Porgy and Miles

Tucker, Mark

Miles Davis traced his rising fame in the 1950s to changes taking place
in society. "There was a new mood coming into the country," he stated in
his autobiography. "Black and white people were starting to get together,
and in the music world Uncle Tom images were on their way out."
Describing himself as a "nonconformist"-"cool and hip and angry and
sophisticated and ultra clean"-Davis identified with others in that period
who were breaking barriers and challenging authority: Martin Luther
King leading the Montgomery bus boycott, Marian Anderson appearing as
the first black singer at the Metropolitan Opera, Marlon Brando and
James Dean gaining popularity as actors by portraying rebels (Davis
1989:197-98). Davis's bold, brash persona earned him a special degree of
respect from black Americans. Writer Amiri Baraka considered the trumpeter
his "ultimate culture hero," someone who embodied "a black attitude
that had grown steadily more ubiquitous in the 1950s-defiance"
(Baraka 1996:41, 48).
Given Davis's affiliation, first with a group of postwar jazz musicians
carving out a new identity for black artists, then with a larger movement
engaged in transforming the nation's cultural and political landscape (including
the Beats, Civil Rights activists, Abstract Expressionists, and others),
it is remarkable that in 1958 he teamed up with arranger Gil Evans
to record an album devoted to Porgy and Bess. Ever since its premiere, the
opera by the Gershwins and Heyward had sparked controversy and caused
Mrican Americans to speak out in protest.



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Columbia University
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November 19, 2014