With the Miles Davis Quintet
If you scroll down the Wikipedia page of Miles Davis, you'll notice one thing in abundance: other names. If we're writing about Sugar Ray Robinson, the reason for other names is because he knocked them all out, but Miles Davis was no fighter. Boxing is a thirty-six minute battle fought by yourself, while jazz an active collaboration. The most togetherness you'll see at a boxing match happens before the fight when the star walks in with his entourage. On the other hand, even the titles of jazz albums seem to bring people together. Among albums by the Miles Davis Quintet: Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957), Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958), Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961).
There's a line we all straddle between independence and reliance on others. As kids, we're pretty much useless. We once needed someone to wipe our ass and change our diapers, so it's only right that when we learn how to live on our own, we tend to embrace that ability—but wiping your ass isn't art.
"There’s the acute awareness of history and the pursuit of personal innovation; there’s the focus on timing and delivery; there’s the craft forged in solitude, honed among peers, and finally tested before an audience demanding to be impressed." - Nate Chinen
Nate wrote the description above about two art forms that seem disconnected at first glance: comedy and jazz. There are clear differences between the two, as far as collaboration goes. Kevin Hart's next hour-long special won't include backup dancers, and you won't find jazz musicians making fun of a girl in the front row.
But I can't state that key similarity much better: they're both "honed among peers." This is why Miles Davis's Wikipedia page is filled with names other than his own. To continue evolving his style and creating new and innovative albums, he put himself around peers that helped him hone his craft. Similarly, it's no accident that Bill Burr, Patrice O'Neal, and Kevin Hart all spent time around each other early in their careers.
Though high school didn't offer many opportunities for collaboration, especially on tests—can you believe that?—I can see how other schools might do so. If you group a bunch of design students, and tell them to solve a problem, they'll learn from the experience. If students in a creative nonfiction class critique and review each other's work, they'll learn something from that, too.
Looking at my life, I've failed to create a solid community around me. I don't know many writers, and I know even fewer designers. I'm growing nonetheless, but now featured on my to-do list: build a community of creators who push me to be better, now.
Embracing the family
In the mid-1950s, Miles Davis's personal life was not going in the best direction even if he was still a plenty-talented musician. His reputation for having a short temper and being a irreverent grew, which might be due to his fascination with Sugar Ray Robinson, who was quite the rude character himself.
It's possible this was a minute part of Miles's character and didn't affect his music, but that might not be true for every harsh asshole. For example, if every time someone critiqued my work, I snapped and called them a dumbass, I wouldn't last long on any job, but that's not the worst part. The tragedy is me not learning. I wouldn't improve, and many of my mistakes would continue.
In a similar vein, let's imagine that Miles Davis, throughout the 1950s, became increasingly demanding, harsh, and distant, to the point that no other musicians wanted to work with him anymore. There's probably not much to imagine—no large body of work, no induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and no articles talking about his craft now.
Those accomplishments wouldn't have happened for two reasons. One, there would have been no more quintets and collaborations, but second, Miles Davis wouldn't have grown as a musician. He had to work with classical musicians in the late 50s to develop his style. He had to hear Bill Evans to create Kind of Blue.He had to adjust to different pianists and sounds to make the work he did.
In writing this article, I had to learn something new (wow!). I don't know shit about jazz, and I've only ever listened to one Stan Getz album that once came up on my Spotify. I'm a designer, why would I learn about jazz?
I could say that about everything. I'm this, so why learn about that? Why play chess, pick locks, or try woodworking? Why travel, why listen to music, why meet new people? I am who I am!
When it comes to traveling and meeting new people, we understand how important that is and will spend thousands of dollars to do it. But I could be doing this daily by learning about things that seem outside of my circle of competence. Goal for myself: spend some time clicking random articles on Wikipedia and learning. I'm sure I'll gain some fresh knowledge.
Clash is a good thing. Working with Gil Evans from 1957–1962, Miles Davis combined jazz and classical music in records like Porgy and Bess (1959). While I'm sure that the classical musicians felt a shock from jazz and the jazz musicians likewise, the album proved to be a quick success.
A few months later, the classical influence on Miles's music came through in Kind of Blue (1959). The success was unprecedented: Over 4 million record sales. Certified quadruple platinum. Best-selling jazz record of all time. One of the most influential albums ever recorded. More than a masterpiece, a national treasure by a vote of 409–0.
If you ask me to explain how Kind of Blue came to be, my answer wouldn't be "how" but "who and what." If asked how we landed on the the moon, invented the iPhone, or wrote the Constitution, I'd again point to a list of people and disciplines that came together.
Though you might be asking yourself different questions, this provokes me to ask, "Who and what am I combining in my next project?" If I get those two things right, I'm sure I'll create something interesting.