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Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and the Search for Musical Expression and Self

By Thomas Swan t.swan@classicalite.com on Dec 20, 2015 09:54 PM EST

A lot of jazz aficinados even find John Coltrane hard to listen to. His volcanic torrent of notes, pushing hard to escape from his saxophone, can overwhelm even the most liberal minded of listeners. This upheavel was Coltrane's attempt to purge his soul and gain a synesthesia with his subconscious. Miles Davis turmoil was also present on the very surface of his music, skimming off the top, exposing raw nerve. Unlike Coltrane, Davis was calculating about what he was exposing in his search. He was careful, guarded and mistrustful. Louis Armstrong completes the triangle. No outward agenda, at least musically speaking, Armstrong was the shaman. Only if you were paying attention did you see his self, the abandoned orphan looking for a mother figure through musical expression.

In a way, traditional structures of song began to imprison John Coltrane. Sure, there was the tempting lure of free jazz that Ornette Coleman proved, and the feasibility that it could be laid down,documented and captured on record. For Coleman, though, it was an intellectual exercise, proving the impossible possible.

Coltrane wasn't seeking the intellectual. "I'm not sure of what I'm looking for, except that it'll be something that hasn't been played before. I don't know what it is. I know I'll have that feeling when I get it." said Coltrane from a reprinting of the liner notes of his Giant Steps album, courtesy Archive.org.

The anger inside Miles Davis shot out like sun flares. No one knew from where the turbulence came, but it was there and evident for all to see. Whereas most black musicians at the time came from lower middle class to poor backgrounds, Davis' father was a dentist as was his grandfather. They were more well off than the typical black family of that era. From a September, 1962 Playboy interview with Miles Davis about his creative search, "I mean I always had a curiosity about trying new things in music. A new sound, another way to do something—things like that. But man, look, you know one of the biggest things that needs straightening up? The whole communication system of this country! Take the movies and TV. How many times do you see anybody in the films but white people? You don't dig? Look, the next movie or TV you see, you count how many Negroes or any other race but white that you see. But you walk around in any city, you see the other races -- I mean, in life they are part of the scene. But in the films supposed to represent this country, they ain't there. You won't hardly even see any in the street crowd scenes—because the studios didn't bother to hire any as extras."

Davis took on new styles of Jazz and dumped them with a regularity. His curiosity (or madness?) drove him in search of new.

It's hard to imagine Louis Armstrong as passe. As the 1960's began and the Civil Rights movement took hold in America, the more militant and dogmatic segments of the movement wanted everyone to take up the cause, no matter your personal belief. Armstrong was also a lightning rod because of what they felt he symbolized. The Black Panthers, a black power military political group, as lead by Stokely Carmichael, condemned Armstrong for being an UncleTom because of his somewhat foppish behavior.


However, Stokely Carmichael has became a secondary character in the realm of black history and Louis Armstrong remains a seminal figure, not just for black American but all Americans on the whole. "Pops" transcended music. He wasn't the most technically proficent or talented but, when Armstrong played, you knew it. There was only one "Pops."

Wikipedia notes, " Armstrong enjoyed many types of music, from blues to the arrangements of Guy Lombardo, to Latin American folksongs, to classical symphonies and opera. Armstrong incorporated influences from all these sources into his performances, sometimes to the bewilderment of fans who wanted him to stay in convenient narrow categories. Armstrong was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Some of his solos from the 1950s, such as the hard rocking version of "St. Louis Blues" from the WC Handy album, show that the influence went in both directions."

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