Nigel Kennedy: Why Miles Davis Is My Hero

Nigel Kennedy draws inspiration from a diverse roster of musicians, and top of the list is the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

One of the most exciting weeks of my life was spent working with jazz musicians Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. They played with Miles Davis 30 years ago and they’re still the sort of musicians who keep you edgy, keep you listening, and make sure you’re playing from the heart. 

Alongside the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Miles was my jazz idol. The possibilities he created and the space he left in the music for everybody else were unprecedented in jazz. Thanks to these qualities an amazing list of alumni came out of his bands – Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams… 

It’s an awesome thought that Miles’s career went back as far as the late 1940s, when he was working with Charlie Parker, right through to his death in 1991 at the age of 65. It seems that every 10 years he had a major change of direction and he’d come up with a really consequential breakthrough in jazz. 

After his initial bebop apprenticeship, Miles started playing small-group jazz in sessions that were subsequently collected on the album The Birth Of The Cool. Later he led two great quintets; the first had John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and the guys focused on improvising around modes [scales] rather than conventional harmonies. In the second quintet, with Wayne Shorter on tenor, they pushed their music to the brink of the avant-garde, with the driving influence of rock always in the background. 

My favourite period of Miles is the era after he finished with bebop; his playing was awesome – I mean we’re talking serious form. I love his work from his improvisational masterpiece Kind of Blue, which he recorded with the great pianist Bill Evans, through to his electric period when he started mixing the power of rock and blues with jazz, for example on In A Silent Way. Of course, you can’t forget the three great albums of orchestral jazz that Miles made with orchestrator and arranger Gil Evans – Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess and Sketches Of Spain. 

The way Miles’s career evolved is fascinating. One discovery led to the next until, in the early 1970s, he retired. He was exhausted; all the music he’d played had taken its toll. But then, in the 1980s, he made a comeback with monster albums such as You’re Under Arrest and Tutu. The guy just never stopped developing. 

When I was working with Jack and Ron I didn’t ask them much about Miles – we had music of our own to make and I didn’t want to bore them. But from the way they play – the endless creativity, the willingness to risk everything, the spirit of openness – it’s obvious they come from a very great lineage. You see, Miles never liked to play the same thing twice and he expected his musicians to be exactly the same. He didn’t play what jazz experts call ‘licks’ [melodic clichés] and his ability to create in the moment was truly profound. Miles used space like a painter and the way he was able to give the most simple of melodies a complex edge was always amazing. He was the Picasso of jazz. 

Miles Davis: The Orchestral Jazz Collection 

Miles Ahead
Miles Davis (trumpet), Gil Evans Orchestra/Evans
Columbia CK 65121 

Porgy and Bess
Miles Davis (trumpet), Gil Evans Orchestra/Evans
Columbia CK 65141 

Sketches of Spain
Miles Davis (trumpet), Gil Evans Orchestra/Evans
Columbia C2K 65142