Miles Davis and John Coltrane are commonly considered to be two of the greatest musicians of their time. Innovators, performers and artists, they contributed significantly to both the music and culture of mid-20th century America, at a time when civil rights was a hot-button issue and popular culture itself was experiencing a crossroads. The free jazz movement started in the late 1940s, as jazz musicians began to experiment with world music influences and other genres, creating new opportunities for composition and performance. While Miles Davis helped develop the concepts of cool jazz, both he and John Coltrane were extremely influential in developing what would become hard bop and modal jazz (Gioia, 1997). Together, they helped to reshape the music of 1950s America through the free jazz movement, and become influential figures in the civil rights movement as well.
Davis was one of the pioneers of modal jazz, along with John Coltrane. Davis contributed to the subgenre through his 1968 composition "Milestones" (on the album of the same name) and his album Kind of Blue in 1959. "Milestones" is the first example of Davis improvising and composing modally, as the song switches between progressions of G minor and A minor modes. The reliance on modes instead of chord changes innovated the way musicians performed solos, as the soloist is freed up to merely work within the mode to create new variations in melody and rhythm. Coltrane, meanwhile, contributed to the genre of modal jazz through his work with his jazz quartet, from 1960 to 1964. (Martin and Waters, 2008). In his song "Impressions," like Davis' "So What," modal scales are used to write the songs, allowing for greater possibilities for improvisation. In the case of "Impressions" and "So What", both songs are set in the Dorian mode, with an AABA structure.
In addition to their influences in the world of music, their works were heavily influential in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Through the kind of experimentation and improvisation that was occurring within the free jazz movement as a whole (and on a smaller extent through each of the aforementioned subgenres of cool jazz, hard bop and modal jazz), Davis and Coltrane transitioned their musical styles outside their race. The popularity of jazz as an art form and a vital part of American culture turned the two artists, by extension, into prominent civil rights figures - these were important black culture-makers, and by popularizing these free jazz forms, they were also showing symbolic resistance to the segregated and prejudiced political climate in which they lived. The level of improvisation that went into all of these compositions became vital symbols for the kind of civil disobedience that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement, as a necessity for change. Davis and Coltrane were getting people used to the unfamiliar, in order to spearhead social change towards a more racially equitable society (Farrah and Washington, 2008). Their financial and critical success along their musical career allowed them to set examples as prominent, wealthy and influential black men in a critical aspect of popular culture - music.
In conclusion, Miles Davis and John Coltrane proved themselves to be extremely important figures in the free jazz and civil rights movements. Their compositions contributed heavily to the shape and influence of cool jazz, hard bop and modal jazz, and their work together in the Miles Davis Quintet cemented their sense of collaboration on these influences (Gioia, 1997). Furthermore, their vital work innovating and popularizing jazz through experimentation and fusion of genre was an important symbol for the civil rights movement. Their importance as cultural figures and notable members of the music industry, who were also unafraid to experiment and try new things, was important at a time when black rights and agency were more contentious than ever. Their status as symbols for the cultural contributions of African-Americans is not to be underlooked, as they represented the ability for music, like culture, to change.
Gioia, Ted.. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Griffin, Farrah J. and Salim Washington. Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John
Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008.
Martin, Henry, and Keith Waters. Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years, 2008.