Miles Davis’ Approach to the Jazz Standards


Miles Davis brought something completely new to interpreting standards. In musical circles, we would say that he was the rare musician who could abstract a melody on a classic tune and play some of the “wrongest” notes, yet make them sound right. This was because of his phrasing, particularly his timing, sound(especially with the mute) and most of all, placement of notes and the inevitable logic of the melodic line he pursued. Miles created an atmosphere around a tune, not just a reading of it. The material became in a sense his own tunes and of course when Miles played a standard, it became THE way to play that tune forever-or at least an artist had to deal with Miles’ interpretation.

The way Miles played standards became inextricably associated with the sound and organization of his various groups up until the fusion era. From the early quintet with Coltrane through the ’60s group with Wayne Shorter, his way of leading the band was bound up with interpreting standards. There was a format that each group followed that became once again, the standard bearer for jazz groups everywhere. Particularly with the later pianists, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, the very modern harmonies that reframed classic tunes like Green Dolphin, Autumn Leaves, Yesterdays, etc., shed a completely new light on the original structures of the tunes themselves. In a sense they were rewritten by these groups of the ’60s.

Finally, playing standards for so many years is what put Miles in front of the public eye, for it is inevitably true that for the most part familiar material, when handled artistically is a necessary component for communicating with the mass audience. being as smart and perceptive as he was, Miles knew that very well. But what is also interesting is that once he turned his back on standards in the late ’60s, he never went back, not even for a “reunion” tour o rrecording (not counting his final Montreux appearance with Quincy Jones.) All musicians everywhere have to know about MIles Davis and his way of playing standards. It is basic to modern jazz history.