Site of Formation 1972

Four Thoughts About Miles Davis's On the Corner

Chris Pitsiokos

Failed attempts at selling out are the best

Miles Davis wasn’t quiet about his intentions to broaden his audience. In his Autobiography he says, “It was with On the Corner and Big Fun that I really made an effort to get my music over to young black people. They are the ones who buy records and come to concerts, and I had started thinking about building a new audience for the future.” 1 Apart from employing Stevie Wonder/Motown bassist Michael Henderson, Miles included more funk and R&B elements in On the Corner than he had ever before, citing Sly Stone and James Brown among his popular music influences. The sounds of popular music permeate the album, from Henderson’s stripped-down bass grooves to Davis’s use of wah-wah trumpet. The use of handclaps on Black Satin is reminiscent of Sly Stone’s use of claps in Stand !, especially on the track “I Want to Take You Higher,” as pointed out to me by multi-instrumentalist, composer, and On the Corner fan Tyshawn Sorey.

Far from quickly expanding his audience, On the Corner was a commercial failure. Davis felt that this had to do with Columbia’s refusal to market the recording as a pop album.2 He may have had a point.

Regardless of the reason, On the Corner, initially, was almost universally maligned. Mainstream jazz and rock critics, esteemed avant-garde musicians, and even some of the musicians on the recording initially disliked the music. Eugene Chadbourne, in an article for CODA, wrote, “His new music is pure arrogance. It’s like coming home and finding Miles there, his fancy feet up on your favorite chair” 3 ; Paul Buckmaster, who provided arrangements and plays electric cello on the album said, “It was my least favorite Miles album” ; and Dave Liebman, who plays the first solo on the album explained, “I didn’t think much of it.” 4

In time, the rock and pop community, and later, some subsets of the jazz community, would come around. Rock critic Lester Bangs, who initially hated the album, came to consider it a masterpiece that captured the sound of the modern metropolis.5 Paul Buckmaster would ultimately praise the album in the liner notes to The Complete On the Corner Sessions box set.6On the Corner’s influence today is incalculable.

Incidentally, the other great electric free funk band of the 1970s, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, was also an ill-fated attempt at expanding an audience. Coleman missed the immediate connection he had with the audience in the rhythm-and-blues bands he played in in his youth. His experience with the Master Musicians of Jajouka inspired him to try to renew that connection while maintaining his dedication to creative, forward-thinking art music. He believed he could attain this through the introduction of rock rhythms and electric guitars.7

Both Davis and Coleman’s incorporations of popular idioms completely failed to capture the audience that they desired, but their attempts resulted in some of the most challenging, strange, hybridic, futuristic music of the second half of the 20th century.

Hybridic music

Paul [Buckmaster] was into Bach and so I started paying attention to Bach while Paul was around. I had begun to realize that some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other were true because Bach had also composed that way. What I was playing on On the Corner has no label, although people thought it was funk because they didn’t know what else to call it. It was actually a combination of some of the concepts of Paul Buckmaster, Sly Stone, James Brown, and Stockhausen, some of the concepts I had absorbed from Ornette’s music, as well as my own.8

 • Miles Davis

’nuff said.

Stockhausen

Paul Buckmaster met Miles Davis in 1969 when Davis was performing in London. Davis was impressed by a Buckmaster track he heard and the two became friends. In April 1972 Davis invited Buckmaster to come to New York to help him work on a new recording. Buckmaster arrived in New York shortly thereafter and moved into Davis’s house for a few months, sleeping on his couch. He brought a record by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen that included the pieces Gruppen, a piece for 109 musicians divided into three groups, and one of the earliest works for orchestra and live electronics, Mixtur. Davis, who had a sound system that ran throughout his house, blared Gruppen and Mixtur for several days. He also purchased a cassette of another Stockhausen piece, Hymnen, that he kept in his Lamborghini.9Hymnen is an electronic work that includes recordings of national anthems from several countries, with the option of adding live performers. On the Corner was recorded less than two months after Davis’s first brush with Stockhausen’s music, and yet he cites it as an influence—one heard in both the expansion of his electronic vocabulary, and his compositional methodology. 

It turns out the inspiration was mutual. Possibly encouraged by his son Markus, who is a trumpet player, Stockhausen became increasingly interested when Davis went electric. The influence is apparent in Stockhausen’s composition Ceylon/Bird of Passage, released in 1975, which uses electric/wah-wah trumpet, bird whistle, synthesizer, and Kandyan drum, among other instruments. The instrumentation is quite similar to On the Corner, especially the end of “Black Satin,” which includes bird whistle, electric wah-wah trumpet, synthesizer, and tabla (similar to Kandyan drum).10 Like On the Corner, Ceylon/Bird of Passage was a strange crossover and was critically maligned. Its lack of success was also largely driven by how it was marketed—in the world of rock, rather than contemporary classical.

Davis and Stockhausen would finally meet in June of 1980 in Columbia Studios. The result of this collaboration is still un­issued.11 (Dear God, please let this see the light of day !)

Colotomic jams

Notwithstanding my distaste for modern bands that accept the “jam band” epithet, the On the Corner band is definitively a “jam band” : a static or minutely changing groove is indefatigably asserted by the bass and drums, while most of the rest of the band comps or improvises. Davis reportedly instructed bassist Michael Henderson to not follow the other members of the band “out.”

Yet the band’s approach subverts not only jam band modus operandi, but also that of Western Music in general. Avoiding the Western musical trope of the simulated orgasm (e.g. : dominant/tonic, tension/release, crescendo/decrescendo) On the Corner is an “all-over” piece, much like the work of some abstract expressionists. There is no single focal point. Rather than listening forward or backwards to the climax, the listener must focus on the ever-
present now (this was an important tenet of Ornette Coleman’s music as well). While musicians enter and exit, the music slowly evolves, even though homeostasis is maintained throughout. The only hard transitions on the recording were made after the fact, by Teo Macero cutting and pasting tape (on Black Satin, for instance).

One of the ways Davis achieves this “all-over” effect is by stratifying the rhythm and the rates of change within the band. Colotomy is the term used to describe the nested rhythmic cycles used in gamelan music. In colotomy, a specific instrument is used to demarcate a specific time interval. The instruments are stratified, so one instrument will demarcate a very long time interval, another will demarcate a subdivision of that long time interval, a third instrument will demarcate an even smaller subdivision, and so on. On the Corner uses a similar strategy. For instance, at the beginning of the title track, the bass is demarcating every four beats, the cowbell every two beats, the guitar every beat (on the up-beat), and the tabla every sixteenth note (quarter of a beat). Therefore, we are hearing the rhythm in at least four levels, each representing a different subdivision of the measure or rhythmic cycle.

Davis’s approach goes beyond simple time demarcation, however. The levels of the ensemble have different rates of improvisational change in their playing. While the bassist changes very slowly, adding and taking away approach notes throughout the duration of a long jam, the guitarist changes at a faster rate. The keyboardists seem to take a middle road and the soloist, of course, changes at the fastest rate. What we are hearing is a stratified approach to rates of change in improvisation : this stratification is expressed not only in demarcations of time in colotomic cycles, but in the rates of change by each of the members of the band. Some members change extremely slowly, reacting to the longtime energetic changes of the ensemble ; some are hyper-reactive, moment to moment ; others are somewhere in between. Of course, some of the players are able to occupy different strata at different moments of the piece (for instance when the guitar moves from being a rhythm section instrument to a solo instrument). Miles Davis explains his thoughts behind this in his Autobiography :

Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition. Like ‘yes’ only means something after you have said ‘no.’ I was experimenting a lot, for example, telling a band to play rhythm and hold it and not react to what was going on ; let me do the reacting.12

Works Cited

Bergstein, Barry : “Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen : A Reciprocal Relationship.” In The Musical Quarterly, Volume 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1992). Oxford University Press, 502–525.

Buckmaster, Paul : The Complete On the Corner Sessions, liner notes. Columbia C6K 06239, 2007.

Davis, Miles (with Quincy Troupe). Miles : The Autobiography. New York : Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1989.

Freeman, Philip. Running the Voodoo Down : The Electric Music of Miles Davis. San Francisco : Backbeat Books, 2005.

Litweiler, John. Ornette Coleman : A Harmolodic Life. New York : William Morrow & Co., 1993.

Silverman, Jack : “Jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman comes to Nashville to revisit Miles Davis’s explosive and polarizing On the Corner.” In Nashville Scene, 2015. https://www.nashvillescene.com/music/article/13057913/jazz-saxophonist-dave-
liebman-comes-to-nashville-to-revisit-miles-davis-explosive-and-polarizing-
on-the-corner

Tingen, Paul : “The most hated album in jazz.” In The Guardian, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/oct/26/jazz.shopping

1 Davis, Miles (with Quincy Troupe). Miles : The Autobiography. New York : Simon
& Schuster Paperbacks, 1989, 324.

2 Davis, Miles (with Quincy Troupe). Miles : The Autobiography. New York : Simon
& Schuster Paperbacks, 1989, 328.

3 Quoted in : Silverman, Jack : “Jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman comes to Nashville to revisit Miles Davis’s explosive and polarizing On the Corner.” In Nashville Scene, 2015. https://www.nashvillescene.com/music/article/13057913/jazz-saxophonist-dave-
liebman-comes-to-nashville-to-revisit-miles-davis-explosive-and-polarizing-on-the-corner

4 Quoted in : Tingen, Paul : “The most hated album in jazz.” In The Guardian, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/oct/26/jazz.shopping

5 Freeman, Philip. Running the Voodoo Down : The Electric Music of Miles Davis.
San Francisco : Backbeat Books, 2005, 98.

6 Buckmaster, Paul : The Complete On the Corner Sessions, liner notes. Columbia C6K 06239, 2007, 71–79.

7 Litweiler, John. Ornette Coleman : A Harmolodic Life. New York : William Morrow & Co., 1993, 158.

8 Davis, Miles (with Quincy Troupe). Miles : The Autobiography. New York : Simon
& Schuster Paperbacks, 1989, 322

9 Buckmaster, Paul : The Complete On the Corner Sessions, liner notes. Columbia C6K 06239, 2007, 61–64.

10 Bergstein, Barry : “Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen : A Reciprocal Relationship.” In The Musical Quarterly, Volume 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1992). Oxford University Press, 514.

11 Bergstein, Barry : “Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen : A Reciprocal Relationship.” In The Musical Quarterly, Volume 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1992). Oxford University Press, 502.

12 Davis, Miles (with Quincy Troupe). Miles : The Autobiography. New York : Simon
& Schuster Paperbacks, 1989, 329.

Four Thoughts About Miles Davis's On the Corner