Miles Smiles before he kisses (with tongues and shit)

April 17, 2010

Acidic juice of a just picked / orange. Acidic sweetness of a / trumpeter’s kiss

The line above is taken from Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry collection “School of Udhra”. “Udhra” forms one part of an ongoing episodic project operating under the title of the “Song of the Andoumboulou” which deals in the aftermath of broken kinship as a textual and sonic category. Although Mackey does not openly name it as such, he locates this process within the drift of what we might call the Black Atlantic. I have been particularly drawn to this line from “Udhra” since I first began reading Mackey’s work, because whenever I read it I am reminded of Miles Davis. It reads to me like an attempt to transcribe the experience of listening to a Davis recording. It is not simply that Mackey is making an oblique reference to him in the midst of the poem, but rather that these lines lead into the mechanics of Davis’ aesthetic sensibilities. Mackey sets this in motion with his use of the kiss. The kiss, I want to argue, is a potent way of tuning into Miles Davis.

How is this possible? Firstly there is the way in which the kiss leads into romance as a dominant theme during certain moments in Davis’ career. He appeared to have an attachment to the romantic ballad as a means of locating his aesthetic sensibility. In particular there was a regularity of unrequited love, of mournful love, especially early on and during the creative peak of his first major ensemble. I think Davis’ choice of these song forms may have had more at stake than his possible melancholic romantic leanings. The tempo of the love ballad provided him with the necessary space to locate the “cool” tone which allowed him to move away from the intense modernist experiments of his heroes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

But Mackey’s kiss is also about much more than romance as Davis’ prevalent theme. The trumpeter’s kiss also transcribes the extension of his musical romanticism. His (literal) kissing of the trumpet became an amplification of the mournful love which shaped some of his strongest records. Davis’ instrumental kiss nearly always seemed to be drawn out. It lingered too long, so that affection sounded like it had become gnarled. Something sugary in Davis’ playing was often pushed to the tipping point where it was tinged with bitterness. Trumpeter’s kiss was acidically sweet.

Finally there are also the cross-sensory allusions of Mackey’s line. It hints at a synaesthetic bent to Davis’ artistry. The instrumental kiss is possessive of sound as much as it is of taste. There is also a lingering suggestion from Mackey of a synaesthetic slide into colour. Metallic bitter kiss becomes sound becomes lurid citrus glow.

But what is the relevance of all this? What kind of value do Mackey’s poetics have when imagined as a way of listening to Miles Davis?   I want to argue that his translation of Davis’ playing into the gesture of a kiss comes into contact with a sensibility which has built up around him.
As I have already touched upon, the kiss as a sonic-romantic act was one which Davis was adept at limning. The tenderness and sensitivity of his tone became embittered, sour. As if a soft spot had become sore.

In opposition to the kiss as a vehicle for a romanticism that tended towards the tender, there was Davis’ public persona. He regularly sought out two roles which were in many ways related. There was the demanding, short tempered musical disciplinary, and as an extension of that Davis also developed a version of Black masculine badness. This prototype tied Davis to a mode of Black urban authenticity, which borrowed heavily from a gangster lean and appears throughout his autobiography (his tales of nightly prostitute and cocaine binges during his temporary retirement being one of the highpoints of this self narrativisation).

But having been so markedly undercut by Davis’ intimidating mack stance, the kiss returns with a vengeance during Richard Pryor’s autobiography “Pryor Convictions”:

After the show Miles invited me to his dressing room. When I entered he was kissing Dizzy Gillespie, with tongue and shit, which made me wonder what kind of shit he had planned for me.

There is no way to vouch for the accuracy of Pryor’s account. It may be a typical case of his absurdly unnerving humour, but the question of veracity does not interest me. I think it is beside the point. Rather I want to focus on this (admittedly shaky revelation) as a way of thinking about the sonic kissing Nathaniel Mackey hears at work in Davis. Was the synaesthetic kissing Mackey located in any way illicitly queer? Is that elongated romantic solo a hidden queering of musical tone-colour? If we take the acidic sweetness of a trumpeter’s kiss as a process that is slightly askew, odd, unorthodox because of it’s slide across sensory boundaries, then yes maybe Davis was playing a kind of queerness. But what is queerness when practiced by Davis? If we go looking for a queer kiss across Davis’ body of work it tends to appear in certain critical places.

Take for example his movement outside jazz and towards a hybridisation with funk and rock. The Amazonian-machine squawks of “On the Corner” could, in certain respects, be described as queer sounds. Davis’ attempt to enfold the skin of the tabla into the olafactory domain of Blackness produces something akin to a tactile queerness.

Accompanying this sound there was the synaesthetic queerness of his album covers. With “Bitches Brew” and “Live-Evil” you have the appearance of the kiss and embrace animating a deep palette of colour as (sonic) drift.

I am not really sure what this necessarily means or where all this is could lead, but its something that goes to work in the recesses of my mind each time I go about listening to Davis. Queerness, in both the broadest and most precise sense, seems a way of linking the multiple ways in which Davis operated as an artist. It suggests a way of bridging the sonic with the necessarily visual, sartorial, romantic and the hyper-masculine as they shadow each other across Miles Davis