"The great music of the past," wrote
George Gershwin at the time he was working on Porgy And Bess "...has
always been built on folk music. This is the strongest source of
musical fecundity... Jazz I regard as an American folk music, not
the only one but a very beautiful one which is in the blood and
feeling of the American people?'
It was with particular attention to the
blues-jazz inspiration inherent in Porgy And Bess that
Miles Davis and Gil Evans approached the vocal score. As they
worked out plans for the set-and Miles worked with Gil Evans when
it was still at the discussion stage-it occurred to Gil that not
only were Miles and he contributing to an interpretation of the
score in terms of orchestral jazz but Gershwin himself was
creating anew as jazz ideas, always latent in his scores (as well
as expressed), came to life. Gil said, "The three of us, it
seems to me, collaborated in the album?'
In the late 1940s, when Gil Evans and Gerry
Mulligan helped Miles set up an historic nine-piece band that
played briefly at New York's Royal Roost, the idea of "the
new thing" (as some musicians called modern jazz) having
more accommodation than that of a "hitch-hike" in a
swing band had barely been thought of. Though it was to be almost
a decade before Gil Evans became well known to the jazz public,
his original approach to jazz orchestration was an immediate
sensation amongst musicians. In his more personal work Gil-whose
arranging stints with Claude Thornhill had already won him
respect-was preoccupied with providing an adequate orchestral
setting for the new sounds of Jazz. He did this not merely in
introducing new instruments (such as French horns) and adding new
colors to the orchestral palette but in freeing modern jazz from
big-hand swing that, even when meritorious in its own right,
often had a restrictive influence on the projection of the new
tonal and rhythmic concepts.
This album is not merely a jazz treatment-with Porgy
And Bess marking the blast-off area-it is an orchestral
approach to the score. Perhaps the most suggestive comparison
would be some of Ellington's work. But that by no means tells the
whole story. Gil's originality in orchestral jazz and Miles
Davis' power ful talent (that is buttressed by an increased grasp
of complex musical problems) suggest that when these two
collaborate successfully, the wail will be heard 'round the
Thus, the album involves a distinguished jazz
arranger who was largely self-taught, an honored composer who
worked as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley and a dynamic artist in
jazz who wrote Charlie Parker phrases on matchbook covers. And
just to fatten it up, there's the lyric writer, brother Ira-the
piano in the Gershwin home was meant for him but George was the
one who used it-and the "book" about life on Catfish
Row by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Though there are no vocals in
this presentation, these last are important because Miles and Gil
do not merely flirt with show music tunes, they do a job on
this greatest of operettas related to American black folk music
and jazz. In working from the vocal score, Gil was aware of both
literary and musical relationships. On "Prayer (Oh Doctor
Jesus)" he sensed the seriousness with which Gershwin had
approached the theme, and in this "healing" prayer; in
which the "amens" etc. are given to the orchestra,
there is an urgency, a suppliance of sound. Then there is the use
made of "I Got Plenty of Nothin"' as the opening
release of "It Ain't Necessarily so" and the evocative
strain in "My Man's Gone Now" that sounds almost like a
Porgy And Bess it is generally conceded,
represents the culmination of Gershwin's artistry. On "Bess,
You Is My Woman Now"-as, indeed, throughout the score-many
passages carry the Gershwin signature. One of the great melodic
writers of our time, Gershwin's work had both variety and
vitality-even in the pop tunes he ground out in the shank of the
night, a cigar clamped to his jaw-yet there was usually a
distinctiveness, something immediately recognizable in it. The
infusion of blues-jazz elements throughout his music made him,
from the beginning, immensely popular with jazzmen. Walter
Damrosch-in 1925, when "Concerto in F" had its
premiere-opined that, in effect, Gershwin had made a lady out of
jazz. But the following year, to the arbiters of our cultural
mores, she was still a tramp; even "The Etude" which
hedged in a painful effort to be fair-minded, discussed "The
Jazz Problem;' giving it the solemnity due a momentous moral
However; we are concerned not merely with the
young Gershwin whose "Concerto In F" was such a
memorable contribution to American music, but with the still
younger Gershwin who cut piano rolls in the same shop as James P.
Johnson, the old master of Harlem piano, and with the composer
who later on listened to Bessie Smith and the blues. At the time
the "Rhapsody In Blue" was orchestrated, jazz
orchestral writing as we know it today was unheard of. Gershwin
himself did not orchestrate it, being unskilled in that sphere,
but perhaps this was not so much of a lack as he himself thought
at the time. The classically trained men of those days-even those
hardy souls who were willing-were quite unable to interpret jazz
scores. Jazzmen, on the other hand, were usually incapable of
symphonic reading of professional calibre. Nowadays, many men
have equal facility in both fields.
Yet in the present decade, jazz orchestration
remains more than ever a special field. Porhaps this is why it
seems to find expression best, as a rule, through its own
writers. In a recent conversation, Gil mentioned Miles'
beautifully deliberate-controlled, yet suspenseful-rhythmic style
on slow tempos, reminding me of Bill Russo's statement (in The
New Yearbook of Jazz Horizon) that "the melodic curve,
the organic structure, and the continuity of a Miles Davis solo..
.cannot be perceived very easily by a classically trained
musician?' But some of the men in this band, such as Gunther
Schuller; have had classical training and are examples of what I
referred to in a magazine piece as "a new breed of cats?'
Though hecan particularize with regard to the
innumerable facets of orchestral writing, Gil thinks of the music
in its entirety, as a painter thinks of a canvas. Indeed, when he
speaks of depth or density of sound, impingement of instrumental
tone, the dynamics of structure and the particular require ments
of each theme, the resemblance to descriptions of pictorial art
is striking. And when one recalls Picasso's dictum that a
painting is alive, the parallel is completed.
Gil first met Miles when the latter was playing
with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street and their respect for each
other, often expressed in print, is testified to in the
excellence of their collaborative efforts such as Miles Ahead "I
think a movement in jazz is begin ning away from the conventional
string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than
harmonic variations;' Miles told Nat Hentoff in a recent
interview (The Jazz Review December, 1958). He also made
this interesting statement, "When Gil wrote the arrangement
of "I Loves You, Porgy;' he only wrote a scale for me to
play. No chords. And that other passage with just two chords
gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things?' (In this
set, incidentally, the trumpet passages by Miles are usually
played with mute, the flugelhorn open.)
In these days of stepped-up jazz production,
the good things, like the good men, are still a rarity.
Especially so are deeply moving performances such as these that
seem infused with an inner fire that cannot be simulated. Miles'
beauty and variety of tone, his versatile manipulation of horns,
is put to excellent use here as he-with the orchestral
projections of Gil's arrangements-produces incomparable
renderings of Porgy And Bess. In speaking of certain of
Miles' solo passages, Gil remarked, "Miles can be hot in
the true meaning of the word?'
Every piece has its own interest, orchestrally
speaking, e.g., the grainy, pungent harmony on "Bess, You Is
My Woman Now;' the utilization of brasses, tuba and brooding
French horns of "The Buz zard Song?" On the latter one
notes how sureness and strength give sinew to the lovely tone of
Miles' horn. "Gone" is a holiday for jazzmen,
especially for Miles, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, who are
gone for several choruses. This is not from the score but
relates to "Gone, Gone, Gone;' a beautifully harmonized
spiritual, pulsed by a slow; graceful rhythm. As for the previous
track, taken at a fast tempo, Gil said, "This is my
improvisation of the spiritual. In the middle of it Miles, Paul
and Joe improvise on the improvisation!"
With a slow chop on drums and a faint swish of
cymbals, Miles states the theme of an unusually beautiful
"Summertime?' In his solo passages he places tone in rhythm
like a painter who uses color knowingly, aware of composition in
advance. One of the loveliest Gershwin melodies,
"Summertime" is based on a blues motif. It is followed
by the lament, "Bess, Oh Where's My Bess" a sweet
poignance cradled in rhythm now quiescent, now faster and more
agitated in tempo.
After "Prayer;", mentioned above, Gil
combines "Fishermen" (a song) and the calls of the
Strawberry Woman and Devil Crab peddler .Gershwin heard music in
street cries and in the matrix of Gil's sensitive background
writing. Miles' hauntingly imaginative interpretations are
completely devoid of easy artistry. "My Man's Gone Now"
is like a tone poem in its evocation of a pathos that gives to
commonplace grief a deep and human dignity .On "It Ain't
Neces sarily so" horns surround and support Miles in a
phenomenal series of choruses. The rhythm, which is very good
throughout this demanding set, has an exuberant jazz quality and
the manner in which Gil employs short phrases to accent Miles'
chorus is in itself masterly.
After a sweet interlude-an engaging bit of
writing and playing ("Here Comes de Honey Man' ')-there is
the superbly played "I Loves You, Porgy?' Then every one has
a ball on "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York?'
This is a happy voicing of instruments, using flutes to
advantage-the subtle use of instruments throughout this set is
fascinating in itself-and as an example of Miles' craftsmanship,
note how he feeds the other horns. There are plenty drums,
plenty Paul Chambers, plenty everything (The listener need hardly
be reminded that this is a band made up of top ranking jazzmen)
This bright and happy theme is given a full and exuberant
performance, right down to the last drum beat.
Porgy And Bess -a folk opera that has
humor pathos ,the sweetness of the last bit of honey in the comb
and moments of musical greatness- moves like a dance Miles and
Gil have given it a superb performance in a new idiom .
Charles Edward Smith (1958)
7/22/58: My Man's
Gone Now; Gone,Gone, Gone, Gone.
No personnel changes.
7/29/58: Here Come
Do Honey Man; Boss, You Is ,My Woman Now, It Ain't Necessarily
So, Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab .
Personnel changes-Jimmy Cobb (drums)
replaces Philly Joe Jones
8/4/58: Prayer (Oh
Doctor Jesus); Bess, Oh Where's My Boss; The Buzzard Song.
Personnel changes-Jerome Richardson (flute)
replaces Phil Bodner
There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York,I Loves You,
No personnel changes.
Recorded at the Columbia 30th Street Studio in
New York City. Produced by Cal Lampley and Teo Macero
Digital master prepared by Teo Macero
Engineered by Roy Moore
Mastered at CBS Studio, Now York, by Vlado