Miles Davis on the Post-Modern Corner

This is the second of my short papers on Miles Davis’s electric works. The first, “It’s Best Done With Scissors” seeks to explain Miles’ new direction in music in the context of his own interests and history. It was very much improved by the comments of Eric Siegel, Patrick Brown, and Steve Asseta. This paper is based on another email I sent to the list in which I compared On The Corner to a work by John Adams that I heard the composer conduct with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The email listed five ways in which these two pieces of music by Miles and Adams were not only similar but in which they both exemplified a post-modern aesthetic. I haven’t been able to find that email but I do remember Eric Siegel appreciating it–including my little joke of saying, twice, that one point of similarity between the two works was repetition. Some years later I recognized a connection between ideas in that email and some philosophical work on the defining feature of modern thought and made some notes on post-modernism in the arts that identified features found in music widely considered post-modern, including On The Corner as well as works of visual art and fiction that might also be considered post-modern. I’ve always wanted to explore those ideas further, thus this paper.

In writing the paper I realized that some of what I wrote in the first piece is not quite right. I realized that On The Corner actually breaks with some of the techniques I described in the earlier piece and that it was a step in a new direction for Miles that was bigger than I had realized. What I now see as the dramatic shift in Miles’ approach between Bitches Brew and On The Corner partly explains both why the initial reception of On The Corner was so much more critical than the reception to Bitches Brew. And it also explains why On The Corner is now widely regarded as one of the most radical and influential of Miles’s works, although mostly not by the community of jazz musicians who mostly ignored it—Ornette Coleman being the most notable exception. (Someday someone should try to explain why it’s mostly ignored in the jazz community. Or even better, more jazz musicians besides those who are drawing directly from it, like the Yo Miles group or Jon Hassell should pick up the challenge posed by On The Corner and make music that draws from it.

Miles on the Post-Modern Corner
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