I watched a show about Miles Davis last night, which concentrated on his 38 minute set at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 (in front of 600,00 people). Somehow through the years Miles Davis had settled somewhere in the back of my psyche. An influence in the olden days, of course, but one which I rarely thought about anymore. This show brought it all flooding back into my consciousness. The arrogance of critics who hated Miles because he was no longer playing their kind of Jazz (if he was still playing Jazz at all after Isle of Wight).
I needed to see this program. I’ve been full of doubt lately about my own direction. I’ve set aside bass and have picked up guitar. Not just guitar, but acoustic 12-string. I’ve been drawing in a lot of my old influences, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and other Blues greats. But I never thought about how old favorites like Miles Davis might apply to what we’re doing with Windhaven. After all, we’re not remotely Jazz, and are only Blues in a passing sense. But I’ve been so focused on trying to figure out how we can be something that the masses (and local club owners) would want to pay for that I had sort of forgotten that the only thing that really matter, in the end, is the music itself.
Miles Davis taught me that you have to have the courage to let the music go where it wants to, even if it frightens the hell out of you to follow. The music will be what it will be. And while most musicians are going to be satisfied with some coin in their pockets and at least some small measure of adulation, there are always going to be those people for whom that is simply not enough.
I’m one of those latter people. I’ve often found myself staring out over audiences, full of self-loathing and disappointment. Every time I play what I have to play to get the gigs, I feel like a performing monkey. In the current environment, it’s clear that audiences no longer respect musicians. So why the hell should I respect the audience? At the end of the night, you play for those people who are listening. Not for those drunks who could care less if it was a band or a jukebox playing.
As I’ve soaked up the acoustic 12-string, I’ve found myself on frightening and unfamiliar territory. I don’t know the conventions of acoustic music, or Blues, or Jazz. I’ve never let any particular category of music color or limit my perception of the world, and it shows in my playing. I keep thinking, “this is fantastic”, but then I realize that the average guy sitting at a bar guzzling Budweiser isn’t likely to “get it”. So… do I tailor my music for his limited palate? Or do I leap into the breach and do what it is I was put here on Earth to do?
Victoria gets frustrated, rightly, when we see lesser artists out there playing, with gigs lined up on full calendars. She keeps thinking “why isn’t that us?” It’s a reasonable frustration, when you know that you can bring so much more to the table. But in the end, I keep thinking of Miles Davis. He never wavered from the calling of the music, even as it led him to be ridiculed by people who once praised him. But all you need to know is that when all is said and done, it is Miles Davis who will long be remembered by history, not those mewling children who were afraid to follow him into uncharted territory.
It’s silly to compare my noodlings on acoustic 12-string to Mile Davis’ breathtaking explorations. But I can at least relate, on some visceral level. So far the only success I’ve had on this instrument has come when I’ve set my brain aside and simply let my spirit play the right notes in the right way. In the end, that is what will make me, and Windhaven, different from everybody else. Is it Blues? Maybe. There’s a lot of Blues in it. Is it Jazz? No. Not by a long shot. Rock? Maybe a little. I can’t define this thing. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what it is.
Before performing at the Isle of Wight, Miles Davis was asked what to call the piece he was about to perform. He responded, “call it anything”. To my limited perception, those three words are prophetic. Call it anything. What matters is the moment that the music existed within. Anything outside of that is like trying to capture a soft breeze. You know you felt it when it touched you, but it’s not something that can ever translate to photograph or to canvas. But it was real all the same.
In the end, I don’t care how many half-assed musicians or bands have gigs around here. I’m aiming higher than that. And when we’ve moved on into what is, for us, uncharted territory, those poor souls will still be in those local clubs playing for pennies. I have to believe that this work is worth something to someone. Now we just have to go out and commit to following it wherever it may lead.