NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 41

(This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progress by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture & Changed the World, 1955-1975) BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE In the quest to critique many of the philosophical assumptions governing conventional modernist discourse in art while still retaining a fundamental aesthetic connection to other important aspects and principles of modernism — especially those having to do with the continuous necessity of creative change and revision — Davis epitomized the ‘progressive’ African American Jazz musician’s desire to use black vernacular sources, ideas, and values to engage these modernist traditions and principles on his/her own independent social, cultural, and intellectual terms. In such major recordings from the 1957-1967 period as his orchestral masterpieces Miles Ahead, (1957) Porgy & Bess, (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960) — made in collaboration with his longtime friend and colleague, the white composer and arranger Gil Evans — and his equally significant and highly influential small grou p Quintet and Sextet recordings, Milestones, (1958) Kind of Blue, (1959) Live at the Blackhawk, (1961) My Funny Valentine, (1965) Four & More, (1964) E.S.P., (1965) Miles Smiles, (1966) Miles in Berlin, (1964) Miles in Tokyo, (1964) Live at the Plugged Nickel, (1965) and Nefertiti, (1967) Davis was at the forefront of those African American artists of the period who, in all the arts, were feverishly looking for and often finding fresh, new modes of pursuing aesthetic innovation and social change. By dialectically synthesizing and extending ideas, strategies, methods, and structures culled from such disparate sources as 20th century classical music, the blues, r&b, and many different stylistic forms from the Jazz tradition (i.e. Swing, Bebop, ‘Cool’ and ‘Hard Bop’ etc.) — many of which Davis himself had played a pivotal role in developing and popularizing — Miles helped bring about a new creative synthesis of modern and vernacular expressions that greatly changed our perceptions of what American music was and could be. 39 Among many black people, Davis’s outspoken, defiant social stance and hip, charismatic aura signified a profound shift in cultural values and attitudes in the national black community that also had a lasting political significance and influence. This was especially true for the emerging adolescent youth and radical young adults of the era whose overt displays of rebellion and defiance of racism and repression were becoming pervasive with the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Miles quickly became a major symbol of this modern revolutionary spirit in African American culture and was seen by many as an important artistic leader in this struggle and its widespread social and political demands for respect, justice, equality, and freedom for African Americans that marked the period. Thus, it is not surprising that many of the various musical aesthetics that Davis devised and expressed during the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s consciously sought to advance specifically new ideas about the structural, formal, and expressive dimensions of the modernist tradition in contemporary Jazz music. These changes would openly challenge many of the orthodoxies of this tradition both in terms of form and content while at the same time asserting a radically different set of ideological and aesthetic values about the intellectual and cultural worth, use, and intent of the music that in attitude and style sought to resist or go beyond standard notions of both high art and commercial popular culture. Simultaneously however, Davis sought to consciously establish an even more socially intimate relationship with his black audience (and especially its youthful members) that would embody and hopefully expand Davis’s views on the broad necessity for deeply rooted political and cultural change within the African American community and the u.s. as a whole.