It's Miles from Cool Jazz to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Ely Delman '06
Ely Delman '06

Story posted March 16, 2006

Ely Delman '06 listens to jazz with his whole body. He taps his feet, strums his fingers, and bobs his head as he stands at the lectern in the Tillotson Room, Gibson Hall, to present his independent study project on Miles Davis's live electric performances. And he can't help but smile.

Music is a passion for Delman, who is majoring in government and minoring in U.S. history. In his sophomore year, he completed an independent study project on John Coltrane, Walt Whitman, and the search for Self.

"That went really well, so it seemed natural to do another one," Delman said. "I love jazz music. This is my favorite thing I'm doing at Bowdoin."

Davis began performing in the 1940s, Delman said, and "changed the face of jazz at least six times" before his death in 1991.

"By following his career, you can follow what happened in jazz in general," he said. "He embodies a lot of it. In the late 1940s, he began the cool jazz era with his album Birth of the Cool. With every album, he has an enormous, amazing supporting cast that eventually leaves him and continues his work. He very involuntarily leads these movements in jazz."

The first time Davis's ensemble included electric instruments was when Herbie Hancock's Fender Rhodes electric piano and Ron Carter's electric bass appeared on the 1968 album Miles in the Sky. The album also included the first guitar in a Davis recording, played by George Benson on the song "Paraphernalia."

The album cover art also shifted from black-and-white photos of Davis to a "trippy, psychedelic style with bright colors," Delman said.

Davis followed that in 1969 with In a Silent Way, which Delman describes as his "first real electric album; it was unbelievably gorgeous, mellow, soothing."

Delman said Davis did not explain his musical inspirations, or discuss his changes in direction, but he was clearly influenced by rock music, and particularly by Jimi Hendrix, which shifted his fan base to a younger audience.

The back cover of Davis's 1971 Black Beauty album features a photo of him from the rear with his shoulders backlit in yellow and outlined in green haze, his head surrounded by a pink haze. It was an obvious nod to Hendrix's 1970 Band of Gypsies, which showed him playing his guitar, surrounded in yellow light tinged with red.

"I think it was a conscious decision to appeal to young rock fans," Delman said. "His expensive Italian suits went out the window along with the acoustic instruments; his hair went from cool style to Afro; and most importantly, the music changed drastically."

Davis started opening for bands like Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Grateful Dead.

"The jazz public was not forgiving," Delman said.

Stanley Crouch, the acclaimed music critic who visited Bowdoin as a Common Hour speaker in October, excoriated Davis as a sellout who was pandering to commercialism.

Delman, of course, disagrees.

"The music he made is compelling," he said. "Itís not just commercial garbage."

In November, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first jazz musician to be honored as a full inductee.

Delman, who was born in Venezuela, grew up in Costa Rica and has lived most recently in the Dominican Republic, aspires to be a music journalist.

"Thatís what I would love to do," he said.

He said he chose to concentrate on Davis's live performances, rather than studio albums, because "he did his real experimentation on stage, and a lot of the performances were recorded."

"Ely is original, smart and hard-working," said James W. McCalla, associate professor of music. "Miles Davis's electric period is a very much under-valued and under-studied era in his music, so Ely's work here is really kind of exciting."

Delman's presentation, which will remain on file in the music library, included cuts from Davis's music and slides of his album covers. He explained that some of his selections last more than three minutes "because with tunes this funky, you have to give them time to brew."

In describing "Prelude, Part One," a particularly ethereal song from the 1975 Agharta album, Delman pointed out that the music "has no structural regularity. The audience members must trust that things will work out. At the end, the music fades out. Itís not the end of the music; you just canít hear it anymore."

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