How Miles Davis’ Jazz Taught Me To Write More Simple Potent Sentences
The Jazz Giant’s Unintended Lessons in Literary Brevity
If Miles Davis’s midcentury trumpet solos can be described by a single phrase, it might be “doing more with less.” Despite his renown, Davis wasn’t a flashy or highly technical player during the late 1950s and early ’60s. He was melodic and economical, and his approach can teach prose writers a lot about the power of concision, suggestion and space.
It’s difficult to characterize music in simple, sweeping terms. Davis explored numerous styles in a catalog that spanned decades; change defined him as much as his Harmon mute. But in the 1950s he started moving away from the early bebop of his mentor and band mate Charlie Parker to explore a leaner sound. Rather than squeezing as many notes and changes into solos as possible, Davis dispensed with clutter and ornamentation and pared his mode of expression down to one defined as much by the notes and phrases he played as by the silences left between them. As the critic Stanley Crouch once observed: “Part of his genius as a musician was that he edited what he heard Charlie Parker play.”
Where David Foster Wallace showed writers like me the possibilities of labyrinthine stories and digressions, Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose. Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.
Many writers fall prey to the quintessential American notion that bigger is better. They overload their sentences, adding more adjectives, more descriptions, more component phrases, tangents and appositives to form sprawling, syntactical centipedes (like this one) whose many segments and exhausting procession repeat themselves and say the same thing in different ways, with different words, and exhibit an entire ideology: that prose’s sensory and poetic impacts exist in direct proportion to the concentration of words. I know: I succumbed.
For many years I was impressed by flamboyant displays like the 255-word sentence in the journalist Marshall…