Davis's entire career can be seen as an ongoing critique of bebop: the origins of “cool” jazz (his collaborations with Gil Evans in the late 1940s), hard bop, or “funky” (his 1954 recording of “Walkin'”), modal improvisation (the track “Milestones” in 1958 and the 1959 album Kind of Blue), and jazz-rock fusion (In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, both recorded in 1969) can be traced to his efforts to tear bebop down to its essentials. Unable as a younger musician to play “fast,” or “in the upper register,” Davis became an innovator out of necessity.
His decision, in 1969, to court a younger audience by playing rock venues, adding amplified instruments to his ensemble, and cranking up both the volume and the beat also amounted to a critique of modern jazz, which he felt had become tired and inbred. So, in effect, did his withdrawal from the recording studio and public performance from 1970 to 1980, years in which “sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.” He barely touched his horn in these years, but he haunted jazz with his silence.
Two groups of listeners now feel that Davis has sold them out: jazz fans of a certain age who have never forgiven him for going electric, and the rock audience that discovered him with Bitches Brew and—try as it might—can't get with the slick techno-funk he has been recording since The Man With the Horn, in 1981. But the audience he has his sights on now, although he's unlikely to reach it without a hit single, is the audience that grooves to Prince and Michael Jackson, and commercial survival doesn't seem to be his only motivation—ego, racial identity, and a desire for eternal youth (or continuing relevance) all seem to be mixed up in it.
For many of his more worshipful fans, of all ages and races, Davis's music has always been just one component of a mystique that also involves his beautiful women, his up-to-the-minute wardrobe, his expensive taste in sports cars, and his scowling black anger: his celebrity boils down to an insider's life-style and an outsider's stance. His magnetism is so powerful that fans who haven't liked anything he's done in years continue to buy his records and to attend his concerts, irrationally hoping for a reversal of form.
On stage he remains an electrifying presence, although you wonder now when you go to hear him (as you do with the seventy-one-year-old Dizzy Gillespie, but for a different reason) not how well he'll play but how much. He has become a kind of roving conductor, walking from sideman to sideman, describing what he wants from them with a pump of his shoulders or a wiggle of his hips, blowing riffs into their faces and letting them pick it up from there. He still turns his back on the audience for much of the show, as he was infamous for doing in the 1950s and 1960s The difference is that now he has a wireless microphone on his horn which allows him to be heard clearly with his back turned—and that audiences would be disappointed, at this point, if he failed to strike his iconographic pose. Though his shows are never boring, you're not quite sure how you feel about them afterward. Is Davis admirable, as his apologists would have it, for refusing to rest on his laurels—for keeping up with the latest black musical and sartorial fashions? Or is there something pathetic about the sight of a sixty-three-year-old man in clogs, parachute pants. and jheri curls shaking his fanny to a younger generation's beat?