Friday, 26 September 2014

Miles and Dad

I've got more CDs by Miles Davis than by anyone else. Not sure how many. About 50. That is hardly an accident and so his music must matter to me. I think the first Miles album I heard was 'Sketches of Spain'. The main piece on this is an arrangement by Gil Evans of the middle movement of Rodrigo's guitar Concerto de Aranjuez. The melody is very familiar now and has been arranged and recorded umpteen times over. I've read that some jazz critics didn't care much for the album - it seemed a bit bland, wallpaper music to some. It is music that can be ignored I suppose. Don't turn the volume up, pick-up a magazine, drink some wine - 'Sketches of Spain' can be ignored, but I don't think it should be.

Miles Davis wasn't always a happy man; he abused drugs and alcohol for much of his adult life. He was often in physical pain; he had many relationships with beautiful women but they were often destructive and he treated the women badly. The anguish that was part of his life is close to the surface in his soloing on 'Sketches of Spain' (not that this was an especially bad time in his life). Davis was not one to shout about his hurt (though he didn't suffer fools gladly) but neither was he able to run away from it. There is an open beauty to his playing at this time - as spare and as minimal as ever - that is starkly exposed by Evans' settings. One friend says he really doesn't care for the Davis/Evans account of the Rodrigo melody; I'm not sure what his problem with it is exactly but it could be the nakedness of Davis' trumpet lines are at times too hard to bear. Certainly it hasn't the romance of the original.

'Sketches of Spain' was released in 1960 I think. I heard it in the early 70s. It was a record that I borrowed from the London Borough of Southwark's record library. I can't even borrow a CD from the library anymore. Vinyl records are quite delicate things of course, easily damaged. If you borrowed library records it was prudent to go for ones that had been borrowed only two or three times. Older records often looked as though Sunday tea had been served on them. The librarians who bought the records did not necessarily have good judgement but in days long before Spotify and so on it wasn't easy to hear new music. Record libraries enabled me to take a chance on music that I didn't know, and 'Sketches of Spain' (and discs by Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman) was a very fortunate chance. 

Miles was born in 1926 and died in 1991. My father was born in 1925 and died in 1991. Apart from the contemporaneity they had just about nothing in common. Miles could not have been my father, of course, nor would I wanted someone like him as a father; he was far too volatile and selfish a man. My dad was - in cultural and life-style terms - a much more conservative man than someone like Miles. It is odd to be reminded, however, that men so different were contemporaries and that not all dads were like your own father.

Why? And where to begin?

I never could or should write an autobiography. On the other hand it is now so easy to make a record of any thought - however fleeting - that passes through your head that it almost seems wrong not to share some memories with anyone that might be interested. I can easily set aside an hour or so a week for this task and, who knows, it might be good for me in some way.

I've never been a musician and have no useful knowledge of western music theory. Like many I have spent a lot of time and money over the years on music. The first money I ever parted with to buy a single was in 1963 (when you could get 3 records for a £1 - not that I had a pound). In 1963 I was on a primary school trip to Somerset and we had access to a ballroom. I think all the kids paid one shilling (5 pence) and we bought three records to dance to at night. One was the Beatles, a second was Gerry and the Pacemakers and I'm not sure about the third - an American dance novelty perhaps. Three singles, play both sides - that is six songs, less than 15 minutes probably, so they were played over and over. In the following 51 years listening to music has always been an important part of my life.

Sometimes there is an almost tribal aspect to listening choices, it is a means of identification - perhaps with a mass movement, perhaps with an obscure minority. The difference between attending an event like Glastonbury, for example, and a 'difficult' jazz improvisation session in a small room above a hard-to-find pub. There are occasions when it seems right and necessary to be part of the masses, but at other times music and music-making needs to be a more personal matter. On the one hand you may want everyone to admire 'your' band as much as you do; on the other hand you want your own secret music that is a rare and precious thing. Or is that a masculine/competitive view of life in general and, in this case, musical preferences in particular?

For example many people of a certain age enjoyed listening to Pink Floyd at one time or another. So all Floyd fans can say, 'Yeah. We're us. Great'. But who is the best, most authentic fan? Is it about who has been to most gigs or about who saw Syd play? Is it about insisting that 'Interstellar Overdrive' is 'better' than 'Money'? Is it about knowing who played trombone on an old blues on the 'Relics' compilation? Why can't we sometimes simply accept that we all loved some of the music and not feel a need to prove we love it more deeply and more loyally than the next person?

These days questions about the history and evolution of Pink Floyd are of no interest to me. I last saw them on the 'Dark Side of the Moon' tour in 1972 I think and I never bought that album. I can remember when it did seem to matter to know all the tiniest details. Maybe that was because in 1972 I was an insecure, teen-aged boy with no real responsibilities - and now I just getting older and other stuff matters more.

The next post will have something to do with Miles Davis and Southwark record libraries. I write that only to remind myself - not to whet the appetite of any passing reader.