Whether it was Miles Davis reflecting the accelerated rate of change that took place culturally from the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s, or if he himself added to that velocity, is impossible to know. One thing is certain: the shifts in his music—album by album, even track by track—happened at a startling pace during this period, had a greater influence both within the jazz world and outside of it. Everyone was listening to Miles at this time; the ears of the post-1960s generation were more open and accepting of a wider range of styles than ever before. When Miles was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006— alongside Black Sabbath, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols—no one batted an eye. Some critics wrote it should have happened earlier.
No matter what Miles did during this period—expanding his band to six, seven, or eight musicians; inviting exotic instruments like sitar or cuica into the lineup, playing his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal normally used by electric guitarists—it all fit into the zeitgeist of the time, and Columbia Records had his back. “Bitches Brew is the title you want for the new LP? OK, sure. Let’s make it a double album.” The result, for a while, were commercial triumphs of rock magnitude: He received airplay on FM radio stations and bookings.
Bitches Brew was controversial, a best-seller (sales surpassed 100,000 copies, an unheard of number for a jazz recording) and attracted another, younger generation into the Miles fold. Thousands whose musical taste respected no categorical walls flocked to hear Miles in rock halls, his name sharing the marquee with the breaking artists of the day: Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Steve Miller. A slew of Fusion bands were soon spawned, many led by his former sidemen: Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever.
More best-selling double albums followed—1971’s Live-Evil, 1972’s On The Corner to 1974’s Get Up With It—and so did the complaint that Miles had somehow sold out, that he had turned his back on his cultural roots and somehow cheapened his music. That charge is easily countered by the simple fact that one can easily follow the logic in Miles’ progression from the 1960s quintet through his embrace of amplified instruments to the experimental drive of the 1970s. Each step makes sense given what came before.
The reason for Miles’ success in an era when youth culture was on the rise is easily explained. For a man approaching 50, Miles was exceedingly young. He thought and dressed and played young. The musicians he surrounded himself with were usually in their early 20s—fresh with ideas and inventive spirit. The one problem he faced during the 1970s was that his body was not doing well. A series of accidents and health challenges eventually took the steam out of his musical drive; health challenges—some old, some new—eventually pulled him off the scene at the end of 1975 and a five-year hiatus followed.