Over the last year or so, I have been listening a lot to the discography of Miles Davis, while studying and trying to play some of his music. During this time I also read Miles: The Autobiography, a book full of provocative and stimulating thoughts about music and his tumultuous life.
Here are some key takeaways that can serve as both guides for aspiring musicians, as well as general life lessons:
Lesson 1: Knowledge is freedom
For Miles, there is no point in having access to knowledge if you don’t take advantage of it. As he puts it:
¨A lot of the old guys thought that if you learned something from theory, then you would lose the feeling in your playing. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.¨
Lesson 2: Music is about style
It his book, Miles acknowledges his influences from a very broad (and often extra-musical) cultural spectrum. ¨If I were to play with Frank Sinatra¨, he says, ¨I would play the way he sings, or do something complementary to the way he sings. I learned a lot about phrasing listening to the way Frank, Nat King Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice.¨
And when it comes to blues in particular: “If you play the blues you just have to play a feeling; you have to feel it.” Like much of Miles’s playing, his advice sounds deceivingly simple.
Lesson 3: There are no ”wrong” sounds
A famous Miles Davis quote is that ¨there are no wrong notes in jazz.¨ A profound insight into his overall approach to music, this is a concept that, for all its clarity and simplicity, remains exceedingly difficult to fully realize and apply creatively.
As he puts it in his autobiography:
¨Nothing in music and sounds is ”wrong.” You can hit anything, any kind of chord. Music is wide open for anything.¨
Lesson 4: Technology is not -necessarily- evil
On the issue of technological innovation in relation to music making, Miles is pretty clear: it’s not technology itself that causes trouble, but rather how it’s being put into use by the musicians themselves. As he writes:
¨Musicians have to play the instruments that best reflect the times we’re in, play the technology that will give you what you want to hear. All these purists are walking around talking about how electrical instruments will destroy music. Bad music is what will ruin music, not the instruments musicians choose to play.¨
Lesson 5: It’s all about change
If anything, Miles’s entire career and life in music is a perfect example of constant evolution, experimentation and adaptation. In a nutshell: a prime example of constant change.
In his own words:
¨If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.¨