The great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, when asked by his sidemen what he wanted them to do, would reply: “I don’t know, but I will know when I hear it.”
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
Another famous comment was made by Miles to saxophonist George Coleman. Coleman, according to pianist Herbie Hancock, would work out “tricky little figures” in his hotel room, which he would then reproduce in performance. Miles got angry, saying: “I pay you to practise on the bandstand.” Coleman departed shortly after.
A third example was the way Miles prepared his band for perhaps the most famous modern jazz album ever recorded: A Kind of Blue. He didn’t. He just turned up with some sheet music, probably little more than sketches, and the microphones were turned on.
Implicit in the comments and recording method, was an attitude to time that is especially pronounced in high-level jazz. It can perhaps be described as the pursuit of the eternal moment, something that is neither past nor present.
This writer can attest to Miles’ unusual mental architecture in this regard. When Miles was in Australia for a series of concerts in 1988, I interviewed him for The Herald. My interview with him was distinctly different from all other interviews, including with musicians. It became progressively obvious, as he became engaged with the questions, that he was interested in what came next because he wanted to see what he had to say. Unusually, there was very little sense that his answers were prepared, perhaps in part because the questions were more focused on his music than was usual with journalists. It was evident that he was an unusually open person: open to the momentary. Even when talking to a white, Australian journalist he had never heard of.
There are intellectual problems with examining eternal longings, however. One is that a very great deal of time is spent in music mastering the art; the only way to enter the timeless is to have spent a lot of time practising. The aim may be to work from a blank slate, expression in the moment, but to do that jazz musicians must have mastered their instrument with thousands of hours of practice.
Also, they must have learned the musical language, even if they are jettisoning it. The past necessarily informs the present. To aspire to be different each time it is necessary to remember what you played before, which necessarily is away from the present moment. Yet to reach an evanescent inspiration, which the best improvisation does, it is necessary to have little sense of anything other than the moment, a degree of “presentness”.
Likewise, the best improvisations have a sense of shape, which usually means remembering what has been played before. Although it can be subconscious. When I asked Miles how he created such melodic integrity in his solos, he said it was not deliberate; he was somewhat surprised by the question. He did claim he could hear six lines of music at once, which is one reason why his bands were so remarkable and many of the musicians played better with him than they ever played elsewhere. He was able to exert such great control because he could hear so much more than most musicians.
Miles’ tone, rhythm and melody creation were all unforgettable, but perhaps his greatest contribution was aesthetic. He introduced an approach to time and music that was redolent of poetic ideas of the now and eternity.
It is a theme that runs through literature. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra saw “eternity in our lips and eyes”. Goethe commented: “Every situation, every moment – is of infinite worth; for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”
Rilke captured the paradoxes of time when he said poetry “comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life.” T.S. Eliot wrote: “Quick now, here, now, always-/A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).”
Language quickly breaks down when trying to talk about the timeless, or the eternity of the moment. But there is little doubt that it is a common, even ordinary, experience, for jazz musicians, many of whom describe an immersion in the moment and a sense of self-loss when their improvisation is successful.
It does not always work, though. Those same musicians describe nights when the music is not working well and they have to fall back on learned patterns; leave the momentary just to ensure that the music does not fall apart.
Almost no one has been able to produce such momentary intensity as Miles Davis or John Coltrane at their peaks. But it remains the aspiration of jazz musicians, even if few achieve as much of an escape from time as they would like.
David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.