An acquaintance of mine asked me recently why I love basketball so much. The question wasn't derisive or anything, he just wondered how a kid from Atlanta, where SEC football and the Braves hold dominion, had come to revere hoops above all other sports. I thought about it for a moment, then vaulted into a litany of nostalgia: how, at the age of five, I had fallen in love watching the last great Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals of the Bird and Magic era in 1987, and watching Dominique Wilkins, on my beloved Hawks, ignite arenas and demoralize opponents with his thunderous jams. How that love had intensified watching Stockton and Malone refine the pick'n'roll to the point of mathematical certainty, and watching Jordan and Pippen play at a level otherwise reserved for gods in 1996. I yammered on about Steve Nash's passing bending the laws of geometry with the Suns, and Lebron dropping the "48 Special" in the playoffs. After a while, I started feeling a little lost, and more than a little dopey. I was doing a bang-up job of describing my personal connection to basketball, but failing to properly convey the grace and beauty inherent in the game itself. (When you're a serious fan of something, a band, an author, whatever, your impulse is not to explain why you like it, but why the object itself is worthy of attention, so that others will enjoy it as well.) Then it hit me: like me, this guy was a musician, and I could explain the whole thing in one easy sentence. Watching truly great basketball is the visual equivalent of listening to truly great jazz. (Of course, the converse of that statement is true as well, which is why we should burn all game footage of the '09 Nets and all Kenny G albums.)
As long as we're talking basketball and jazz, allow me a brief aside: can we please, for the love of all that's holy, give the team moniker "Jazz" back to New Orleans, where that music was born? I can't think of a less-jazzy place on earth than Utah. Also, the word "jazz" is derived from the old slang term "jass", a euphemism for sex. Should we really have a team name with that etymology in Mormon country, I ask you? Let's fix this. OK, moving on ...
Just like a great bebop group, an ideal basketball team is built on the foundation of controlled spontaneity. Every player knows their role, supports their band/team-mates, and adds to the collective endeavor by contributing in the most efficacious manner while adapting to constant changes. The players must operate within a set structure, the song form or the playbook, but be ready to adapt instantaneously to their teammates' movements and the flow and pace of the situation. For either art form to achieve its apex, egos must be subsumed and energies channeled in the fullest, most intelligent way possible. Players must know each others' tendencies, and how best to counterpoint them. The greats will do these things instinctively, without prompting, but of course there is the problem that not everyone is great, and so the challenge for the band leader, or the NBA GM, is to assemble not necessarily the best talent, but the most complimentary team.
And that's why Miles Davis, had he been a basketball man, would have been one of the greatest NBA general managers in history.
Throughout a career in which he influenced and innovated jazz more than any other figure in the history of the music, through all of his often-revolutionary changes in style and focus, Miles had one constant: not only were his bands always great, they were always perfectly tailored to his current musical needs. On reflection, each of those groups bares a resemblance, some more striking than others, to a different great team from basketball's history, their unique rosters coming together to make music in a way that others could only aspire to. Three of his most innovative records display the parallels most concretely. In chronological order:
The Birth Of The Cool, 1957. (*while the official studio release date is technically '57, the band involved and the live recordings on the complete reissue predate it by roughly a decade.) This was Miles' equivalent of the 77-78 Portland Trailblazers. Tired of being a sideman in Charlie Parker's legendary band, and frustrated with the smaller-group format that predominated jazz at the time, in 1947 Miles sought to create something on a grander scale; a larger ensemble featuring more intricate arrangements. He began assembling a loose group of musicians in what would later solidify into a nine-piece ensemble, under the composing and arranging guidance of Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan (the Dr. Jack Ramsay(s) in this analogy.) Like the Blazers, the group performed and peaked for a one-and-a-half year stretch of performances, then disbanded, but they did record one monumental live set for posterity at the Royal Roost in New York. And like Portland, the band was driven by two diametrically opposed forces with Miles as the mellow, counter-cultural Bill Walton, and firey drummer Max Roach as Maurice Lucas. Miles, through force of will, had assembled an atypical but effective cast (featuring instruments not usually seen in jazz ensembles, tuba and french horn being the most notable), luring them away from the prevailing bebop style long enough to create one of the most influential groups of all time. When the nonet finally reconvened the Columbia Records studios after a 10-year hiatus to pursue other projects, they sparked the entire stylistic movement that came to be known as West Coast Jazz. Like the Blazers ousting Dr. J's 76ers in the finals, the band didn't necessarily look like champions on paper (lots of notable names if you really know jazz, but few true "all-stars"). Nonetheless, their brief peak was among the most memorable in jazz history, and they are now remembered as a remarkable and unique assembly of musicians.
Kind Of Blue, 1958. Widely regarded as the finest jazz album of all time, Davis' masterpiece is Jordan's Bulls, '80-'82 "Showtime", Bird's Celtics, and the early-aughts Shaq/Kobe Lakeshow all rolled into one. (Miles as Jordan/Kareem/Bird/Shaq, and young legend-in-the-making John Coltrane as Pippen/young Magic/McHale/young Kobe.) Kind Of Blue personifies the thrust of this article perfectly. Miles was a musical deity by this point, and had he so chosen, could have assembled the finest group of musicians available to make the record. Instead, he opted for slightly lesser (though still very good) talents, instinctively knowing that the mood and compositions required a delicate balance and a certain stylistic bent in order to fully flourish. Hence, we have the transcendent pairing of Miles and 'Trane surrounded by five great-but-not-hyper-legendary role players: pianists Wynton Kelly (Ron Harper/Jamaal Wilkes/Danny Ainge/A.C. Green) and Bill Evans (Dennis Rodman/Bob McAdoo/Robert Parish/Derek Fisher). Evans gets those nods because he had such a key hand in the conception and atmosphere of the album. He's the third in Blue's hypothetical "Big Three." Alto saxophonist and blues specialist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley was the unquestionable Steve Kerr/Michael Cooper/Bill Walton/Robert Horry, the superb complimentary player who knew and excelled in his role. The rhythm section of Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers rounded out the roster as the glue guys, the pulse that allowed the horn players and piano to strut their stuff while grooving along beneath them, shining brilliantly in brief but crucial moments. Again, Miles made this most superior album with a cast that was worse on paper than what might have been because he knew he didn't need a Tony Williams or Herbie Hancock (arguably the best drummer and keyboardist ever, respectively), and that their presence might actually detract from his goal. Now that's a potential, hypothetical GM for you. (Are you listening, Miami?)
Nefertiti, 1968. The '92 Dream Team of jazz quintets. Miles, tenor sax wizard Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on keys, and Ron Carter on bass. As I just mentioned, Williams and Hancock are at the front of the "greatest ever" discussion on their instruments, and Carter is right up their for upright bass as well. Shorter probably loses out on the "best tenor player of all time" debate only because John Coltrane once breathed through a horn, but it's still a debate. You could really take your pick as regards who was who in terms of a basketball analogy, but any way you put it, this was a holy terror of an outfit. (My personal take: Miles/Jordan, Williams/Magic, Hancock/Bird-if-he'd-been-fully-healthy, Shorter/Malone, and Carter/Pippen). The quintet needed every inch of their considerable skills for this crazy endeavor of an album. This was, essentially, the calm before the storm when Miles fired the loudest-ever shot across the bow of traditional jazz with In A Silent Way, but it's generally regarded as the beginning of his aesthetic shift in that direction. What we have here is a collection of tunes that are alternately dark and heavy, mellow and brooding, and driving like a freight train. Caught somewhere between bop, hard bop, post-bop, and the uncharted waters into which Miles was inexorably sailing, the album careens along like a roller coaster. Fortunately, like the Dream Team, this supremely talented group was capable of handling the diverse styles and tempos that the music required, darting through sharp turns and intensive changes with ease and aplomb. In hoops parlance, they could have played for Don Nelson, Red Auerbach, or Pat Riley without blinking. Especially notable here is the title track, on which the horns repeat the meldoy line ad nauseum without any solo breaks, while the rhythm section improvises beneath the theme. This was a completely unheard of role reversal of the various instruments' traditional functions in jazz, or any other music for that matter. I doubt any other ensemble could have pulled it off half as well. There's never been an album or a group like it since, and there never will be again.
To sum up, Miles Davis put the musical pieces together only as they were needed to ensure the greatest success of his projects. He was the ultimate facilitator, the consummate talent hound who sought out those who could best coexist in the improvisational either of jazz, and then exhorted them to previously unreached heights and untapped reserves of unified creativity. He understood the importance of "team" better than anyone. If Miles had been as tirelessly devoted to basketball as he was to music, not only would he have made Stu Inman, Jerry West, Sam Presti, and their ilk proud, he might have surpassed them all.