Three African-American Jazz Composers: Davis, Ellington, Payton

Photo of Samuel Spencer
11 December 2015

If anyone was to undertake the foolish task of listing people who most influenced music, two names would be near the top: Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. While they’re both jazz masters, a direct line of influence can be traced from the Duke’s honky tonk to Davis’ be-bop experimentation. Explore their illustrious careers, then look onward to Nicholas Payton, their direct heir and the third in our trinity of African-American jazz greats

Miles Davis (2nd right) with Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Duke Jordan and Max Roach | © United States Library of Congress/WikiCommons

Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

In 2006, the the decision was made to induct Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. For many this was a strange choice – as the Hall of Fame’s own biography of Davis admitted, ‘Davis never played rock or rhythm & blues’. However, his inclusion into their pantheon of greats was deemed as crucial due to the sheer level of influence Davis had as a recording artist and maintained even following his death. Throughout four decades of recorded output, he influenced everything from Prince and Public Enemy to post-punk, with performers as varied as Kanye West and John Lydon favourably compared to him. In fact, Lydon was once told by Davis that he sang just like Davis played the trumpet.

Illinois-born Davis was a rare combination of experimental and commercially successful. He not only was at the forefront of almost every progression that jazz saw in the middle of the 20th century, but also made ‘Kind of Blue’, officially the biggest selling jazz album of all time. He played with greats such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, and gave future jazz legends such as John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock their first big breaks. But what we most have to thank Davis for is his own work as a performer and arranger, with his relative minimalism, use of space and improvisation style since becoming the norm across hundreds of musical styles.

On his classic 1970 album ‘Bitches’ Brew’, he seamlessly combined his brief classical training (which he left finding it too white-focused) with his jazz pedigree and rock music’s more experiential fringes: Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Stockhausen, Germany‘s minimalist composer who had also inspired the Beatles’ so-called ‘White Album’ the year before. Put simply, this album invented this combination of jazz and rock. Although this would quickly become bastardised under the name of ‘jazz rock fusion’ and a million execrable pretenders, it would also not only influence jazz musicians to incorporate rock elements, but also vice versa. ‘Bitches’ Brew’ is the jazz equivalent of Dylan going electric, and Miles Davis must be considered just as influential as that other music great.

Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974)

Just as Davis has inspired countless acts and performers with his music, so to was Davis himself inspired by Duke Ellington, perhaps jazz’s greatest ever bandleader. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington DC, friends noticed early his almost regal air and dapper style and began calling him Duke. From then on, a legend was born. From the young age of 24 right until his death 50 years later, the Duke led his eponymous orchestra from prestigious club to prestigious club all the way to worldwide acclaim and success. Thousands of words could be (and have been) written about his influence, so here let us focus on two particular important developments he helped to create which have often been forgotten about when writers are faced with biographing Ellington.

Duke Ellington | © High Contrast/WikiCommons

The first is his role in widening the appeal of jazz, improving its status as an art form to be considered alongside traditional forms of classical music. This was mostly done through his engagement at the Cotton Club from 1927 onwards. An affluent (and almost exclusively white) club, there Ellington brought jazz to an audience that was fairly new to the form, and through gigs like this and his hugely successful tour of England, brought jazz to the mainstream. Although it could be arguing that playing to these rich white audiences was a death-knell for authentic jazz, it also meant that classic jazz songs could finally be canonised as works of genius. Without Ellington playing to these audiences, many of us may never have heard of the jazz greats, and collaboration between traditionally white music and forms like jazz would be inconceivable. Put simply, no Duke, no Davis.

Going further than this, Ellington also has some claim to inventing the three minute pop single, that absolute staple of mainstream music from the 1950s right the way through to next week’s top 40. For as well as writing longer compositions inspired by classical music, Duke was a true master of what was called the miniature: jazz compositions that take up one side of a 78rpm record meaning they last for about three minutes. Many of Ellington’s compositions in this form, such as ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Take the “A” Train’, have become classics of the Great American Songbook, 180 seconds of complex but catchy music. Without these, we have much less of a precedent for the three-minute, complex and catchy, meaning far less chance of songs like, say, ‘Paint It, Black’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or even ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ ever being produced. Without Duke Ellington, who knows what the music of all of our childhoods would have sounded like, from the Stones all the way to the Spice Girls.

Nicholas Payton (1973 – )

‘Jazz separated itself from American popular music.

Big mistake.

The music never recovered.’

So wrote Nicholas Payton in a blogpost entitled ‘On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore’, written in 2011 and discussed worldwide. And if anyone was in a position to make such a bold claim, it was Payton, a Grammy-winning jazz musician from jazz’s spiritual home New Orleans who has played with most of the jazz icons still living in the early 20th century. Provocative as Davis was in his day, Payton gives the exact date that jazz died as 1959.

Nicholas Payton | © Flickr Upload Bot/WikiCommons

Whether this comes from a specific event or is tied in to coincide with ‘The Day the Music Died’ in February 1959, as made famous in the song ‘American Pie’, it is certainly a bold claim virulently refuted by many working jazz musicians. However, from what we have seen about Davis and Ellington, perhaps this perceived death of the coolness of jazz stems not from jazz distancing itself from American popular music, but from American popular music taking and adapting all that made jazz cool in the first place, from the three minute mini-masterpieces of Ellington to the potential for experimentation and fusion suggested by Davis’ finest work.

Jazz may not be cool anymore (although anyone who has seen Payton perform live may beg to differ), but every cool form has learned everything it knows from jazz.

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