When Miles Davis went electric in the late 1960s, he overhauled his thinking about songs, genres, and what it meant to lead a band.
In 1968 Miles Davis let his second quintet dissolve. He no longer needed a small working band, the stable unit of semi-equals that had been customary both to his way of doing things and to the jazz tradition as a whole. He’d passed forty and had likely revised his ideas about what a “band” even was, what a “work” was, and what the “jazz tradition” was. Further, he felt that genres and their repertoire were instruments of racial determinism: “jazz” was an Uncle Tom word; “soul” connoted any singer whose voice white people would like theirs to resemble; “rock” meant white people singing about liberating white people. He identified with Black music as a set of practices and dispositions that transcended copyright and ownership, and he himself owned a five-story building on West 77th Street.
Across the first twenty years of his career, Davis had figured out his specific positions and coordinates—tone, phrasing, sense of harmony and space—and at some point during the mid 1960s he worked in a different way: he faded back, or perhaps advanced, as if to become an environment. As an artist, he dissolved into his work: not quite absenting himself, or not only that, but diffusing himself throughout. He moved in the direction of creating, let’s say, systems that would self-generate music, or that he could switch on and switch off, with which he could engage and disengage. Once the system was in place, his job was to assemble its players and feed it bits of input. “All I did,” he said in his autobiography regarding Bitches Brew (1970) and Live-Evil (1971), “was get everyone together and write a few things.”
This tendency had grown over time: in 1965, onstage with his second quintet at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago for a two-week stretch, he led his tunes toward unbroken continuities, subverting and exploding them, as his band remixed them over and over. Two years later, at Columbia Studios, the Miles Davis Quintet recorded “Pee Wee,” written by the drummer Tony Williams, released on Sorcerer (1967). Davis did not play on the track at all—not a known practice for a jazz bandleader.