Miles Davis is one of the key figures in the history of jazz, and his place in vanguard of that pantheon is secure. His induction as a performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a subtler and less obvious matter. Davis never played rock or rhythm & blues, though he experimented with funk grooves on 1972’s On the Corner and in some of his later bands. However, his work intrigued a sizable segment of rock’s more ambitious fans in a way that no other serious jazz figure had ever done – and not retroactively but while he was alive and making some of his most challenging music. In particular, the boldly experimental soundscapes of Davis’ 1969 album Bitches Brew spoke to the sensibilities of rock fans who’d been digesting the Grateful Dead’s expansive improvisations. Davis’ was acutely attuned to his environment and he once remarked, “We play what the day recommends.”
Davis’ exposure to the rock audience owes much to concert promoter Bill Graham, who booked Davis at his Fillmore auditoriums. Graham figured that his open-eared audiences would make the connection between venturesome San Francisco jam bands (like the Dead, Quicksilver and Santana) and Davis’ free-flowing ensemble. This exposure allowed Davis to cross over without compromise, and he actually recorded albums – Miles Davis at Fillmore and Black Beauty – at Graham’s Fillmore East and Fillmore West, respectively.
It is important to note that Miles Davis did not make jazz-rock – a briefly popular hybrid in the late Sixties and early Seventies, whose chief proponents were Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. Davis played jazz, period. But his forward-thinking sensibility, insatiably curious muse and eagerness to move music into uncharted realms made him a contemporary musician, irrespective of genre. The bond he established with rock’s more inquisitive listeners at that time carried through to his death in 1991. Moreover, his career-long example of pushing the boundaries has influenced many of rock’s leading lights, particularly those who eschewed the status quo for musical explorations on rock’s more experimental tip. He possessed one of the most gifted and curious minds in music history, and compromise was not in his blood.