“I never thought that the music called “jazz” was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic.”[1]

            Cool, Hard Bop, Modal, Fusion..... each a different sound; each a different way of organizing the musical work; each a revolution! All in highly competitive environment, and all led by the same individual: Miles Davis.

Leading at least four revolutions over a three-decade period, in a tough industry, where everybody is trying to make a statement; if this isn’t a measure of enduring high-performance, at the individual level, then what is? We’re speaking about Miles Davis, a jazz trumpeter often described as The Prince of Darkness. Perhaps a surprising choice to look forleadership lessons for the 21st century manager. Yet, Miles Davis led each revolution with a different team. No way was this attributable to good luck, or chance. Not four times and remarkably, not with four entirely different sets of collaborators. Every time Davis redefined the popular music of the time, he was working with a different “all-star” team.

 Playing in the second-half of the 20th century, Davis was up against stiff competition for recognition as a trumpet player. Following the great success of Louis Armstrong, many peoples’ all-time choice for best trumpeter, and Dizzy Gillespie, perhaps the most innovative player of all, Davis was part of a post-war “class” that included: Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Maynard Ferguson, Art Farmer, and Red Rodney, just to name a few, and to indicate the level of professional competition in this industry. Davis, was characterized as never being content, constantly restless, forever looking for change; he always wanted the push the limits. The great bass-player Ron Carter may have said it best when he recongized that Miles Davis: "... was one of the few who was able to turn the world of music in any direction he chose.[2] " What is remarkable about Miles Davis and this story is that he did choose to turn the world of music, and he did it so frequently.

Music as a Product Offering

Music is art, no doubt about that, but it is also business, as well. The teams of talented musicians who play publicly, can also be thought of as highly technical project teams, employing talented professionals, attempting to gain the market’s attention, in very competitive markets. The musicians, themselves, ply their art for many reasons; some of them are artistic, some have undoubtedly to do with ego, and nearly all are in some way affected by financial concerns. In fact, in the 20th century[3], music became an industry; and, an industry of not only many market segments, but also relentlessly changing tastes within many of those segments. Jazz, in particular, both as a substitute for more formal orchestral music, and as a rival with Rhythm & Blues/Rock n’ Roll for the attentions of a younger population, saw more change than most other segments. Between the 1920s and the 1960’s, alone, jazz went through cycles of at least: Swing, BeeBop, Cool, Hard Bop, Modal, Fusion, etc. Each of these had a specific “life cycle” as the dominant musical paradigm of the time, and each of these had a different organizing model for the performance of the work, itself. Entering the field at the time that bop was emerging, Davis was at the forefront of change in nearly all of these product life-cycles, except for Swing, and could be considered uniquely able to “surf the waves of change” in this industry, over a multi-decade time-period.

Miles Davis: a driven innovator who becomes a catalytic leader

For Miles, music, and what he did, was all about new ideas: “I’m happy if I can play one new idea on a night,” and he mentioned in his autobiography that he “learned something new every night and the songs they played at the beginning of the year were often unrecognizable by the end of the year.”[4]

Raised in jazz through boyhood trumpet lessons, including mentoring by jazz great Clark Terry, he was also briefly exposed to the wider world of classical music at the Julliard Academy in New York. The composer David Amram suggests that Davis constantly changed styles and interests “because he had such broad interest in so many things and was so perceptive.”[5] Another observer has noted that Davis had an acute fascination with differences: “One of Miles’s great strengths became his capacity for transforming differences into unifying bridges, a characteristic that was epitomized by his music, his work with musicians of a wide variety of musical, ethnic, racial, and cultural origins, and his appeal to audiences of equally varied backgrounds.”[6] Like many a great leader/manager, Davis was never content with the status quo.

Davis was also a very capable leader: he demanded change and made it happen. Pianist Ahmad Jamal believes that Miles Davis’ groups were successful, in part, because Davis was a tough leader: … everything depends upon the leader. You can have great musicians. But if your whole demeanor, your whole image is weak, you’re going to have a weak group. So you have to be strong. You must be almost tyrannical. And Miles was a strong personality.

*   *   *

     …. He had many great groups. ..... He didn’t ever have a weak group. ....He had that uncanny knack of selecting those people that complimented him to the utmost. But here again, the reason why those groups were successful was because of Miles.[7]

The First All-Star Team: combining brilliant talent with great ideas

In 1949, after establishing his own credentials and reputation as a leading young musician, playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, Davis assembled an All-Star group – his nonet -- made-up of nine young musicians who were looking for a chance to display their talent. They were all hand picked and they were all extremely talented. Just being asked to play on the team was recognition of success. Trombonist Mike Zwerin expressed it best, when he said: “it was fun being on a championship team.”[8] The team inclused such great individual performers as: Davis on trumpet; Kai Winding and J. J. Johnson on trombone; Lee Konitz on alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone; Al Haig and John Lewis on piano; Kenny Clarke and Max Roach on drums; Gunther Schuller on french horn; and Gil Evans as senior arranger. This group represents a “hall of fame” for jazz enthusiasts. The music that they gave birth to, epitomized by the album/CD The Birth of the Cool, moved jazz away from the then prevailing sound of bop towards the whole new sound of cool. Unlike bop, cool was less abstract, less aggressive, more harmonic, more intellectual, and more collaborative.

Besides being great musicians, they were also smart guys; a group of true professionals, who understood their art and, beyond that, were devoted to "ideas." They gathered nightly at a small apartment owned by arranger Gil Evans, which sat next to a Chinese laundry, and they spoke endlessly about old and new types of music -- classical and jazz, bop and what was missing in bop. People came and went, the door was always open. They sat on the bed; they sat on the floor; it was chaotic. It was an unceasing, freewheeling, challenging and energizing conversation that centered the members on the power of ideas and what it would take to launch a musical revolution and overthrow the current dominance of bebop.

What resulted was the music gathered into the Birth of the Cool, and the revolutionary type of jazz called "cool." As important as the resulting music, however, was the pattern that begins with this group, which was for Miles Davis to surround himself throughout his career with the very best talent. Nat Hentoff, the influential jazz writer, saw this in Davis when he wrote:

The essence of Miles Davis can be determined by listening to the men he has surrounded himself with on his regular jobs.” Hentoff quotes Davis as saying of [drummer Philly Joe] Jones, for instance, “I wouldn’t care if he came up on the bandstand in his B.V.D.’s and with one arm, just so long as he was there. He’s got the fire I want. There’s nothing more terrible than playing with a dull rhythm section. Jazz has got to have that thing. [9]

The emergence of a distinctive leadership philosophy

The Birth of the Cool nonet was Davis' first leadership role and it was not immediately apparent that he was good at this; there were real concerns about the leadership of Miles within the fledgling team:

John Lewis got really upset with Miles, ... (when he felt that) Miles refused to assume control. … and he would keep trying to tell him, “Miles, this is not a rehearsal band any more. If you want to be the leader, then you’ve got to be the leader.” Miles would say, “Bullshit, man. Problems have got to take care of themselves.”[10]

  These early challenges to his leadership style are related to the core of the philosophy Davis had about leading talented professionals. What was thought to be Miles’ uncertainty and his lack of willingness to “take charge”, was more likely the result of his seeing the nonet as a collaborative team, rather than seeing himself as the center of the band. He believed that all of the team members were experts in their own right. Leading from the center would only diminish the skills and motivations of those on the team. Therefore, in the spirit of full collaboration, Davis surprised the arrangers of the music – Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis – by sharing the billing at the group's public opening; which was an unprecedented gesture, but one that made a powerful statement about how he regarded the contribution of the talent he had assembled. [11]

 While the nonet’s talent was indisputable, selecting it was not without risk. In particular, Davis was strongly criticized within the African-American community for picking so many white players for his group. Davis, who was identified throughout his career for his racial pride, repeatedly put talent before skin-color in assembling his groups:

So I just told them that if a guy could play as good as Lee Konitz played – that’s who they were mad about most, because there were a lot of black alto players around – I would hire him every time, and I wouldn’t give a damn if he was green with red breath.[12]

This was a risky undertaking. The music was different and made new requirements on both players and listeners. Count Basie, whose band was appearing along with the nonet, put it more succinctly, but still admiringly: “I didn’t always know what they (the nonet) were doing, but I listened, and I liked it.”[13]

The nonet was, without argument, an All-Star team, but one that, like so many virtuoso teams was not destined to last long. For a handful of precious few weeks, the nonet had brought together extraordinary talent, planting the seeds for revolutions in jazz still to come. Yet, as opportunities flew at the members, they ultimately split-up as a band and pursued their brilliant careers independently.

At least two more All-Star teams: Hard Bop & Modal

 By 1956, Miles Davis had assembled a new team. This time a quintet, including saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and bassist Paul Chambers that was one of the greatest jazz bands in history. Jazz writer Ralph Gleason described the way the band worked as:

“The intricacy of the linkage between the minds of these musicians has never been equaled in any group, in my opinion.”[14]

The output of this group was six albums that moved away from "cool" and established what was called "hard bop." Hard Bop was a reversion back to be bop, but with the additional of elements from rhythm & blues, and gospel music. Despite the success of this group, however, Miles once again was restless. He was not satisfied with where the music was taking him, nor where he was taking the music.

In 1957, Miles joined Columbia Records, which was not only the leading popular music label of its time, but which also had an experimental, innovative culture. Columbia was known to take risks and to support imaginative and thoughtful experimentation in music. It was the perfect sponsor for another revolution, and Miles had an idea for a new vision of jazz. In 1958, he was thinking about music that would "... be freer, more modal, more African or Eastern and less Western.”[15] Once again collaborating with arranger Gil Evans, the result was an entirely new type of music, called “modal.”

By late May 1958, Davis had assembled the sextet that would make create "modal" music. They would work together for seven months, culminating in the recording of Kind of Blue[16]. The group's roots were the great quintet of a few years earlier, but with some interesting personnel changes. It consisted of, besides Miles on trumpet: John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Wynton Kelly or Bill Evans (piano), Jimmy Cobb (drums) and Paul Chambers (bass).

It was an unusual band in that it had two saxophonists –great ones at that – which was certainly a departure from the norm, for both the music and the players. The effect of two saxophones was significant: “The musical effect was like turning the heat up on a pressure cooker: Coltrane would have less time to solo onstage, and there was an additional voice (and a very fluid, assertive one at that) to interact with, play off of, and factor into the band’s total sound."[17]However, despite this experiment, the band did not take long to gel. The speed which the team fell together surprised even Davis. “Faster than I could have imagined, the music that we were playing together was just unbelievable. It was so bad that it used to send chills through me at night.”[18] [“bad” in this instance is admirable term: this music was great!].

As with all of his groups, the talent was dazzling. Davis had a growing reputation for identifying young talent and attracting it like a magnet. For example, Davis recognized John Coltrane's talent well before others did. Despite earlier disciplinary problems with Coltrane, his return to Miles Davis's band really launched Coltrane’s future superstar career. Davis provided “Coltrane [with] creative license rather than explicit direction – the tenor saxophonist was cajoled and challenged into an individual direction that sired an entirely new school of jazz.” Bill Evans later described the unswayable faith that Miles had in his new team member:

I don’t think we would’ve had Coltrane’s great contributions without Miles’ belief in his potential. Because at the beginning, most people wondered why Miles had Coltrane in the group – he was more or less a withdrawn presence on the bandstand, not fumbling exactly, but just sort of searching. But Miles really knew, somehow, the development that Coltrane had coming. [Kahn p. 49].

Evans, himself, was also a controversial choice for several of the band members, who had wanted a more assertive sound than Evans brought,[19] and he was white, but Miles insisted that he had to have Evans. When the group was playing in black clubs, “and guys would come up to us and say, “What’s that white guy doing here?” They said: “Miles wants him there – he’s supposed to be there!””[20] Davis, in fact, later wrote that he ‘“had already planned that album [Kind of Blue] around the piano playing of Bill Evans.”

Prototyping virtuoso talent configurations

Having attracted all-star talent to his team, Davis as a leader was not afraid to challenge this talent with surprises and twists and turns in their expected roles, in an effort to push them to a higher level of performance. In the making of the Birth of the Cool recording, Davis, intentionally or not, had not bothered to apprise his current pianist, Wynton Kelly, of his decision to use [not to mention building the music around] Bill Evans as his pianist. This came as a complete surprise to Wynton Kelly, who showed-up for the recording session fully expecting to be at the piano, only to find Evans there instead. According to drummer Jimmy Cobb:

[When Wynton arrived at the studio to record Kind of Blue] he saw Bill sitting at the piano and was flabbergasted! He said, “Damn, I rushed all the way over here and someone else is sitting at the piano!”[21]

The first track recorded was “Freddie Freeloader,” which had Kelly on piano; after that, it was Bill Evans on the piano for all of the further tracks, and some observers contend that that one track that Kelly performed was one of his finest performances ever. The Evans and Kelly combination was superb; combining both talents into this performance was something most observers felt could never happen. Certainly not with one individual. Miles, however, found a way to have the best of both.

Davis also prototyped other combinations of talent in ways never tried before. His experiments with the two pianists, and the two saxophonists were not random. Nat Adderley, Cannonball’s brlther, and a fine trumpet player in his own right, said that: “Miles rubbed one player against the other to get what he wanted from his music.” Challenging the team to establish new emotional and intellectual intimacy was a way that Davis ensured growth, development and innovation  Miles would go say to Cannonball, “You ought to listen to what Coltrane is doing and the way he’s got a whole philosophy of sound going.” Then he goes and tells Trane [John Coltrane], “You should listen to Cannonball. He gets himself across with more utilitarian use of notes.” [22]

Davis' insistence on the “best talent obtainable,” rather than merely the “best available” can also be seen in Miles’ actions on another Gil Evans collaboration, Sketches of Spain, where Davis insisted on having lead trombonist Frank Rehak as one of the team:

When Rehak told Gil [Evans] that he wasn’t available for Sketches of Spain, he received a call at 3:30 a.m.: “Hey, mother, what are doing to me?” It was Miles … and I said, “Man, there’s no way I can do those dates.” And he said, “Listen, I’ll give you double money, I’ll give you whatever you need.” Rehak explained that it was not a question of money. He was already booked for a number of sessions, and canceling would be bad for his career. “We haggled and haggled for about fifteen minutes, and he called me several different kinds of names, and there was nothing I could do.” He was available only three hours on one day, three on another, and a few hours on a third. At seven the next morning, [producer] Ted Macero called Rehak, wanting to know what he had on Miles, since he was refusing to do the record without him. In the end, nineteen musicians and several engineers all had their schedules changed to fit Rehak’s on the date.[23]

Leading through trust within the team

            Miles’ groups were also well-known for the directness of their conversations. There was no time wasted on unnecessarily politeness. The sparseness of conversation focused almost entirely on achieving better performance, and no one was spared. On the tracks of Kind of Blue, the following dialogue can be heard:

   In recording “Blue in Green,” Miles Davis: “Use both hands, Jimmy.” [Drummer] Jimmy Cobb: “Huh?” Miles Davis: “Just use both hands and play it the best way you can, you know. It’ll be alright.”[24]

   At the end of “Blue in Green,” Miles “rides [bassist Paul] Chambers for his handling of the ending. …. Miles Davis: “Wake up, Paul”[25]

   During the second recording session, on one of the takes for “Sketches”, MD to Paul Chambers: “You’re not watching [pianist] Bill [Evans}.” Paul Chambers: “I know. I’m sorry.”[26]

Throughout his career, Miles Davis demonstrated enormous trust in the capabilities of the talent he had assembled and constantly looked for ways of providing maximum creative space for them. This was as true for the Kind of Blue sextet as it was for all of his other groups.

“If Miles prepared any written directions for Kind of Blue, they would have been a few motifs sketched on staff paper. (“It could have been done on a napkin, the forms were so simple,” notes bandleader and reissue producer Bob Belden.). .... Davis later admitted: “I didn’t write out the music for Kind of Blue, but brought in sketches for what every body was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing.””[27] Drummer Jimmy “Cobb recalls: “Mostly he would just say: “This is straight time” or “This is three,” “Latin flavored” or “This is whatever you want.”[28] Bill Evans recalled: “Miles ran over the charts a couple of times. You know, : “Do this,” “Do that” and then he laid out a structure, like “You solo first.” Sometimes during a take we didn’t even know that. ….Once we had the chart straight, the rest was up for grabs.”[29]

This reliance on talent to make the right calls was something that Miles Davis used most effectively in getting full-value from the talent that he had assembled, and was illustrated most emphatically in Davis’ relationship with the great saxophonist John Coltrane. According to Miles:

I think the reason we didn’t get along at first was because Trane liked to ask all these …. questions back then about what he should or shouldn’t play. Man, ….; to me he was a professional musician and I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music. So my silence and evil looks probably turned him off.[30]

As Cannonball Adderley recalled in 1972: "when [Miles] did speak, it was typically to react to something that seemed out of place. He never told anyone what to play but would say “Man, you don’t need to do that.” Miles really told everybody what NOT to do. I heard him and dug it.”[31]

The result was great talent playing to its maximum potential. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who later was part of Miles’ great fusion band,spoke about first hearing a Miles Davis band:

… I went into the audience and sat and waited until the band came on … I was listening to the power of individualism and subjectivity that was going on with all the players. Cannonball, Coltrane, and whoever was playing piano at the time, probably Wynton Kelly, and Paul Chambers on bass. They opened with a song called “All Blues” and what I heard and felt was …. penetrating … . The music seemed to transport the audience to some place they don’t usually go in their everyday life.[32]

As one observer put it: “A home run every time one of them soloed.”[33]   Testimony to the moving of the performance distribution of jazz that this music represents can be vividly found in a conversation between the vocalist Shirley Horn, and the great jazz saxaphonist Stan Getz, shortly after the appearance of Kind of Blue:

I remember we were playing in New York at some hotel bar and I was on break and I went ….up to Stan Getz, who was there. We hugged and then we stood there and listened [to Kind of Blue]. I said “What do you think?” He said “I don’t know what to think…” I said, “I don’t either.” It was beautiful but confusing.[34]

Bill Evans believed that “I thought it was the greatest jazz band I had ever heard.”[35]

After July 1959, at the height of its success, the band disassembled. Evans, Coltrane, Adderley and Kelly were ready to lead their own groups. All of them had great careers; Evans and Coltrane themselves changed the future face of jazz. According to Jimmy Cobb:

The Kind of Blue thing did separate into a variety of all-star groups because the band was an all-star kind of band in the first place, and most of it was different flavors.[36]

Yet Another All-Star Team: the birth of Fusion

By May 1963, Davis was once again restless for change and challenge. Once again, he assembled a new quintet, this time including twenty-six year old bassist Ron Carter, twenty-three year old pianist Herbie Hancock, and seventeen year old drummer Tony Williams, along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, all of whom were destined for future super-stardom in the jazz-world. This band came to be generally known as “the second great quintet” [in deference to the “first great quintet” which consisted of Coltrane, Red Garland [piano], Chambers and Philly Joe Jones [drums],   and was described by Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones] as the “all-time classical hydrogen bomb and switchblade band.”[37]

Once again this was a team committed to revolution, and, as always when revolution is the goal then there is often a fine-line between brilliance and insanity. Davis often walked this line – he was always making risks, trying things, prototyping, and yet he needed to satisfy the market’s expectations as well. Herbie Hancock put it this way:

We were sort of walking a tightrope with the kind of experimenting we were doing in music, not total experimentation, but we used to call it “controlled freedom.”[38]

Wayne Shorter portrayed this experimentation as “taking chances” and of “struggling” with music.”[39]

From one set to the next over two nights at the Plugged Nickel, they were changing these tunes, shifting their tempos around, and stretching their forms to the breaking point. At times, it became messy and chaotic, but thrillingly so. …Yet it was all accomplished with a mutuality, confidence, and openness to chance that is rare in music and life.[40]

Not all teams can do this, and Bassist Ron Carter speculated that he was hired by Miles, along with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams because:

My general sense of it is that he picked three guys who he thought could help him make some “new” music. He seemed to have the ability to always put together the kind of groups that would make it easier to do the kind of music he was looking to do, whether it was Paul [Chambers], Wynton [Kelly], and Jimmy Cobb, or Paul [Chambers], Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb, or Philly [Jo Jones], and Paul [Chambers], and Red [Garland]. He seemed to find the combination of rhythm section players to make whatever he was looking for more easily found. In those five years none of us looked at him as a guy who put together these three people for his music. We just knew he’d hired us. And I think not until many years later would we have sat down and said, “Wow, this is reason why we were chosen.”[41]

It was Wayne Shorter’s opinion that: “Miles wanted to play with people who knew more about music than he did. ... he wasn’t afraid of it.”[42]

Because of their multi-talented backgrounds, Miles arranged this group in a way that made the rhythm section equal with the front-line. This was a departure from the norm, and one which gave greater recognition to all of the members who were involved in making such new music. An interview with pianist Ahmad Jamal, reveals what Davis was looking for in and from his team:

I think he saw them {i.e., his team} as individuals. …. I think he sought those people for what they were worth within themselves.[43]

And then he created a context which allowed them to get there.

It was the power of the individual, within a group context, that marks the genius of Miles Davis. This was not typical within the jazz world, yet it was the leitmotif which ran through Davis’ career, from the movement from bop to cool, to the group that created Kind of Blue, to his later fusion bands: For most jazz groups, the improvised solo is the ultimate goal, the highest level of achievement. The composition on which they improvise and the accompaniment that frames the solos are both secondary. Typically, the leader is the best improviser, or at least the featured soloist, and the rest of the group exists to enhance the soloist’s mastery. What was different about the Davis group [here the author, John Szwed, is talking about the Hancock-Williams-Carter band, but it could apply to any of Davis’ great groups] was Miles’ attitude toward the individual musicians and how they should work together. Tony Williams said that Miles hired people who were good, but he encouraged them to be better, to take chances, even to go beyond him if they chose. “He wants to hear stuff he’s not in control of,” Tony said. “He wants to hear something that he wouldn’t think of. I mean, when he walks off the stage, he’s not just going to go and, you know, read a book or something. He wants to hear the music still going on at a level that he left it at or something better.”[44]

To Miles Davis, the challenge was to build a group, out of superbly talented individuals, where the group was much more than merely the sum of the individuals [or what all too often in team situations is less than the sum of the individuals] – in terms of creativity, innovation and performance:

We realized that Miles was looking for collective improvisation thing with all these different people who had different styles. Miles was looking for unity in the collective.[45]

Recognition of the power of a team was also evidenced in Miles’ respect for what they had accomplished together:

Miles was once asked if the time in which he did Bitches Brew was one of his most creative periods.’It was their creative period, was his response – Joe Zawinul’s, his musicians’. All he did [i.e., Miles Davis], he said, was to make it possible for them to play together.[46]

But, despite this belief in individual freedom, the leadership role was, nonetheless, a strong and respected role. Chick Corea recognized that “Miles was brilliant as a bandleader. He allowed the musicians to play just as they are and deal with the music from their own choices and their own judgments. Therefore the music that came out was very strong.”[47] Bassist Michael Henderson put it even stronger:

Miles gave me myself. He gave me something that belonged to me. When I came to play with him, I became “me.” Like everybody else who was with him. We all found ourselves. We found exactly who we were and what we should be doing as far as being in the music industry, and in life.[48]

One of the ways that Miles tried to get the most out of this quintet was to encourage them to think about things that they could do that they didn’t know that they could do. His instructions were frequently given in ways that encouraged individual interpretation; such as telling them: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”[49]Occasionally, they were about desired outcomes, not how to do the work. For example, Wayne Shorter relates that: “Miles once said, 'Did you ever go to see that movie where Humphrey Bogart is talking to a gangster and does that bam-ba-bam-bam?'" He mimes Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon, knocking a cigarette out of Peter Lorre's mouth. "'Play that!' or the way John Wayne walks in The Searchers.”[50]

Despite his well-earned reputation for direct dialog, there was also total trust in the capabilities of his team. As bassist Dave Holland saw it:

I got the sense that if he felt he had to explain to someone too much then he had the wrong musician for the project.[51]

Leadership in such a group was very much about insisting on change; on being a catalyst for change. In this last group, Davis relied a lot on “guest” membership in the team to introduce new ideas. In 1970, Miles hired Motown bassist Michael Henderson. According to Henderson:

 "He hired me to play just what I was playing. He hired me to bring something new to his music. I thought that maybe he wanted me to learn some of his older stuff, but he said, “If you learn any of that old shit, you’re fired!"[52]

What we also see in this period is a measure of Davis’ own personal maturity as a mover and changer in the music world. Paul Tingen, the chronicler of his “electronic period,” notes that “Miles was continuously in the center of attention. His commanding here-and-now presence forced the musicians, once again, to “play above what they normally play.”[53]Such “stretching” of his talent involved personal risks, for all involved. Drummer Jack DeJohnette reflected on this:

"People were often worried about their personal contributions and egos, but Miles was thinking of it as a team."[54]

Davis, himself, however, was apparently able to subdue his own ego within these groups. In the words of his last partner:    

"He had no ego in music…. As opposed to, ‘This is Miles Davis, and who cares who’s behind me.’ It was never about him and his horn. He was always part of the group that was with him."[55]

Or, as Herbie Hancock expressed it:

"Miles is an incredible team worker. He listens to what everybody does, and he uses that and what he plays makes what everybody does sound better."[56]

There was, in addition, an undeniable love of making music that inspired everyone that was part of his team. The great pianist Chick Corea put it this way:

   "Miles set an example by the way he loved to make music. He was about making music. That kind of attitude created an atmosphere in which we all joined, because we all wanted to make music in such a very concentrated way."[57]

The music that this band created launched a revolution in jazz that changed the nature of the music and the very instruments that we take for granted in such music making. In addition, it launched the careers of an entire new generation of jazz leaders, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter.

A few final words about Miles Davis: Listener and Teacher

 Over the years, the reputation of Miles Davis has been stretched out of proportion by media fixations on his personal failings. Friends, family, and even his personal brand were all victims of Miles’ destructive tendencies. But beneath all of this was an artist who had the courage, the creativity, the resolve, and the humility, to effectively and profoundly change the world of music at least four times. Two characteristics of his personal style bear mentioning. First, Miles was a virtuoso listener. In the words of bassist Gary Peacock: “He’d listen so hard that it was deafening. He didn’t miss anything.”[58] Peacock called Davis “by far the greatest listener that I have ever experienced in a musical group.” And, keyboardist Adam Holzman says: “It may be a funny thing to say for a musician, but Miles taught me how to listen.”[59] In fact, the very first words in Miles Davis’ autobiography is “Listen.” We believe that without his skills as a listener, he could never have been an effective leader.

Second, he was also very much a teacher. Joey DeFrancesco was 17 when he played keyboard for Miles Davis in 1988. When asked “what had he learned from this experience?” his response is quite revealing:

"Oh, all kinds of stuff. I learned to take chances, not try to be so careful. You know, go for it. If you’re going for it, you’re going to make some mistakes, but that’s cool, ….. I learned a lot of things."[60]

As saxophonist Sonny Sharrock told radio DJ Ed Flynn in 1993:

"Miles gave me a piece of torn music paper with this impossible to play figure, a 16th note figure, just incredible music, torn-off corner of music, and he said [hoarse whisper], 'Play this'. That's how he did it, you know. And then I would mess up; he would say, 'Naw, Sonny, not like that', you know. But I learned more playing with that cat in one day than I've ever learned in my life, man. He was an incredible teacher, just being around him." [61]

It is not surprising that eventually, the Miles Davis experience became known amongst young jazz musicians as “the University of Miles Davis.”[62] Not bad an epitaph for someone who is so often considered to have been such a troubled and deeply flawed individual.

Implications for Defying Gravity

Creating revolution in any field is extremely rare; to do it four times is extraordinary. This is not luck! The question is, however, is this “enduring high-performance”? And, if so, what were the things that Miles Davis did that gave him a higher probability than others of playing a catalytic role in advancing musical revolutions? To our minds, Davis was an instinctively great leader, but what he did to grown as a professional ensured his sustaining a professional leadership position over three decades. He was the consummate idea-seeker. He was interested in more than just the current “product offering.” He was relentless in his efforts to always push the envelope of the existing musical scene. He wanted to be at the forefront of the new ideas that defined his profession. To get there, he consistently hired people who knew things that he didn’t, and then allowed them to become as good as they could be, within a team context. He was not intimidated by other peoples’ talent; on the contrary, he was a tireless “talent-scout,” devoting hours of each month to listen to others, often way outside of the trumpet-playing world. Once he attracted such talent, he demanded that they live up to their promise, by relying on them to author large parts of his final product. He also put them into situations where they could not help but be professionally stretched – this was a form of succession planning that defines the leadership of the jazz world, even until today. All of this, we think, led Davis to sustain his reputation as a leader in his field for at least a forty-year period. While this might not be exactly the definition of “enduring high performance,” it does strike us as being a reasonably good depiction of “defying gravity,” at a personal, professional, leadership level.

June 2009

Copyright and all rights reserved, Bill Fischer

This case was delivered at IMD's OWP program in June 2009, and is, in part, adapted from material originally developed for

Andy Boynton & Bill Fischer, Virtuoso Teams, London: FT/Prentice Hall, 2005.


[1] Miles Davis as quoted on http://photomatt.net/jazzquotes

[2] Ron Carter, as quoted in “’Any Direction He Chose,’: Ron Carter interview by Benjamin Cawthra,” in Gerald Early (ed.), Miles Davis and American Culture, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.

[3] If not earlier, see Frederic M. Scherer, Quarter Notes and Bank Notes, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

[4] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 24.

[5] David Amram quoted in John Szwed, So What: the Life of Miles Davis, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002: p. 131.

[6] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 29.

[7] Ahmad Jamal, quoted in “’Sensational Pulse,’ Ahmad Jamal, interview by Benjamin Cawthra,” in Gerald Early (ed.), Miles Davis and American Culture, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.

[8] Mike Zwerin, Liner notes for the Complete Birth of the Cool, Capital Jazz, 1998.

[9] Joe Goldbeg, Jazz Masters of the 50s, New York: DeCapo Press, 1965, p. 75.

[10] Interviews for The Miles Davis Radio Project, 1990, produced by Steve Roland, as quoted in John Szwed, So What, ibid., pp74-75.

[11] Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, New York: De Capo, 1998, pp. 102-103.

[12] Miles Davis, Miles, the Autobiography,as quoted in Szwed, ibid., p. 76.

[13] Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, New York: De Capo, 1998, p. 106.

[14] Kahn, p. 57.

[15] Kahn, pp. 98-99.

[16] Kahn, p. 79.

[17] Kahn p. 66.

[18] Kahn p. 50.

[19] Kahn, p. 83.

[20] Kahn, p.. 85.

[21] Kahn, p. 95.

[22] Nat Adderley quoted in John Szwed, So What, ibid., p. 172.

[23] John Szwed, So What, ibid., p. 211.

[24] Kahn, p. 119.

[25] Kahn, p. 121.

[26] Kahn, p. 140.

[27] Kahn, ibid. p. 99.

[28] Kahn, ibid., p. 99.

[29] Kahn, ibid., p. 99.

[30]Kahn, p. 50

[31] Kahn, p. 106.

[32] Wayne Shorter, quoted in John Szwed, So What, ibid., p.252.

[33] Del Costello, quoted in Kahn, p. 156.

[34] Shirley Horn quoted in Kahn, p. 160.

[35] Kahn, p. 86.

[36] Cobb quoted in Kahn, p. 161.

[37] Amiri Baraka quoted in John Szwed, So What, ibid., p. 252.

[38] Herbie Hancock, quoted in John Szwed, Ibid., p. 255.

[39] John Szwed, Ibid., p. 255.

[40] John Szwed, Ibid., pp. 255-256.

[41] Ron Carter, as quoted in “’Any Direction He Chose,’: Ron Carter interview by Benjamin Cawthra,” in Gerald Early (ed.), Miles Davis and American Culture, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.

[42] Wayne Shorter quoted in John Szwed, Ibid., p. 256.

[43] Ahmad Jamal, quoted in “’Sensational Pulse,’ Ahmad Jamal, interview by Benjamin Cawthra,” in Gerald Early (ed.), Miles Davis and American Culture, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.

[44] John Szwed, Ibid., p. 263.

[45] Jack DeJohnette quoted in John Szwed, So What, ibid., p.295.

[46] John Szwed, So What, ibid., p.299.

[47] Chick Corea quoted in Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 48.

[48] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 17.

[49] Tingen, Miles Beyond, ibid., p. 14.

[50] David Honigmann, “Shorter Route to Jazz Heaven,”| Financial Times, March 8, 2003.

[51] John Szwed, So What, ibid., p. 293.

[52] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 119.

[53] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 27.

[54] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 17.

[55] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 16.

[56] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 17.

[57] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 18.

[58] John Szwed, So What, ibid., p. 256.

[59] All of these quotes in this paragraph come from Paul Tingen, Miles Ahead, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001. p., 14.

[60] Joey De Francesco, as quoted in “’Here’s God Walking Around’: Joey DeFrancesco interview by Benjamin Cawthra, ,”in Gerald Early (ed.), Miles Davis and American Culture, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001.

[61] “The Jack Johnson Sessions,” The Wire, October 2003.

[62] Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, New York: BillBoard Books, 2001, p. 26.