The career of trumpeter Miles Davis was one of the most astonishingly productive that jazz music has ever seen. Yet his genius has never received its due. The impatience and artistic restlessness that characterized his work spawned one stylistic turn after another and made Davis anathema to many critics, who deplored his abandonment first of bebop and then of cool acoustic jazz for ever more innovative sounds.
Having begun his career studying bebop, Davis pulled the first of many stylistic surprises when, in 1948, he became a member of an impromptu musical think tank that gathered in a New York City apartment. The work of this group not only slowed down tempos and featured ensemble playing as much as or even more than solos-in direct reaction to bebop-it also became the seedbed for the West Coast cool jazz style.
In what would become a characteristic zigzag, Davis didn’t follow up on these innovations himself. Instead, in the late 1950s he formed a new band that broke free from jazz’s restrictive pattern of chord changes. Soloists could determine the shapes of their melodies without referring back to the same unvarying repetition of chords. In this period, Davis attempted to join jazz phrasings, harmonies, and tonal qualities with a unified and integrated sound similar to that of a classical orchestral piece: in his recordings the rhythms, no matter how jazz like, are always understated, and the instrumental voicings seem muted.
Davis’s recordings from the late 1960s signal that, once again, his direction was changing. On Filles de Kilimanjaro, Davis’s request that keyboardist Herbie Hancock play electric rather than acoustic piano caused consternation among jazz purists of the time . Other albums featured rock-style beats, heavily electronic instrumentation, a loose improvisational attack and a growing use of studio editing to create jagged soundscapes. By 1969 Davis’s typical studio procedure was to have musicians improvise from a base script of material and then to build finished pieces out of tape, like a movie director. Rock groups had pioneered the process; to jazz lovers, raised on the ideal of live improvisation, that approach was a violation of the premise that recordings should simply document the musicians’ thought processes in real time. Davis again became the target of fierce polemics by purist jazz critics, who have continued to belittle his contributions to jazz.
What probably underlies the intensity of the reactions against Davis is fear of the broadening of possibilities that he exemplified. Ironically, he was simply doing what jazz explorers have always done: reaching for something new that was his own. But because his career endured, because he didn’t die young or record only sporadically, and because he refused to dwell in whatever niche he had previously carved out , critics find it difficult to definitively rank Davis in the aesthetic hierarchy to which they cling.
Topic and Scope:
Miles Davis; specifically, his contributions to the development of new forms of jazz.
Purpose and Main Idea:
The author’s purpose is to argue that Davis’s contributions to the development of jazz haven’t received adequate recognition by music critics. The author’s main idea is that jazz critics haven’t given Davis his due because they haven’t approved of his musical innovations.
Para 1 sets up the rest of the passage. In the very first sentence, the author provides his opinion of Davis’s role in the development of jazz: it has been “astonishingly productive.” Nevertheless, the author points out in the next sentence, Davis hasn’t gotten enough credit for his contributions. Note that the Contrast Keyword “Yet” (line 3) signals a conflict between the author’s opinion of Davis and the opinion of others. In the final sentence of this paragraph, the author lays out this conflict in more detail: music critics haven’t given Davis his due because they haven’t approved of his musical innovations. At this point in the passage, you’ve already got sufficient information to figure out what the author’s going to do in the rest of the text: since he disagrees with the critics, it’s predictable that he’s going to explain why they’re wrong by discussing Davis’s contributions to jazz.
Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4 bear out this prediction. paragraph 2 discusses his contributions to what would become known as “West Coast cool” jazz; paragraph 3 discusses his innovations regarding chord patterns; and paragraph 4 discusses his late 1960s efforts to create jazz in the music studio—a development that has particularly irked critics. Rather than try to memorize all of the many details in these paragraphs, you should simply note where particular details are located in the text; by following this procedure, you’ll be able to refer back quickly to any detail in the passage should it be necessary to answer a question.
paragraph 5 wraps up the passage by discussing why music critics haven’t given Davis his due—up to this point in the text, you should have noted, the author hasn’t really tackled the why of it. According to the author, the most likely reason that critics have attacked Davis is that he was an innovator. Ironically, the author notes, despite the fact that jazz is an innovative music form, jazz critics don’t always approve of innovation.
The Big Picture:
On Test Day, a passage like this one is a good place to start work on the Reading Comp. section. The passage’s topic, scope, purpose, and main idea are all in evidence by the end of paragraph 1. Moreover, information in this paragraph lets you know where the passage is going to head in subsequent paragraphs, making this passage easy to follow.
Not all paragraphs are equally important. In this passage, paragraphs 1 and 5 are the most important, because they focus on the author’s purpose and main idea. paragraphs 2, 3, and 4, on the other hand, contain a lot of descriptive detail that merely supports the author’s purpose and main idea. On Test Day, focus more closely on those paragraphs where the author’s voice comes through—most of the questions will be answered by these paragraphs.