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When the Student Became the Master

How the box set that captures Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s final tour together challenges the conventional wisdom about both of them.


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John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hugo van Gelderen/Anefo/Wikipedia and Tom Palumbo/Wikipedia.

Great dead musicians are a fount of riches for the record companies, which keep releasing long-lost recordings that turn out to have been, for the most part, long lost for good reason. Yet sometimes these discoveries prove to be gems; once in a great while, they shine a new light on an artist or an era. This is the wonder and delight of The Final Tour, a four-CD box set of live concerts in Europe, from March 1960, by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ quintet featuring John Coltrane—none of which have ever been released in the United States.

The tour took place a full year after the band laid down Kind of Blue, one of the greatest jazz studio albums and still the most popular of all time, having sold more than 4 million copies. The band on The Final Tour is much the same as on that album, and so are many of the tunes, but the music—the way the tunes are played—is radically different. It’s such a jarring departure that it demands we revise the conventional wisdom about these two musicians and fills in some blanks—which, until now, we didn’t know were blanks—in the story of jazz, and where it was going, in those pivotal years.

The standard version of the tale of Miles & Trane, as they were called, goes like this. In 1959, Miles reached a pinnacle of innovation with Kind of Blue, breaking away from the tightly structured chord-based bebop of his late mentor, Charlie Parker, in favor of a cooler, more moody and lyrical music built around scales and freer rhythms. Right after the session, Coltrane goes off on his own search for new sounds—while Miles, having run out of ideas, reverts for the next five years to the bop-laden blues and show tunes that he’d perfected in the mid-’50s.


Photo from Columbia Legacy.

But The Final Tour—Volume 6 in Columbia Legacy’s “Bootleg Series” of Miles sessions, mastered in good sound from original tapes—exposes the tale as incomplete at best. It reveals that the way out of Miles’ self-imposed cul-de-sac was staring him in the face, that the future of jazz was churning in Coltrane’s emerging style on tenor sax, but that Miles—oddly contrary to his image as the music’s restless searcher and shapeshifter—resisted the change. He had been on the New York jazz scene for 15 years by this time, having taken part in, or led, several revolutions—the bebop of his years with Parker, the chamber jazz of Birth of the Cool, the orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans and Gunther Schuller, and finally the modal triumph of Kind of Blue—and, like many aging revolutionaries, he didn’t warm to acolytes bent on spawning their own rebellions.

Coltrane was the same age as Miles—both were born in 1926—but he was clearly the subordinate in this relationship. Miles, an extraordinary scout of talent, plucked him out of obscurity, from a club in Philadelphia in 1955, to join what came to be called the “classic quintet.” Except for a brief spell with Thelonious Monk’s band, Coltrane remained as Miles’ sideman, even while leading his own bands on more than a dozen recording dates (notably Blue Train, SoulTrane, and, right after Kind of Blue, Giant Steps). His evolution toward “free jazz” had been shaped and honed by Miles’ own experiments with stripped-down harmony, but by 1959, Coltrane wanted to take freedom in a direction, and a velocity, beyond the leanings of his mentor.

It was a time of great transition in American culture, including in jazz. At the end of that year, Ornette Coleman’s quartet made a big splash at the Five Spot, a jazz dive in New York’s Bowery section, playing music that abandoned not only chord changes but, seemingly, all kinds of structure. Miles didn’t like it, complaining to a journalist, “Just listen to what he writes and how he plays—if you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.” By contrast, Coltrane went to the Five Spot almost every night, transfixed, and talked with the band for hours afterward, Coleman giving him lessons on nonchordal improvisation. (A few years later, Coltrane sent Coleman a check amounting to $50—the equivalent of more than $300 in today’s dollars—for each lesson.)

Tensions were building between Miles and Trane even before the 1960 European tour. After one club session around that time, Miles complained that Trane’s solos were too long. Trane replied that there was so much more to say he didn’t know how to stop playing. Miles snapped back, in his raspy voice, “Take the horn out of your mouth.”

Coltrane didn’t want to make the tour with Miles in 1960. He was determined to leave the band and start his own, but Miles prevailed. And the tour was a big deal—the first time Miles had played in Europe as a leader.

The opening night, March 21, took place at the Olympia theater in Paris. That concert also constitutes the box set’s first disc. The set begins with “All of You,” the Cole Porter song, which Miles had covered, with Coltrane as a sideman, on his album ’Round About Midnight (recorded in 1955, one year after the song was composed). Miles blows with a vigorous but lyrical swing, in Sinatra phrasing, with jaunty comping from the rhythm section—Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, all of whom had played on Kind of Blue.
It’s very elegant, as befits the continental setting. (Photos in the album’s booklet show the band members decked out in tuxedos.)

Then, Coltrane enters with his solo. He starts out in a simpatico spirit, a harder tone but a gentle sway. In the second chorus, he throws in a few very fast triplets. By the fifth chorus, he’s unleashing volcanoes of notes—chords on top of chords, scales zipping through the stacks, so dense, so ferocious, so fast. A few years earlier, the critic Ira Gitler had described Coltrane’s style as “sheets of sound,” but these are blizzards of sound, implosions of pure energy. Four minutes in, he spends an entire chorus experimenting with multiphonics (sounding two or more notes at the same time), then he goes back to the blizzards, or languishes on a single chord, turning it a dozen ways in as many seconds, as if sifting all the angles of a prism.

Davis’ signature sound had once been described as “walking on eggshells.” In Europe, he cracked a few.

Yet at the end of each chorus, he rings out some phrase of the melody, and it doesn’t sound out of place because, through all the frenzy (this becomes startlingly clear on repeated listening), he never lets go of the song, he stays tethered to some harmonic or rhythmic hook. He may seem to be unleashing chaos, but that’s the opposite of what he’s up to.

Many years later, the tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis heard a bootleg album of the 1960 Stockholm concert—which took place the night after the Paris concert—and experienced what he later called “one of the worst nights of my life.” Coltrane’s playing, he remembered in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, “was massive, intense. I wanted to quit. It wasn’t like I could say, ‘Well, if I start to do this or that, I might get there.’ Forget it.”

But in 1960, no one had heard anything like this before, certainly not in Europe, and some members of the audience, who may have thought they were in for an evening of the more mellow intensity of Kind of Blue, made their displeasure clear, mumbling, shouting, or, most audibly, whistling—the local equivalent of booing—as the solo went on.

In a backstage interview with Coltrane during intermission at the Stockholm concert, a local jazz DJ noted that some critics were finding his new sound “unbeautiful” and “angry,” then asked, “Do you feel angry?” Coltrane replied, in a gentle, deliberative tone, “No, I don’t,” adding, “The reason I play so many sounds, maybe it sounds angry, it’s because I’m trying so many things at one time, you see? I haven’t sorted them out. I have a whole bag of things that I’m trying to work through and get the one essential.” (The six-minute interview can be heard on the last track of the last disc of this set.)

Coltrane spent the rest of his brief life (he died of liver cancer in 1967, at the age of 40) on an obsessive, even spiritual quest to “get the one essential,” working through every crevice of every sound imaginable in the process. (The most riveting journeys can be heard on his 1961 live sessions at the Village Vanguard, which bear the clearest traces to the European concerts of the year before, and his 1964 opus A Love Supreme, but in between there were also gorgeous ballad albums with Duke Ellington, singer Johnny Hartman, and his own quartet.)

Miles Davis was a very different sort of artist. He too had a restless appetite for a new sound, but once he found it, he quickly cut to its essentials, able somehow to find the one chord, even the one note, that worked through “a whole bag of things” and tied up loose ends.

Yet this contrast in character and style is what made their collaborations so exciting, so flush with creative tension. This was true of all their albums together, but especially so with the 1960 European concerts. Miles and the rest of the band didn’t just stand there, spinning standard phrases, while Coltrane went off on his magic carpet rides. Later in the tour, in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Miles’ playing gets more adventurous, faster, choppier. His signature sound had once been described as “walking on eggshells”; in Europe, he cracked a few. Cobb altered rhythms more drastically on drums, splashed the cymbals, displaced the beat. Kelly took longer, more chord-stretching solos all over the piano.

Four years would pass before Miles found another saxophone player who let him ease so limberly into the future, restoring his crown as the dark prince of the jazz revolution. That was Wayne Shorter, seven years younger, a Coltrane acolyte who combined some of Trane’s hard tone with a more sophisticated compositional approach. Shorter filled the last hole in a new band—“the second great quintet,” it came to be called—of younger musicians: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams, between 10 and 20 years younger than their leader, versed in both traditional and radical styles, following and coaxing Miles into a creative fusion of both. (A thrilling 1967 European tour by this quintet was released seven years ago as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1.) At the end of the decade, Miles pioneered electric jazz-rock fusion, to the embrace of many and the dismay of some, and never stopped changing until his death in 1991 at the age of 65.

Listening to the 1960 concerts, from the vantage of knowing what was to come, enriches the experience, lends the music an added luster. It was the precipice of a new decade, with Coltrane on his way out—out of the band and out on the edge. It was the old new and the new new meshing, clashing. It was the gears of history grinding and sparking. Even now, there is nothing else like it.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published March 29, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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