Birth of the cool

Music - Jazz needs to rid itself of its obsession with its greatest icon

Fourteen years after his death, Miles Davis lingers around jazz - a word he came to despise - like an unrepentant ghost. His legacy on record is rich, eventful and compelling, an over-view of the music of his times, from bebop through to the fusion of the 1970s and 1980s. But now that that period is over, Davis is as historical in his way as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington.

Unlike those men, however, the trumpeter will not settle into the past. His records still outperform recent offerings: Kind of Blue (1959) remains on jazz bestseller lists, and turns up all over the place as a staple of hip easy listening. Columbia, his record company from 1955, continues to ransack its archives for every last morsel of Miles music: The Cellar Door Sessions, six discs of mostly unreleased music from a live engagement in 1970, will be appearing early next year.

More extraordinary still is the way his shadow falls over so much current jazz, a genre that is supposed to thrive on fresh, spontaneous invention. Albums such as Bitches Brew and On the Corner should be old hat by now as sources of ideas, yet they are regularly cited as inspirational by musicians who weren't born when they were made. Musicians and critics speak reverently of "Miles" - as if we were all on familiar terms with this difficult, suspicious man, as if he were still among us.

Davis was always a bundle of contradictions. His trumpet style was forged in the hothouse of bebop, yet was even-voiced, inward-looking, a quiet middleweight timbre that calmly countered the flash of his contemporaries. A middle-class man from an affluent family, he enjoyed privilege and celebrity for most of his adult life, yet was obsessed with racism and its humbling impact on even successful blacks. Friends and lovers were bewitched by his charisma, but he could be brutal and abusive to those closest to him.

Davis's iconic status has perhaps not done contemporary jazz many favours. Since his death, the jazz scene has lacked real celebrities. Its most famous artists currently - Wynton Marsalis, Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins - appear sober and almost bookish alongside Davis, who belonged to an era when jazz musicians stood for depravity (he was in thrall to narcotics for much of his adult life). The biggest concert draws today are musicians who were themselves Davis sidemen, such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. One of London's premier concert halls regards ex-Davis players as the only likely sell-out attractions it can muster for its jazz programmes.

This is partly due to jazz's perennial struggle to come to terms with the more visceral excitements of rock, which first started stealing audiences around the time Davis was making Kind of Blue. The impeccable, distilled music-making which that record represents could hardly compete with what lay ahead in the 1960s and 1970s. Unhindered by the commercial imperatives that attend popular music, jazz has proceeded on an unusually "pure" path ever since. Davis, himself jealous of the audiences that Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone attracted, was the link between jazz's artistic Olympus and its commercial aspirations. Yet the muddled output of his final years suggests how difficult it was for him to remain himself but still make "hits" of any sort.

The irony is that the CD era, which was going into overdrive around the time of his death, proved how durable Davis's virtues were. The great quintet records of the 1950s, the collaborations with Gil Evans on Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, and the enigmatic music of the 1960s made with Hancock and Wayne Shorter - all were rediscovered, and the musician with one of the deepest catalogues in jazz became commercial again, even though he was no longer around. In recent years, the industry has obsessively repackaged both the essential and the unremarkable minutiae of a career that was largely spent in front of recording microphones, both legitimate and unauthorised.

Davis's legacy is marvellous and enduring, but as with Presley or the Beatles, it needs to be seen and heard in the context of its time. Miles himself always repudiated efforts to get him to play "the old shit", as he usually referred to his previous music, insisting that the only way on was forward: even at the Montreux concert a few weeks before his death, where he performed some of the ancient Gil Evans arrangements with an orchestra led by Quincy Jones, the adoring cast of crit- ics and admirers who assembled clearly enjoyed the experience far more than the ill-tempered and heedless soloist. Davis has a glorious past to celebrate: jazz needs its own, different future.

Richard Cook's It's About That Time: Miles Davis on and off record is published by Atlantic Books (£14.99). The Cellar Door Sessions is released by Sony BMG Music/Columbia/Legacy in January