In the early autumn, I was heading back into the city of Boston on the subway from a leafy suburb where I had watched a football game. There was a large man on the train, whose size made him automatically incongruous. His size worked for him, though: Was part of his look, and a formidable, prepossessing one at that. He drank from an enormous cup that might as well have been a bucket, and in-between sips he sang the names of the various subway stops to the opening four-note pattern of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When he’d had enough of that, he vocalized to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” I looked at and heard this man, and had one thought: Miles Davis’s On the Corner.
Upon its release in October 1972, On the Corner was reviled. Critics tore into it as if pulling a White Fang, sinking teeth as deeply as possible. The record was derided as an affront to taste, an insult to listeners, a sham perpetuated by a man who wanted to rub your face in something most unpleasant, just because he thought he could. “For shame!” wagged the fingers, as charges of hubris were rampant. Reduced to a line, the backlash could be summed up with a simple, “Do you believe this a--hole?”
As often occurs in these matters—we see it with Bob Dylan, too—there was a pushback in the form of revisionism that went too far in the other direction. On the Corner has been subsequently hailed in recent years as the album that helped birth hip hop, funk, post-punk, electronica, and any popular music with a repetitive beat, which was quite the feat for a record that not many people have ever listened to. These things need not be true—and they’re overstated and overdramatic at best—for On the Corner to be what On the Corner so successfully is. So what, then, is really transpiring on this particular corner where Davis and a couple dozen musicians gathered for one holy hell of a grooving, minimalist racket?
We start with what we know. Davis is jazz’s resident shape-shifter and restless soul, the musician who needs to morph in order to be the artist that he is. The present tense works and is certainly applicable to On the Corner, which isn’t going anywhere any more than the city in which you may happen to live. I’ve seen scores of comments from people who love Davis and wish to love this record, and work to do so, as if listening were a job that one didn’t care for, but might in time after settling in. You’ll see these announcements of the epiphanies that have at last come, where a listener declares that they finally they get On the Corner, along with tips for those who are still struggling.
“You have to let it wash over you,” for instance. “Once I stopped trying to like it, I began to like it.” “It sounds like the city. You must live in a city to understand On the Corner.”
It does sound like a city, with a city’s farrago of noise. There’s an order to the sounds of the city, which a pop group like the Lovin’ Spoonful grasped. Those noises are aleatoric, but they fit within an urban pattern, which itself is a kind of groove. I walk through Boston, and there are different sounds for different parts of the city. They’re like tracks on an album, which is what Davis had in mind, but with a greater quotient of that urbanity than the likes of a Boston possesses. A Harlem urbanity, on a day in July when the air is thick and the horns of cares produce blasts of sound that one can nearly touch the same as Macbeth with his air-drawn dagger.
There’s scholarship in this same brew, though. You don’t approach the studio the way Davis and producer Teo Macero did without classical élan. Davis was in a period where he liked to speed about in his Lamborghini to tapes of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1966-67 composition Hymnen. I picture him turning to a comely friend in the passenger seat and saying, “Dig this musique concrète, baby,” to what would have been a blank stare in return.
We talk about Davis as a master trumpeter, composer, bandleader, but not enough attention focus is granted to Davis the master editor. He’s like Orson Welles in so many ways, with the innovating and experimenting—that questing need to morph—but also as an editor. Welles could take a script and slice and dice to essentials that made for what was tantamount to a new work, and so it went with Davis and Macero beginning in the late 1960s and culminating with On the Corner. The album was truly made after it was made, if that makes sense. The sessions—cut just a few months prior in the early summer—were the raw materials for the urban mill with the classical know-how.
Not surprisingly, a number of those musicians were less than thrilled. Cellist Paul Buckmaster—who was Davis’s foremost creative partner at the moment, a thinker who fed him ideas which he reworked—said it was his least favorite Davis album in the whole of the Davis canon. That’s a lot of albums to be beaten out by. No worries, though, for Davis himself. The original release didn’t list individual musicians anyway, just as we really don’t break down the sounds of a city. They’re a collage. A collage is comprised of separate parts that interact with each other, but a wholeness prevails. Jack DeJohnette is (sometimes) on drums along with Al Foster—the percussive steward of the record—and Billy Hart. James Mtume features on percussion. What had become the Davis Regulars are present: John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. McLaughlin’s somatic riffing is a constant, this violent chording that one feels in the body. The rumble of the subway underfoot. His guitar has replaced Davis’s trumpet as narrative voice, insofar as On the Corner has one.
Davis wanted the kids who were into rock. That was the target demo, an audience he’d been courting since 1970’s Bitches Brew. He played for that audience on the psychedelic ballroom circuit, doing so with rock groups—the Steve Miller Band, for instance—that he had no respect for as musicians. Davis thought he was slumming it in terms of who shared the bills with him, but he believed in the listening skills of youth, which is usually a wise thing to do. Hip kids find hip music, a truism that will likely always retain its value and utility. The demo-focus became more dialed in with On the Corner: Davis now aimed to reach Black kids and Black city kids the way that James Brown had, and Sly Stone; or at least the jazz version of the way that they did.
On the Corner is many things. It’s rhythm and blues gone feral via—paradoxically—the city. It chugs in ways that funk wouldn’t, because funk wished to make certain that people could dance. You can’t dance to On the Corner, but your soul can liquefy and flow as a result of spending time with it. Call it a collateral effect. A listener becomes a form of grooving freshet in the presence of this record.
Prince had similar aims with The Black Album. Clearly Davis desired the respect of African American youths, which was a rarity for him. Typically, he came across as a musician who required respect from exactly one person: himself. That’s not a bad way to be, depending on who you are as that person. We could say the same about Beethoven. Critics of On the Corner branded Davis a sellout, saying that he was chasing record sales, as if that were a necessarily evil pursuit.
Charles Dickens was never bashful about wanting to make piles of money for his books, and it has always amused me that Laurence Sterne, when queried why he’d written Tristram Shandy, of all the books one could write, answered by saying so he could get rich. Doesn’t seem like either author ever held back with their creative fecundity, and nor did Davis the sonic auteur. The truth was, Davis’s conversion to fusion had resulted in a depreciation of sales. White jazz fans over the age of thirty—and let’s be honest, that’s always been a significant audience stream for the medium—weren’t as willing to wade into the waters of Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. But no harm, no foul, as they say at outdoor basketball courts throughout America’s cities. Davis had a vision and a goal, and with the former he went after the latter.