Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Happy birthday, Miles Davis

The most famous jazz musician to come from the St. Louis metropolitan area, Miles Davis was born May 26, 1926 in Alton, IL and raised in East St. Louis. To help commemorate the 83rd anniversary of his birth, StLJN is pleased to present this guest post from Jeffery Hyatt, who blogs about the legendary trumpeter at Miles Davis Online and The Miles Davis Movie:

Miles Davis, 2009

Eighteen years after his passing and a generation or two removed from when his songs were considered "popular music," Miles Davis’ place in our cultural and musical foundation remains secure. And in this wired age, the discovery and experience of Miles Davis, one of the most influential musicians in jazz history, is as immediate and exciting as ever.

There are only a handful of entertainers that transcend art, those titanic names whose mythology becomes more absorbing with each passing year. In time, the lies and truths may blur, but the artistry is forever genuine.

Think Sinatra. Elvis. Perhaps James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, or The Beatles, James Brown and Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis is definitely on the list of the most important pop culture figures of the 20th century; those timeless icons that mystify and delight.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue this year, the tribute concerts, magazine articles and countless Internet posts reflect not only an artistic triumph much-deserved of such commemoration, but also that in 2009, there's still an active, healthy interest in listening to, writing about and appreciating the legacy of Miles Davis.

If anything, the Kind of Blue anniversary has generated a cottage industry around its recognition, providing a wealth of great commentary and multimedia.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the popularity of Miles Davis these days is by simply speaking with those not interested in jazz. They might not listen to Miles Davis' music, but they know "Miles Davis." Perhaps for most people nothing springs to mind quicker when hearing “Miles Davis” than the word "cool," a multi-functional expression almost exclusively associated with Miles Davis in popular culture.

There’s that funny line of dialogue in the comedy Billy Madison that ends with the oft-repeated phrase, "...consider me Miles Davis." That, perhaps, cemented the "cool" association to the general public, even though the relationship between musician and descriptor run back 60 years.

"Cool" as Miles Davis might be (or has always been), how does a music legend long since passed exist in the media landscape today when the zeitgeist seems to shift with each new episode of American Idol?

It’s hard out here for a jazz legend. Of course nostalgia never hurts. Great music, just like movies and literature, never gets tired, and can receive more heaping praise every year.

That’s fine for entertainment preference, but let’s give praise to how well "Miles Davis," the brand, the business, has converged with today’s frenetic digital culture; it’s a testament to everyone involved, from fans and writers to the musicians and businessmen, that Miles Davis continues to be a viable part of art, commerce and pop culture.

No denying the brand thrives – someone is buying all those CDs, books and posters. A new generation is discovering the music via the Web, the great conduit for stumbling upon an MP3 of “If I Were A Bell.”

It’s cliché to repeat the adage that Kind of Blue is the one jazz CD even non-jazz fans own, but it makes a strong point about pop culture and being part of something ‘special.’

Miles Davis fits that bill. He brings the mythology to the party, and we are compelled to take notice. People care and people are interested. Technology is our means to tap the source and engage Miles Davis from all angles.

His story and music are a click away. The web is packed with vintage images shot through the lenses of famous photographers, and admirers can peruse thousands of random and creative photos on Flickr. Blogs track every reference and detail, and Web sites are dedicated portals of fandom, built on the ideas and opinions of likeminded admirers.

There are books, waves of critical analysis, skateboard designs, theatre productions and gallery retrospectives. YouTube is invaluable (thanks to the content owners) in presenting classic footage. There’s even a Miles Davis movie in the pipeline.

Consuming Miles. It can be quite...consuming, but oh-so enjoyable.

Miles Davis would be celebrating his 83rd birthday today. And while he is no longer with us, "Miles Davis" is truly alive and well in 2009.

- Jeffrey D. Hyatt is a writer and web producer living in Los Angeles, CA. He is the author of Miles Davis Online and The Miles Davis Movie. His favorite Miles Davis albums, if you were wondering, are Steamin’ and Seven Steps to Heaven.

(Cross posted to Miles Davis Online.)

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