How to play like Miles Davis

Every day, thousands if not millions of jazz musicians try to play like Miles Davis. Yes, jazz trumpet players, but also pianists, trombonists, guitarists, saxophonists and players of every instrument conceivable. (Even Japanese flutes and conch shells.)

But what does it really mean to “play like Miles Davis?”

Quincy Jones says that he began his music career by imitation Miles on the trumpet. When Davis heard Quincy play one night, he wasn’t exactly complimentary. That’s because “playing” like Miles Davis doesn’t necessarily mean “sounding” like Miles Davis.”

(We can hear proof of this whenever we hear a Miles Davis-imitation harmon-muted trumpet solo on a TV commercial or movie soundtrack. It sounds empty. More than that, it goes against everything Miles himself strove for in his own music.)

I think that most jazz musicians feel there’s a huge “gulf” between themselves and a player like Miles Davis. But when we try the same thing as they tried, we feel a real connection.

This is the key: to try what they tried.

So… what did Miles himself try?

Well, one thing he tried was to play what he heard in his head. Have you ever tried this? I mean, have you ever truly tried this? Have you ever sat down at your piano and been incredible disciplined about only playing the notes you clearly hear in your head? And not playing anything until you hear something? Playing a phrase, and then leaving space until you clearly hear something?

When I was in college, I used to try this an exercise. And it felt weird. Then, at one point, I realized that “If I’m usually not playing what I hear in my head, then what am I actually playing? And what’s the point of playing those notes at all?”

The great players like Miles Davis play what they hear in their heads. But they don’t do this “because they’re great.” Rather, this is what makes them great in the first place!

I recently guided one of my Skype piano students through the process of improvising on a jazz standard while only playing what she heard in her head. It actually took a while for her to get out of the habit of just playing notes she usually played but didn’t hear first.

Once she got it, though, she was astonished at how much better she played. In fact, she sent me a followup email saying that after practicing this, she listened to the solo Miles Davis played on “Freddie Freeloader” and she could hear that he was listening to what he heard in his head and only playing those notes. This was an amazing moment for her! She felt a real and direct connection with Miles Davis, because they were trying the same thing!

If you listen to a jazz recording and feel like it’s just a bunch of run-on notes, it’s probably because the player isn’t playing what they inwardly hear. But we can do better, and it’s a lot more artistically rewarding.

Sit down at your piano and make a goal of playing what you hear. That’s how we play like Miles Davis.

Always remember to enjoy the journey and “let the music flow.” Miles Davis did this too!


PS – Here’s the new Journey Through The Real Book video, featuring a Steve Swallow tune that brought me to new, unexpected musical places:

The Green Mountains

And if you want to play some fresh, beautiful arrangements of Christmas songs, you’ll enjoy my A Keyboard Christmas Collection ebook:

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