Jazz legendary trumpeter Miles Davis in his memoirs has described Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afro beat music inventor as the “future” in the world of ever-changing music. I was reading the Miles Davis autobiography when I came across the chapter where he pointed to Fela as the way forward musically. You can imagine my excitement in coming across this piece of Milesian revelation. It’s a true case of the deep calling unto the deep. Today, Miles Davis and Fela are both gone, but their music lives forever. I bring you this excerpt from Miles, The Autobiography:
A lot of people ask me where music is going today. I think it’s going in short phrases. If you listen, anybody with an ear can hear that. Music is always changing. It changes because of the times and the technology that’s available, the material that things are made of, like plastic cars instead of steel. So when you hear an accident today it sounds different, not all the metal colliding like it was in the forties and fifties. Musicians pick up sounds and incorporate that into their playing, so the music that they make will be different. New instruments like synthesizers and all them other things people play make everything different. Instruments used to be wood, then it was metal, and now it’s hard plastic. I don’t know what it’s going to be in the future but I know it’s going to be something else. The worst musicians don’t hear the music today. I was like them before Tony and Herbie and Ron and Wayne came into my band. They made me hear differently and I’m grateful to them for that.
I think Prince’s music is pointing towards the future, that and a lot of what they’re doing in Africa and the Caribbean. People like Fela from Nigeria and Kassav from the West Indies. A lot of the white musicians and bands are taking a lot from them, like Talking Heads, Sting, Madonna, and Paul Simon, too. A lot of good music is also coming out of Brazil, too. But a lot of that music is happening around Paris, because that’s where a lot of Africans and West Indian musicians are going to play, especially the ones that speak French. The English-speaking ones go to London. Someone told me recently that Prince was thinking about moving some of his operations to a place outside of Paris so he could soak up a lot of what’s happening there. That’s why I say he is one of the main musicians today who are pointing the way to the future. He understands that the sound has to go international; it’s already there.
One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit over and over again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is and adventure and a challenge. When people come up to me and ask me to play something like “My Funny Valentine,” some old thing that I might have done when they were fucking this special girl and the music might have made them both feel good, I can understand that. But I tell them to go buy the record. I’m not there in that place any longer and I have to live for what is best for me and not what’s best for them.
People my age who used to listen to me “way back when” don’t even buy records anymore. If I had to depend on them buying my records—even if I did play what they wanted—I would starve to death and miss out on communicating to people who do buy records: young people. And even if I wanted to play those old tunes I couldn’t find people who could play the way we used to play. The ones who are alive are leaders of their own bands, playing what they want to. I know they wouldn’t want to give up to come into a band led by me.
The musical sound is very different today than it was when I first started playing. The synthesizer has changed everything whether purist musicians like it or not. It’s here to stay and you can either be in it or out of it. I choose to be in it because the world has always been about change. People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker. Because the music and the sound has gone international and there ain’t no sense in trying to go back into some womb where you once were. A man can’t go back into his mother’s womb.
Music is about timing and getting everything in rhythm. It can sound good if it’s Chinese as long as the right things are in place. But as complex as people try to make my music out to be, I like it simple. That’s the way I hear it even if it’s complex to them.
For me, music and life are all about style. Just like Trane’s style was his own, and Bird’s and Diz’s their own, I don’t want to sound like nobody but myself. I want to be myself, whatever that is. People tell me my sound is like a human voice and that’s what I want it to be.
My best musical ideas for composition come to me at night. Duke Ellington was the same way. He wrote all night and slept all day. I guess at night everything is quiet and so you can block what little noise there is out and concentrate. I also think I write better out in California because it’s so quiet out there; I live by the ocean. At least it’s that way for now.
To me, great musicians are like great fighters who know self-defense. They have a higher sense of theory going on in their heads, like African musicians. But we ain’t in Africa, and we don’t play just chants.