The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

What Color is your Horn?

Flamenco Sketches- Miles Davis:

“What are we lookin’ at here, Glenn?”, I can hear you ask.

You’ve heard me mention this music before. And here I am yammering on about it again. What makes it so important, in my opinion?

In early Spring of 1959, 7 men got together for a conversation. The subject was Jazz, a topic all of them were intimately familiar with. The mood was Blue.

The men assembled were Bill Evans with his Piano, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane on saxophone, Paul Chambers playing bass, and Jimmy Cobb setting the rhythm for them to converse in on drums. Wynton Evans dropped in to play piano for a bit as well.

None except Miles and to some extent Bill Evans (since he wrote some of it) had actually seen the sheet music, and this was intentional. His goal was to have an improvised conversation, and to that end he outlined the modes and the scales, and then simply asked the musicians each in turn what they thought about it. You can hear the unspoken questions and answers in crisp clarity in “Flamenco Sketches”, arguably my favorite piece. It is neither crisply over-practiced nor careless. Skilled musicians challenged to speak their minds speak from the heart, one adding to the other.

What came out was possibly the most mundane, everyday kibbutz about the plainest, most inconsequential topics imaginable. With none but the most vague guidelines, these men rambled in turn as their minds invented thoughts, translated feelings, let intuition run rampant up and down the halls, and to an outsider, talked all day about nothing.

Six weeks later, they reconvened and did it again, wrapping up unfinished sentences, blurting out things they wished to say earlier or restate what they felt came out wrong earlier.

From these two sessions came the album “Kind of Blue”. They couldn’t even come away with a definitive statement in the title. And yet, when the recording as pressed into my vinyl record, plays to me on a Saturday morning 65 years later, the eloquence of their thoughts illuminates the most beautiful things about being human.

These recordings, with their technical skill but notable lack of commercialized glitter and attention-mongering, talks instead of yells at me. It talks in low-but-earnest tones, not convinced of anything but intensely curious, asking me my opinion and suggesting possibilities. It doesn’t clamor to be right, but it doesn’t expect to be wrong either. It enjoins me to the search for what might be right, without judgment.

This is the essence of the best human community. Each time I hear it, I hear a different world in which we can all afford to be humble, we can afford to be wrong, we can afford to pursue an elevated plane of existence whose map is still largely blank.

Miles Davis wasn’t a genius musician. He was a genius human, with a horn as his primary tool and a vision of faith in others to be equally serious with him in his pursuit of curiosity about us.

What he gave to his band was a set of modal scales, a rough idea of who plays when, latitude to go on as long as they had something to say, The scales he gave his band that day went as follows:

C ionian
Ab mixolydian
Bb ionian
D phrygian (or flamenco)
Gm dorian

That was it. Bill Evans set the mood, Jimmy Cobb set the pace, and the six men talked and listened amongst themselves.

Now, if you think I know what any of those scales means, you’d be mistaken. I intend to learn, someday, but so far well… there’s always something that seems more important on my mind in the moment. But I hope someday to devote some time to learning those scales, to set myself up in a room and learning what it feels like to improvise on them. But while musically I’ve never done this, I do understand, and have improvised in my own realms of skill and knowledge. It is a joyful thing, and even better when shared with others.

The joy of freedom is sometimes best experienced within strictures of our own design. We can build a house using modern-day code to guide us, that is a safe but in-human way to build such a personal structure. On the other end if the scale, just picking up a hammer, a saw, and going at it with no knowledge, skill, or plan is equally inhuman, in that the result is little more than scribbling with a crayon.

We have governments to save us from our own stupidity and ignorance. We have churches and other social organizations to hone our boundaries and responsibilities to God and others. But our intended existence only uses those constructs of society as a a grain of sand around which we create our own pearl of life. When we make adherence to or construction of life-formulae out to be our main work, we miss entirely the beautiful point of being not machines, but the apex of living organisms who can imbue biological function with meaning in tune with the universe we are born to.

And this is precisely what Miles Davis gave us – a glimpse of the humanity inside each of us, and a demonstration of a way to be that can, if chosen, sustain us.

5 months after recording this album – in fact only two weeks after its US release – Miles Davis was assaulted and beaten by a New York cop outside the club where he was playing. Apparently he had the audacity of escorting a white woman to a taxi cab while taking a break from performing outside a club in New York City. This sounds horrific, but that isn’t the half of the tragedy. To play in New York, a musician had to have a Cabaret Card, and since he was arrested and charged with a crime (assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct – charges eventually dropped since the cop’s actions were in fact unprovoked), that card was revoked until public outrage and demands for investigation eventually caused all the charges to be dropped months later. In the meantime, this meant he couldn’t ply his trade, and the band was subsequently forced to break up and go their own way. What’s more, it has been noted that he wrote no new music, stopped exploring his modal form, and essentially went on autopilot for the next five years.

We could dwell on the outrage at how easily one clumsy oaf with a mind filled with prejudices could so easily kill off not just the creative spirit of Davis himself, but that of the burgeoning band he formed, and its possible growth into something even bigger. But we cannot fight anger and fear with more anger and more fear.

Instead, we have his music. We have this recording. We know his story. We can re-create this at our own breakfast table, amongst people close to us. We can re-create this in any setting, with any of the intrinsic tools we use to develop our minds with. His example isn’t as an idol of Music, but rather a plain demonstration of what could be done -what perhaps we each SHOULD be doing – with our everyday life.

We improvise. We are in fact a species of improvisers. The dull-witted amongst us look for superstitious formulae to relieve us of either the need for internal discipline or on the contrary indeed any mental effort at all. The dull-witted cowards try to force all of us into identical mass-produced cages, and deluded dreamers attempt to build using no calculations at all , instead snatching constructs built of straw chaff that blows in from afar on the winds of social media, news, and superstitions – smelling of life but having no substance of its own. Both of these groups insist we must conform mindlessly to their ways. But this demand comes from being desperately afraid of the possibilities that small groups of such human qualities as exist in each of our breasts can create. The True Life is a quiet practice that asks questions, challenges and either confirms or rejects the answers, and in doing it together with a few trusted people, enmeshes itself between individuals to create a larger whole. That it can be beaten apart with fear and intimidation and yet resurrect somewhere else, in someone else, is merely evidence that it is a vibrant, living thing worthy of pursuit and nurture. In fact, that is exactly what we are given to nurture. It is not life that we seek to nurture, but the spirit within it.

That spirit is in you. It isn’t waiting to arrive, it came with you, and resides within you, somewhere, right now. I cannot tell you more. Only you can can give it life. Imbue it with too much passion, and it will burn out prematurely. Try to go it alone, and most often it will starve for lack of nutrition. Full-time naive happiness evaporates in the harsh sun, pessimism washes it away in floods of silt and debris. This life is neither all sunshine, storm, strict regimen nor feckless drifting. We are tempted always to look to the extremes for the secret of Life.

But it turns out that the sweet spot – the very essence of the human spirit – is Kind of Blue.


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