Miles Davis and Lester Young

Lewis Porter shared a telling story with me. After Porter’s Lester Young came out, Jackie McLean called him up.“Where is Miles Davis in this book?” McLean wanted to know.  “Miles got a lot of stuff from Lester Young.”

Try listening first to some early small-group Young with Walter Page and Jo Jones and then to the first cut of Miles Davis’s Bags’ Groove. Surely that’s exactly the same stream of music.

That stream of swing was slightly lost for a few years. The essential early bop records don’t feature great feel in quite the same way.

Walter Page was just one of the great bassists heard swinging with Pres; Rodney Richardson and Red Callender are two more. Classic bebop bassists like Tommy Potter, Curly Russell, Al McKibbon, and Nelson Boyd are comparatively hard to hear.

A certain group of jazz enthusiasts proclaim that the greatest bebop drummer Max Roach wasn’t that swinging. That’s not true! But, nonetheless, when swing-era master Sid Catlett sits in for Max for the concluding “Hot House” on the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie Town Hall sessions, the music is suddenly rocking and rolling in a different way.

Roy Haynes is another interesting case. Haynes sounds just terrific on the 1949 “Bells” Savoy session with Pres. His Caribbean-influenced beat is clearly recorded, and he drops amusing bombs in the holes of Young’s playing. He’s clearly “Roy Haynes,” even then.

A contemporary session with Bud Powell’s Modernists is more famous, and of course Haynes sets up the ultra-advanced heads marvelously. But when the horns are blowing, does the Young or Powell session feature more swinging Roy Haynes? Frankly the Powell session has always seemed a bit unsettled to me—it’s not Haynes’s fault, it’s the whole band. It’s probably just the pressure of having to record such hard new music in a limited time.

In the Fifties musicians went to work on to nestling bebop angularity into greater swing. 1954 seems important. This was the year of some of the most swinging Bird studio recordings with Al Haig, Percy Heath, and Max Roach, It’s also the year of Miles Davis’s Walkin’ with Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke.

Davis realized that this kind of projection was the answer and never looked back, always building the most swinging bands and, until the end of his life, always searching for the current dance.

Davis’s autobiography discusses his bands in detail.  He remembers exactly why Horace Silver, Heath and Clarke were so great, why Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers were so great, why Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams were so great.

All those classic rhythm sections provided a crucial setting for the jewel of Davis’s trumpet. Davis was not an indestructible Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker-type player. He couldn’t command the stage with trumpet virtuosity heedless of a band. His stardom was ultimately based on his unique, symbiotic relationship with his bandmates.

That sound—deeply swinging band plus a searching, vulnerable soloist—comes straight from Lester Young.

Vulnerable soloists like Davis and Young can create amazing alchemy onstage with lesser players. On the little-known “Bluest Blues,”  Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis sit in with Gillespie’s B+ rhythm section and novelty vocalist Joe Carroll. Bird and Diz both blow well, but then Miles, with fewer notes but more compassion, transforms the music from just a jam session into art. It’s a Lester Young-ish moment.

Young and Davis represent two generations of diatonicism in jazz. Young’s famous ballad is “These Foolish Things” and Davis’s is “My Funny Valentine.” In any of their performances, they mostly use the Eb major scale. This even plain makes chromatic moments that much more intimate: every flatted sixth or ninth increases the despair.

It’s unsurprising that ballads sound good with the diatonic approach, but Young usually played the blues that way, too. Charles Mingus knew just what he was doing when he created his glorious requiem “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” for Lester Young. While the harmony is dense—possibly it’s the most harmonically dense 12 bar blues written up until that point—the melody is mostly diatonic. Indeed, almost the whole melody can be played on the black notes of the piano. Obstinately diatonic melody over rich harmony: the classic Pres sound!

Davis’s  most famous early blues solo, “Now’s the Time” with Bird, is quite diatonic and Youngian in nature. (Interestingly, when Red Garland quotes that solo in block chords on the Milestones “Straight, No Chaser” his right hand plays fifths and fourths that don’t fit with the chord: this is just the kind of diatonic “funkiness” I celebrate at the end of “Oh, Lady.”)

The ultimate expression of common-practice modern jazz rendered as a major scale is Davis’s Kind of Blue, made two months after Young’s death. (Gunther Schuller’s provocative analysis of how Young’s diatonicism leads to modality is quoted here.)

Kind of Blue was very influential, but it remains a one-off. John Coltrane turned modality into a style that took over jazz for a time. However, that Coltrane style isn’t really diatonic: after the introductory choruses are over, the complete chromatic kaleidoscopes over a drone. Kind of Blue remains just about the only modal record that doesn’t havenon-diatonic slipping and sliding, interchanging pentatonic patterns, or “Coltrane changes.”

Lester Young led straight into bebop; Miles Davis led straight into Coltrane modality.  They both doubted the wisdom of their followers. “[Some bop is] just chromatics—no heart, no soul…  Anyone can flat a fifth,” complained Young to Leonard Feather, and Davis infamously dismissed the classic Coltrane quartet to John Ephland: “I don’t like the guys who make a livin’ playin’ in the mode…  We did it because it was just one style…  It would get monotonous if you’d sit there a long time…  McCoy used to just bang around, and I couldn’t stand that…”

I don’t agree with Young or Davis here, but these are the kind of questions that I find interesting in 2009. If you play bebop, is there something that Young missed in his followers that you could use to make your contemporary music better? If you play post-Coltrane modality, is there something that Davis missed in his followers waiting to be reclaimed?

Young and Davis worked together some in the 1950s. The scarce recordings of them together are disappointing; it sounds like they are both pretty out of it, and the European rhythm sections are amateurish. However, a beautiful photograph from that tour is reproduced in Büchmann-Møller’s You Just Fight For Your Life, and the same book has an interview with Bill Triglia, who tells of another time when Davis unexpectedly flew from New York to Chicago just to sit in with Young’s quartet.

Young is on record as approving of Davis’s music (Triglia says Young called Davis a “little genius”) and this is what Davis says about Young in his autobiography:

And then I met “The President,” Lester Young, when he would come down from Kansas City to play in St.  Louis.  He’d have Shorty McConnell on trumpet in his band, and sometimes I’d come over with my horn to where they were playing and sit it.  Man, playing with Prez was something.  I learned a lot from the way he played the saxophone.  As a matter of fact, I tried to transpose some of his saxophone licks over to my trumpet.


He called me Midget.  Lester had a sound and an approach like Louis Armstrong, only he had it on tenor sax.  Billie Holiday had that same sound and style; so did Budd Johnson and that white dude, Bud Freeman.  They all had that running style of playing and singing.  That’s the style I like, when it’s running.  It floods the tone.  It has a softness in the approach and concept, and places emphasis on one note.  I learned to play like that from Clark Terry.  I used to play like he plays before I was influenced by Dizzy and Freddie, before I got my own style.  But I learned about that running style from Lester Young.


Bird never talked about music, except one time I heard him arguing with a classical musician friend of mine.  He told the cat that you could do anything with chords.  I disagreed, told him that you couldn’t play D natural on the fifth bar of a B flat blues.  He said you could.  One night later on at Birdland, I heard Lester Young do it, but he bent the note.  Bird was there when it happened he just looked over at me with that “I told you so” look that he would lay on you when he had proved you wrong.

It’s indisputable that Young influenced Davis musically. It’s not just Davis, however, but all the serious black modern jazz innovators of the Fifties who admired and emulated Young’s secretive individuality.

Hawkins, Armstrong, Ellington: they are obviously great.  They play to the world’s stage. Pres? You need to be hip to get next to him.

To this day Davis and Young are ultimately impenetrable to their students and biographers. I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.

[Go on to A Beginner’s Guide to the Master Takes]