My all-time favorite jazz album is Miles Davis’ final studio release, Doo-Bop. Posthumously released in the early 90’s, it is Davis’ attempt to reconcile the language of jazz — the language he had spent his whole life learning and building — with the new-fangled language of the streets, hip-hop.
It’s an incredible piece of work, allegedly inspired by hot summers spent in his New York apartment while the sounds of the city sidewalks floated in through his open window, and to me it signifies a the passing of a torch.
It feels like Davis is giving hip-hop his blessing to become the new frontier of musical experimentation and the voice of a new generation of people. Like Jazz was for nearly 50 years in the last century, hip-hop, for better or worse, has come to define our generation: to become the common language in which everyone is at least a little conversant.
What I love most about the possibly apocryphal story of Miles Davis sitting in some sweaty apartment composing music to accompany to the sounds of the street is that I could picture that in my mind while listening to the album even before I heard that story.
I was not yet a toddler when Doo-Bop was released, but my overactive imagination has provided me with a compelling nostalgia-tinged mental image of what the heyday of early 90’s hip-hop music have felt like.
Just the idea of being able to turn on any radio and be able to hear Chuck D and Q-Tip spitting truth is dangerously intoxicating, and Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop, even more so than A Nation of Millions or The Low End Theory, makes that mental image feel tangible and authentic.
The week of the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, I spent most of my time wandering around either drinking or recovering from a hangover, with my earbuds blasting Chance the Rapper and Ramblin Jack Elliott, wordlessly passing fellow strangers who were equally entombed by their earbuds.
When I found myself at whichever show Jack Lion played (the details escape me at the moment) I was not in any way prepared for what I was about to witness. Those three dudes up on stage, crowded over to one side of the stage by the gear of the bands they were opening for, managed to convey something vital, spiritual, and generationally-specific in a way that I didn’t imagine was possible.
In the same way that Miles Davis’ final work captures my imagination’s sensory concept of an early-90’s New York street corner, Jack Lion’s set captured my perception’s sensory concept of the present day Iowa City street corner; the sounds and the smells and the sights all distilled into one unified piece of musical craft.
While Doo-Bop conveys a sense of community, the unifying power of a centralized media landscape dominated by radio, Jack Lion concern themselves with the alienating influence of cultural diffusion and segmentation via the Internet, the lonely reality of walking from your dorm to class and back wedged in between two minuscule earbuds. Necessarily, there is an existential sadness to Jack Lion’s music, but the more I listen to it the more I begin to discern a message of hope.
As much as it gives voice to the solitary confinement one can land in when you find yourself on the wrong side of a black mirror, it speaks to the universality of that condition. It reminds us that those fellow strangers we wordlessly pass by while entombed in our earbuds are just as entombed as we are.
Furthermore, it suggests that if we try strive to remember this, they may just cease to be fellow strangers and become, simply, fellows. Brothers and sisters trying just as hard as we are to find meaning and fulfillment in a world that is not necessarily inclined to make that an easy task.
If Doo-Bop is an approximation of what it sounded like to sit in a New York City apartment while the sounds of the city drifted up, every car driving by and every boombox parked on a stoop playing the right songs at the right moment, then Jack Lion’s music is the approximation of what it would sound like if you walked down S. Dubuque Street and every person you passed had their earbuds turned out, broadcasting their inner soundtrack out into the world at the same time in a glorious cacophony of symbiotic humanity.
Abbey & The Sawyers
More information available at the Des Moines Social Club website.