Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:
Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”
There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson. You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.
Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:
At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.
In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?
But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:
In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.
He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.
Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:
Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.
Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.
Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this. On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences.
One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.
But the Days of Awe are something else: They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.
That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:
Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]
Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!
To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction.
Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.