NPR Music reported this month on the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s concert at Philharmonic Hall (now Alice Tully) at Lincoln Center in New York. The concert took place on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1964, and was a benefit for voter registration efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were co-sponsors. The turnout was apparently disappointing, but the music Davis played that night was a watershed, presaging the kind of harmonic abstraction and emotional intensity (“controlled violence,” as Gerry Mulligan put it) that made his music of the mid-sixties, first with George Coleman, then with Wayne Shorter, so compelling and influential.
The concert took place less than three months after the assassination of President Kennedy, and Miles understood it to be both a benefit and a memorial. A year earlier, he’d told Playboy, “I like them Kennedy brothers–they’re swinging people.” For Herbie Hancock, playing at Philharmonic Hall was “a big deal,” he told Ian Carr for his 1982 biography of Davis. “Just from the prestige standpoint, I really wanted to play good,..[But] it was really funny….When we walked away from that concert, we were all dejected and disappointed. We thought we had really bombed…but then we listened to the record. It sounded fantastic.”
In Miles: The Autobiography, Davis says, “We just blew the top off that place that night…A lot of the tunes we played were done up-tempo and the time never did fail, not even once….George Coleman played better that night than I have ever heard him play.” Miles was plagued with hip pain at the time and noted that the band had “been off for awhile,” which was a hardship on his wage-earning sidemen. Nonetheless, Miles elected to waive his fee for the benefit, and insisted on the same for Coleman, Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. He allowed that “some of the guys didn’t like the fact that they weren’t getting paid,” but that seems only to have sparked an urgency in the band’s performance that night.
Columbia divided the uptempo numbers and ballads on the LP releases from the concert. It was shrewd marketing as the ballad-oriented My Funny Valentine spent nine weeks on Billboard’s pop albums chart. A subsequent release, Four & More, emphasized Davis standards (“So What,” “Walkin’,” “Joshua,” “Seven Steps to Heaven,” and “Four”) that were customarily played uptempo, and on this night faster than ever. Jack Chambers, in his comprehensive study of Davis’s work, Milestones, says that Carter and Williams sustained tempos on these titles that “must be close to the physical limits of bass plucking and drumming.”
Davis’s quintet with George Coleman (as opposed to Wayne Shorter) has many partisans, but Miles said Tony Williams “never liked the way George played, and the direction the band was moving in revolved around Tony…George played everything perfectly…and Tony liked musicians who make mistakes, like being out of key.” Because of Davis’s hip trouble, the band worked increasingly as a quartet, and that occasioned George “complain[ing about] how free Herbie, Tony, and Ron played when I wasn’t there.” Miles stuck by the Memphis-born tenorman, though, calling him “a hell of a musician,” but Coleman left in the late spring of ’64. In 1980, when asked the question that’s been put to him constantly for 50 years, he told Downbeat that Miles’s frequent absences put “a lot of pressure on me…and sometimes the money would be late…so I really got tired of it and decided to leave.”
NPR’s report is here. I tend to agree with one of the web commenters who says critic Colin Fleming’s use of terms like “speed metal, punk, and thrash-jazz,” to describe the music played at Philharmonic Hall is off base, and when Fleming adds that the performance can serve as a gateway into jazz for novices because it has hints “of rock, of soul, of R&B, of blues,” he’s engaging in populist overreach. Miles (re)turned in that direction later in the decade, but this music has little to do with such vernacular concessions.