If Miles Davis had stopped making music in the 1950s, he would be remembered as one of the most eloquent and influential trumpeters in jazz. But Davis, an Alton native who grew up in East St. Louis, was also a visionary who wasn't afraid to shake things up and didn't believe in looking back. Beginning in the late 1960s, that meant venturing beyond acoustic post-bop jazz to explore the improvisational possibilities of rock.
Considering his admiration for the music of Jimi Hendrix, it wasn't surprising that Davis' new musical strategy involved the guitar. With its gift for rocking out, the instrument was invaluable in bridging the gap between his aging jazz base and his emerging youthful audience.
This week, two guitarists who rose to fame in the company of Davis will appear in St. Louis. John McLaughlin, who played on the trumpeter's groundbreaking 1970 recording "Bitches Brew," will lead his 4th Dimension group on Friday at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Mike Stern, who lent his talents to Davis' 1981 comeback album, "The Man With the Horn," begins a four-night engagement Wednesday at Jazz at the Bistro.
Davis "was always looking for new stuff," said Stern, whose latest album is "Big Neighborhood." At the Bistro, he'll be accompanied by St. Louis natives Tom Kennedy on bass and Dave Weckl on drums, along with Bob Malach on saxophone.
"Miles was one of those guys who let their instincts guide them," said Stern, who joined the band Davis formed after a six-year hiatus from jazz. "He was a big guitar fan, so he wanted me to play a lot. And for the soloing, he definitely wanted a Hendrix vibe — but then he started to let me do whatever I wanted to do."
McLaughlin, who'll share the Sheldon stage with keyboardist Gary Husband, bass guitarist Etienne M'Bappé and drummer Mark Mondesir, said Davis "was so loose, but cryptic. He was like a Zen master."
"The first time I recorded with him was in January 1969," McLaughlin said. "And he said, 'Play the guitar like you don't know how to play.' What does that mean? But that was the whole point: He wanted his musicians to be free, to be totally who they were.
"But at the same time, he knew how to shift people's perceptions and get music out of them that they weren't even aware of."
That dynamic applied to "Bitches Brew," to which McLaughlin's contribution was incalculable.
Boldly experimental, the double studio album was a jazz-fusion milestone, selling more than 500,000 copies and earning Davis his first gold record. Jazz purists balked at the electric instrumentation (including Chick Corea, Larry Young and Joe Zawinul on keyboards) and rock-influenced rhythms, and dismissed "Bitches Brew" as a commercial move. The trumpeter's 1969 fusion album, "In a Silent Way," had been similarly criticized.
But Davis was definitely in tune with the times, said McLaughlin, who is touring in support of his new album, "To the One."
"There was a whole different philosophy in those days," he said. "The idea was to expose people to different kinds of music."
McLaughlin, 68, is perhaps best known for establishing and performing in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, whose original lineup (including keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham) created jazz that reflected the influence of Indian ragas, European classical music and funk. Along with Weather Report and Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra followed Davis' lead in redefining what a jazz band could be.
And, significantly, all three groups involved former Davis sidemen. Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter co-led Weather Report, which made a star out of bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius, and Corea directed Return to Forever, which had its greatest success with Al Di Meola on guitar.
In recent decades, acoustic improvisation in the style of Davis' classic 1959 album "Kind of Blue" has largely retaken the jazz spotlight. Still, some of the most successful artists in jazz are fusion-oriented guitarists — including not only McLaughlin and Stern, but also Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and Davis veteran John Scofield.