

During the next five bars, Davis plays only the triad and the seventh, to firmly establish that he has moved back to Em7. After he has done this he begins to again use the extensions of the chord. In this extensions he is using the ninth and the eleventh more than the thirteenth that he used in the Fm7 section. Where the Fm7 section went for 8 bars, this Em7 section goes for 24 bars. By the time it reaches 16th and 17th bars, there is a sense that it wants to move to the chord change. There is tension that is being created by this lengthy section. This tension is heightened by the notes that Davis uses. He uses the flattened fifth of Em7, which is the eleventh of Fm7. In this way Davis is anticipating the chord change, and when the chord change finally arrives, there is a sense of release in the music, as the tension is released. In the second to last bar of this section, there are C#'s, which is the thirteenth of the chord, but it is really just a passing note in the phrase, as Davis moves from D to C# and then repeats it. The C# is technically not significant, it just completes the musical phrase. In the last bar of this section, Bb, the eleventh of Fm7, is again used, and leads the piece into Fm7 for the following bar.

During the next 8 bar section, Davis again makes heavy use of the ninth and eleventh notes of the chord. In the last bar there is a run of E, F#, G, A. This doesn't serve a purpose in technical musical terms, they are passing notes which lead into Em7 which begins in the next bar.

In the next Em7 section, Davis brings the solo back to a more basic form. He uses less extensions, while still using ninths ad elevenths. In the fourth to last, ad second to last bars, he uses a flattened tonic, and a flattened fifth, but again, these act as passing notes to complete the musical phrases Davis is using.

In this solo, Davis is quite sparing in his use of notes outside the set chord and the occasional extension. The main feature in this solo, is the way he uses space. The moments when he doesn’t play become as important, and musical as those when he does. In many of Davis’ earlier solos, with songs in the bebop style, such as ‘Now’s the Time’, and ‘Night in Tunisia’, he dazzles the listener with impressive chromatic runs, set to a fast changing chord backing. This piece however, contains only two chords, and Davis ventures beyond them relatively rarely.

There are some recurring themes that Davis uses in this solo which stand out to the listener. The motif that is heard in bars 34 and 35, is heard several more times throughout the solo. Bars 36 and 37 are a variation on this motif. It is again heard in bars 77 and 78. A variation on it is also heard in bar 94. Davis uses this as a theme for his solo. He plays with it at points through the piece, and in doing so gives the solo a sense of unity. It acts as a hook line to the solo, and so draws the listener in, and helps them to appreciate the other parts of the solo.

Davis also uses a rhythmic motif in this solo. There are many examples, bar 35, bar 39, bar 53, bar 57, bar 63, bar 73, bar 75, and the last bar of the solo where Davis finishes a musical phrase, occasionally the recurring one I mentioned earlier, with two notes of equal pitch and value. This again gives the solo unity because it rhythmically links together the melodically different parts of the solo.

Although Miles Davis established his style as a jazz trumpeter at an early age, there are certainly differences that can be seen when comparing an earlier piece to a later piece. From the time Davis recorded ‘New Rhumba’ to the time he recorded ‘So What’, he developed a new style of improvising. The runs and frequent playing outside of the chord that is featured in ‘New Rhumba’, and even more so in earlier pieces, is substituted in ‘So What’ for the use of space. In this piece Davis feels that he can have an impact on the audience when he isn’t playing, just as much as when he is. For this reason he leaves gaps in his solo, and often plays very slowly and rests on notes for long periods of time. Some of this style is evident in ‘New Rhumba’, as they are not actually that far apart in terms of when they were reorded, but it is far more obvious in ‘So What’. I feel that ‘So What’ shows a more mature Miles, as it shows that he realises he doesn’t have to impress people with amazing musical feats. He can just as easily be impressive by his ability to know when to play, and when not, and his ability to seemingly compose tunes in his solos. I think that these are the aspects about Miles Davis, that have made him such a household name, and why he has become such an influential giant in the jazz world.


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First Published in Great Britain by Grafton Books, 1987

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Edited by Barry Kernfeld
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First Published in London by Macmillan Press Limited, 1988
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