Liner Notes: Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight — by George Avakian

June 6th, 2014


Miles Davis and John Coltrane


For the five years prior to the 1955 recording  of ‘Round About Midnight, Miles Davis had, according to John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis, “gained the reputation of an unreliable junkie who blew gigs, missed notes, and couldn’t hold a band together.”  It was also a time that Miles would regularly try to convince Columbia Records producer George Avakian to sign him to his label — the era’s gold standard of recording companies.  After sorting out his contractual obligation to Prestige Records, Avakian was able to do so. Now, Davis had to put a band together. It is what led to the collaboration of Miles and John  Coltrane.  Szwed tells the story:

On Tuesday, July 19 [1955], Miles met with Avakian for lunch, bringing along his friend Lee Kraft and his lawyer, Harold Lovett.  Bob Weinstock (president of Prestige) had bought the idea of Miles recording for Prestige and Columbia simultaneously.  As part of the arrangement for signing with Columbia, Miles was asked to form a group that would still be together a year and a half later, when the Columbia records were released.  Miles said the group he had been playing with for the past week was the one he wanted:  tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and a rhythm section of pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and bassist Paul Chambers…

But Sonny Rollins was not ready to resume playing, so Miles turned to Cannonball Adderley, an alto saxophonist who had arrived in New York City from Florida that summer, where some were calling him “the new Bird.”  The second night that he was in town, he sat in with Oscar Pettiford’s band at the Cafe Bohemia, and Dizzy, Miles and J.J. Johnson had all come by to sit in with him.  Truth be told, Cannon was no Parker, yet Miles thought he brought a strong blues feel into whatever music he interpreted and would fit comfortably into his quintet.  But Adderley had a teaching job in Florida and needed to return home by September or lose his tenure.

Miles rehearsed briefly in Chicago with John Gilmore, the pyrotechnic tenor saxophonist who played with the Sun Ra Arketstra.  Gilmore, like a handful of other younger saxophonists, had been pushing the horn to new limits….Tenor saxophones, especially, were able to honk, howl scream, cry, pop, growl, and tongue-slap tones, and Gilmore had taken the horn further in this direction than anyone else at the time.  But he was not what Davis was looking for.

Philly Joe Jones put in a call for John Coltrane to come up to New York to rehearse with the Davis group because Coltrane had worked with Jones and Red Garland in Philadelphia.  Once Coltrane arrived, it was clear that he knew their repertoire and wouldn’t be starting from scratch.  Davis had heard Coltrane over the years, had kept up with his progress, and was excited by the idea of adding him. 

Once Coltrane joined the band, Szwed writes, there were “questions of compatibility” with Miles, since he was “musically mercurial, often changing directions without warning in the middle of solos…running scales and chords in the kitchens of the clubs during breaks.”  He was also “shy, even reticent in the studio…sometimes unsure of what he was supposed to be doing with the band.”  According to Szwed, “Davis was not much help, because he was annoyed by Coltrane’s questions about what he shouldn’t play and refused to answer him.  Miles later said, ‘My silence and evil looks probably turned him off.'”  Coltrane thought Miles to be a “strange guy” who “doesn’t talk much and rarely discusses music.  You always have the impression that he’s in a bad mood, and that what concerns others doesn’t interest him or move him.”  He found it difficult to “know exactly what to do, and maybe that’s the reason I just ended up doing what I wanted.”

The pairing of Coltrane and Davis had more problems.  Szwed writes:

Beyond the interpersonal problems of the group, there was a generally negative reaction by audience and critics to the direction that Coltrane was taking.  Like John Gilmore and a number of other younger players, Coltrane was beginning to question the fundamentals of the music — playing with a reduced number of chords, perhaps playing on only one chord, recognizing the possibility of equality among all twelve tones of the octave so that all chords and melodies could be contained in one chord; or playing between the notes, shattering and splitting them into shards that hinted at secrets yet to be revealed about music.  Coltrane had begun by placing one chord on top of the other like the beboppers, but he was now attempting to play through all the stacked-up chords at the same time in a manner that Ira Gitler called “sheets of sound.”  All this Coltrane did with a sound that had a desiccated, unromantic, flat-earth quality in which one might hear purity, pain, and universal truth, or a sour, undisciplined yawp, depending on one’s inclinations.

Meanwhile, critical and consumer opinion was not particularly favorable to Coltrane’s work, some calling it “musical nonsense” and “anti-jazz, playing while eating peanut butter sandwiches.”  Despite these concerns, Miles was willing to work with him, saying “When I first recorded Trane, the guy from the record company [Weinstock] said, ‘Miles, who is that out there playing saxophone?’  I said, ‘Man, just record the shit. You want us to play, we’ll play, if not we’ll go home.’  I mean, Trane was a big thing to be dropping on people!  That was hard shit to just think of!”

Their contention carried over into discussions about Coltrane’s long solos.  “When Coltrane explained his long solos by saying that he couldn’t find a way to stop,” Szwed writes, “Miles suggested that you ‘might try taking the horn out of your mouth.’  But Coltrane continued to play for long stretches of time, ‘because Miles sensed that he was working on something.'”

So, from this tumultuous period comes the now classic and eminently “accessible” recording of ‘Round about Midnight, which for years has been a staple of many a jazz fan’s chosen playback device.  And, into the introduction of the recording steps Avakian, the now-legendary Columbia executive who produced some of Louis Armstrong’s most important albums, as well as Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

In addition to an introduction to the album’s A&R, Avakian’s liner notes are a great history of Miles in his pre-Kind of Blue days, when he was emerging from the shadow of Dizzy Gillespie and developing a modal style of playing that became the era’s most influential.


Miles Davis
‘Round About Midnight
Columbia Records
CK 40610

Produced by George Avakian



John Coltrane – Tenor Sax
William “Red” Garland – Piano
Paul Chambers – Bass
“Philly Joe” Jones – Drums


This album marks the debut of Miles Davis on Columbia, except for his interpretation of “Sweet Sue” on Leonard Bernstein’s lecture-demonstration record, What Is Jazz. Appropriately, it is by the Miles Davis Quintet, which was organized in 1955 and is now in its second year as a permanent unit. It is also one of the most popular groups in the jazz field today, as its personal appearances from coast to coast attest.

Miles himself has gradually emerged as one of the great figures of the modern jazz scene. His first years in the jazz scene found him greatly overshadowed by Dizzy Gillespie, although his playing – while obviously influenced by Gillespie – actually did not resemble closely that of the older exponent of modern jazz trumpet. More recently, Miles has acquired further polish and sureness, and also a wider public, to the point where he now places first among trumpet players in the those jazz polls which are not one by Dizzy Gillespie.

His playing is characterized by both the nervous, jagged lines of the bop school and the pensive relaxation of the cool period that followed. The latter quality dominates in Miles’ playing, and to such a degree that it tempers the surface excitement of his playing in fast tempo; Miles seldom produces the familiar sound of frantic exasperation to exploit the emotions of his listeners, but rather seeks to achieve response through the inner tension of his improvisations. The paradox of tension produced by an outwardly relaxed style is an achievement first developed in its highest form by Lester Young, and has been brought to new heights for the trumpet by Miles.

The Davis tone – soft, rich, intimate in its breathy warmth- is one of his most immediately recognizable characteristics. In recent years, Miles has also chosen to exploit the sound of the muted trumpet, blown softly but very close to a microphone. Both in clubs and in these records, he has achieved a personalized sound though his technique. His open horn is still the trademark by which his fans know him, and it has earned him an audience ranging from youngsters new to the jazz world to old-time fans who find in his sound a recollection of the great Joe Smith, who was sharing solos with young Louis Armstrong in Fletcher Henderson’s band before Miles was born.

Miles, who comes from Alton, Illinois, learned to play trumpet in and around St. Louis. His first idol was Roy Eldridge. When Billy Eckstine’s band came through town, Miles met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie was taken by the quiet youngster and let him sit in with the band. In 1945, at the age of 19, Miles left home to study at the Julliard School in New York, where he acquired a foundation in harmony and theory. Dizzy advised him to study piano, so that he could play variant chords for himself; this led Miles to a solider, faster, and more confident understanding of what a soloist could and could not play above such harmonies.

Miles was quickly accepted into the group of musicians centered around Gillespie and especially Parker, with whom he made his first recordings. He played with many small New York groups, and even joined Eckstine for a while. Encouraged by his Julliard studies, Miles embarked briefly on a medium-sized band venture which was a great success musically but one of the grandest failures the jazz nightclub scene has ever known. It was a frankly experimental group, with some of the most unusual arrangements ever offered by a jazz band up to that time, and its brass section was augmented by a French horn and tuba. In order to eat, Miles went back to working with Parker and others on 52nd Street, which was then in its last stage before the complete taking over by strip-teasers. (Today, only “Jimmy Ryan’s,” second only to Greenwich Village’s “Nick’s” as the oldest home of Dixieland in New York, continues to offer jazz.)

Illness forced Miles into a physical and musical decline for a time, but he came back strong in 1954 and has since proven himself a greater musician than ever. His present [1955] quintet serves as his full-time showcase, and as these records attest, it is one of the best post-bop jazz groups in the country today.

With Miles are three Philadelphians and a young bassist from Detroit. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane is something of a personal find of Miles’; although he broke into the business as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949, it has been through Miles that he has achieved acceptance as a solo performer. Pianist Red Garland is also a kind of Miles Davis protégé, and shares with Miles a keen interest in boxing; as a matter of fact. Red was once a good enough welterweight to have had the privilege of losing to Sugar Ray Robinson on the latter’s way to the championship. (It was no disgrace; Robinson did not lose a bout for more than ten years during that period of his career.)

Drummer Joe Jones is one of the Roach-Blakey school of “hard” percussionists; he is also known as “Philly Joe” Jones so as to avoid confusion with Jonathan “Jo” Jones, the ex-Basie drummer. Paul Chambers, who got into the big time with the J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quintet, has already established himself as one of the best young bass players to come along in recent years.

The recordings in this collection are representative of the Miles Davis repertoire in recent years. “Round Midnight,” written by pianist Thelonious Monk with embellishments by ex-Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams, has become something of a modern jazz classic since first Williams and then Gillespie recorded it more than a decade ago. It is also the piece which Miles played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 with such effect that it started people asking each other where Miles had been lately. (It turned out he had been around, but nobody had been listening.) Its reflective changes are a perfect vehicle for Miles’ bluest mood, and it bids fair to acquire permanent association with him in the jazz literature.

“Ah-Leu-Cha” harkens back to Miles’ early association with Charlie Parker in New York. It has a strange quality of counterpoint; the arranged beginning and ending sound like Dixieland in the bop vein. (Parker’s compositions frequently employed this kind of counterpoint; “Chasing The Bird,” recorded by the J.J. Johnson Quintet, is another example.)

What Miles can do with a lovely pop tune is amply shown in the easy, relaxed, two-beat interpretation of Cole Porter’s show tune, “All Of You.” Much the same feeling holds in the ancient standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Some of Miles’ fans expressed shock when he first played old pop hits like this – or even new ones like “All Of You” – but this disturbs Miles not the slightest. He finds them ideal themes for his horn and his group, and that’s all he wants to know.

“Tadd’s Delight” recalls still another association of the forties; Tadd Dameron is by now the elder stateman among the composer-arrangers of the bebop period, and was one of the first to bring a technical background (he had studied the Schillinger System of composition and arranging) to the new school of jazz.

“Dear Old Stockholm” is a Swedish folk tune whose nostalgic quality lends itself ideally to Miles’ muted style. The unusual construction of this piece, with its many breaks, gives it a feeling which is a combination of sentiment and the quality best described as misterioso. Paul Chambers’ long bass solo, placed early in the interpretation, adds to the sensation of strangeness that pervades this moving performance.

— George Avakian


Read our interview with John Szwed, author of So What:  The Life of Miles Davis

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One comments on “Liner Notes: Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight — by George Avakian”

  1. Miles’ Columbia recording of “Round Midnight” was an early add to my record collection. The harmon mute played close to the mic was a new sound to me, one that turned me on to Miles. The rock-skipping quality of Red Garland’s piano at medium tempos was another attraction. And Philly Joe’s drumming was crisp and firm – and his rim shots on every fourth beat punctuated the quintet’s feeling of swing again at medium tempos. George Avakian’s sympathetic and knowledeable liner notes helped me to better understand what Davis was doing.

    The record still stands up in 2014 as a trail-blazling sample of Miles Davis’ undisputed genius.

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