Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 - September 26, 1991) was an American jazz composer, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist and was one of the most influential, innovative and original musicians of the twentieth century.
In terms of importance to the history of jazz, few knowledgeable critics would balk at describing him as an innovative genius with an unmistakeable style and an unmatched musical range. Stylistically, his vast catalogue encompasses bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz and jazz-rock fusion, and he was a pivotal figure in the evolution of the latter three. His recordings, along with the live performances of his many seminal bands, were vital in jazz's increased artistic acceptance and, as well as an innovator, he was a populariser, with a languid, melodic style that was more readily comprehensible to non-jazz fans than the hard bebop that had preceded it.
Davis is the latest, and perhaps the last, in the line of supremely innovative and influential jazz trumpeters that starts with Buddy Bolden and runs on through Joe King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie. Davis has been compared to Duke Ellington as a musical innovator. Both were skillful players on their instruments, but not virtuosos. Both expressed their musical ideas more as bandleaders, although Davis soloed much more than Ellington. Both tailored their compositions to the players in their bands.
Davis was born (as Miles Dewey Davis III) into a relatively wealthy African-American family, being the son of Miles Davis II, a successful East St. Louis dentist. His mother Cleo, a capable pianist, wanted him to learn the violin but, for his 13th birthday, his father bought him a trumpet. Davis took to it immediately, and by age 15 he was playing in public with band leader Eddie Randall and studying under local trumpeter Elwood Buchanan. Against the fashion of the time, Buchanan stressed the importance of playing without vibrato, and Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career.
In 1945, after having graduated from high school and playing for a brief time with Charlie Parker in Billy Eckstine's band, he moved to New York City ostensibly to take up a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music. In reality, however, he neglected his studies and immediately set about tracking down his heroes: amongst them Parker, Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins.
By 1948 he had served his apprenticeship as a sideman, both on stage and record, and a recording career of his own was beginning to blossom. Davis began to work with a nonet that featured unusual instrumentation such as french horn and tuba. The nonet featured a young Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. After some gigs at New York's Royal Roost, Davis was signed by Capitol Records. The nonet released several singles in 1949 and 1950 featuring arrangements by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis. This began his collaboration with Evans, with whom he would collaborate on many of his major works over the next twenty years. The sides saw only limited release until 1957, when they were released as the album Birth of the Cool.
Playing in the jazz clubs of New York, Davis was in frequent contact with users and dealers of illegal drugs and by 1950, in common with many of his contemporaries, he had developed a serious heroin addiction, possibly aggravated by the lukewarm reception his first personal recordings had received. For the first part of that decade, although he gigged a great deal and played many sessions, they were mostly uninspired and it seemed that his talent was going to waste. No one was more aware of this than Davis himself, and in 1954 he returned to East St. Louis and, with the help and encouragement of his father, he kicked heroin, literally locking himself away from society until free of the drug.
He returned to New York reinvigorated, and formed the first great incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet. This band would feature the young John Coltrane, originally on tenor (and later soprano) saxophone and, at times, such luminaries as Sonny Rollins (tenor sax) and Charles Mingus (bass). Musically, the band picked up where Davis' late forties sessions had left off. Eschewing the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of the prevalent bebop, Davis was allowed the space to play long, legato and essentially melodic lines, in which he would begin to explore modal music, his lifelong obsession.
These records, beginning with Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, would, together with the 1948 "Birth Of The Cool" recordings, serve to define the sound of cool jazz, which would be one of the dominant trends in the music over the next decade and beyond. While the rest of the musical establishment were still coming to terms with Davis' innovations, he himself had moved on. Reunited with Gil Evans he recorded a series of albums of stunning variety and complexity, showing his mastery of his instrument in almost every musical context. The first, Miles Ahead (1957) showed his playing with a traditional jazz big band, with a driven horn section beautifully arranged by Evans. As well as jazz tunes (which included Dave Brubeck's "The Duke") the pair also tackled Leo Delibes' "The Maids Of Cadiz", the first time Davis had recorded a piece of European classical music.
Milestones (1958) captured the sound of his current sextet, which now comprised Davis, Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley (alto sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Musically, it encompasses both the past and the future of jazz. Davis shows that he can play blues and bebop (ably assisted by 'Trane), but the centerpiece is the title track, a Davis composition centred on the Dorian and Aeolian modes and featuring the free improvisatory modal style that Davis would make his own. Later the same year Davis and Evans' free arrangement of George Gershwin's Porgy And Bess, the framework of Gershwin's tunes providing ample space for Davis to improvise, showing his mastery of variations and expansions of the original themes as well as his original melodic ideas.
Kind of Blue
In March 1959 Davis re-entered the studio with a new quintet, comprising Coltrane, Adderley and Chambers with Jimmy Cobb (drums) and Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly alternating on piano, to record what is widely held as his masterpiece. Recorded in just two sessions, and improvised by the band about skeletal harmonic frameworks sketched by Davis and Kelly, Kind Of Blue would revolutionise jazz. Stripped of the rhythmic strictures that had driven his previous work and masterfully supported by the band, Davis had sufficient space to expand his new harmonic and melodic ideas, and the sidemen proved themselves more than equal to the task. Amongst the best selling jazz albums of all time, and still widely hailed as the greatest, it seemed that Kind Of Blue had a lasting influence on every musician, jazz or otherwise who heard it, and it still stands as an equal to any of the world's pivotal musical works.
The same year, whilst taking a break outside the famous "Birdland" club in New York City, Davis was beaten by the New York police, and subsequently arrested. Believing the assault to have been racially motivated he attempted to pursue the case in the courts, before eventually dropping the proceedings. Such treatment was markedly at odds from his treatment outside the US, and especially on his regular European tours, where he was fêted by society.
After an extensive tour behind Kind Of Blue, Davis took a break from his quintet. Characteristically looking for something different, he turned to arranger Gil Evans for help with his next work. Returning to their mutual interest in classical music which had first born fruit on Miles Ahead, Evans arranged a version of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concerto de Aranjuez" for Davis. Married to four other pieces, Rodrigo's work provided the centrepiece of Sketches Of Spain (1960).
Throughout the early 1960s Davis continued his prodigious output, undaunted by the loss of Coltrane to a solo career. His last contributions appeared on 1961's Someday My Prince Will Come, a collection often overlooked due to its legendary predecessors. Further fine studio recordings, such as Seven Steps To Heaven (1963) and My Funny Valentine (1964), were interspersed with further with live recordings (In Person (1961), At The Carnegie Hall (1962) and In Europe (1964)) featuring his evolving touring band.
By the time of ESP (1965) the lineup, Davis' second great quintet and the last of his acoustic bands, consisted of Wayne Shorter (saxophone, replacing George Coleman), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums), Ron Carter (bass), and Miles himself. There followed a series of strong studio recordings: Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968) and Filles de Kilamanjaro (1968). The last two of these clearly pointed the way to the subsequent fusion phase in Davis' output. A two-night Chicago gig by this band is captured on the 8-CD set The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965 released in 2002.
Influenced by rock and vice versa
As the late 60s progressed, Miles found himself increasingly influenced by the sound and attitude of funk and rock music, not to mention the financial rewards rock stars were obtaining, again in marked contrast to Davis' own experience. Davis and his band began increasingly to use electric instruments in performance and to use electronic effects, multi-tracking, and extensive editing on their recordings. By the time In A Silent Way was recorded in February 1969, Davis had replaced his acoustic quintet with an all-electric band, featuring such talents as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and the young John McLaughlin. That record, and its successor, Bitches Brew, saw the first truly successful amalgamations of jazz with rock music, laying the ground work for the genre that would become known simply as fusion. These records, while groundbreaking, were not as great a commercial success. His new sound drove away many of his former fans, but the music, perhaps due to its great complexity, did not find a great following among the fans of progressive rock whom Davis had hoped to attract. The latter was sufficiently popular, however to make it into the Billboard popular album charts.
1970 saw Davis contribute extensively to the soundtrack of a documentary about the great African-American boxer, Jack Johnson. A devotee of boxing, Davis drew parallels between Johnson, whose career had been defined by the fruitless search for a Great White Hope to dethrone him, and Davis' own career, in which he felt the establishment had prevented him from receiving the acclaim and rewards that were due him. Regardless, Davis refused to be confined by the expectation of his audience and continued to explore the possibilities of his new band. On The Corner (1972) showed a seemingly effortless grasp of funk without sacrificing the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic nuance that had been present throughout his entire career.
By the mid-seventies, his previous rate of production was falling. Get Up With It (1975) was a collection of outtakes and studio recording from the previous five years, which included "He Loved Him Madly", a fine tribute to Duke Ellington. Critics concurred, however, that the album had rather too many underdeveloped ideas. Excluding an assortment of live recordings, its release saw Davis enter retirement. Troubled by chronic pain from years of physical abuse, a serious kidney complaint, diabetes, a renewed dependence on heroin and cocaine and again at odds with the law, Davis withdrew almost completely from the public eye.
While convalescing, Davis saw the fusion music that he had spearheaded over the past decade firmly entered the mainstream. Whether played by Davis' many protégés, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, or bands such as Weather Report, Davis' influence could be heard everywhere, as it could after each of his previous revolutionary advances.
Davis absented himself from the music industry for five years. For much of the early part he was seriously ill, but by the beginning of the 1980s he was back in good health and ready to assemble a new band.
Return to performance
As ever, Miles assembled his bands from among the finest musicians available, including the saxophonist Bill Evans (no relation to the pianist) and a young bass player called Marcus Miller, who would become one of his most regular collaborators through the decade. The first studio album The Man With The Horn (1981) was relatively poorly received. The same year, Davis prepared to tour again and formed a touring band largely different from those who'd played on the album. In May they played two dates as part of the Newport Jazz Festival and the concerts, and the live recording We Want Miles from the ensuing tour, were well reviewed.
By the time of Star People (1983) his band included John Scofield on guitar, with whom Davis worked closely on both that record and 1984's Decoy, an underdeveloped, experimental mixture of soul music and electronica. Despite the mixed quality of much of his recorded output, live Davis was still capable of moments, and entire concerts, of great inspiration. With a seven piece band, including Scofield, Evans, drummer Al Foster and bassist Darryl Jones (later of The Rolling Stones), he played a series of European gigs to rapturous receptions. While in Europe he took part in the recording of Aura, a orchestral tribute to Davis composed by the Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.
Back in the studio, You're Under Arrest (1985) included another stylistic detour; interpretations of contemporary pop songs in Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", for which he would receive much criticism in the jazz press, although the record was otherwise well reviewed. It would also be his final album for Columbia, due to the long term deterioration of his relationship with the label.
Having first taken part in the Artists United Against Apartheid recording, Davis signed with Warner Brothers records, and reunited with Marcus Miller. The resulting record, 1986's Tutu, would be his first to feature the modern studio tools -- programmed synthesisers, samples and drum loops -- to create an entirely new setting for Davis' playing. Ecstatically reviewed on its release, the album would frequently be stylistically compared to a modern version of the classic Sketches Of Spain and won a Grammy award in 1987.
He followed Tutu with the soundtracks to two movies "Street Smart" and "Siesta", with neither the films nor Davis' scores being particularly noteworthy, but he continued to tour with a band of constantly rotating personnel and his critical stock at a level higher than it had been for 15 years.
Miles Davis continued to tour and perform regularly through the last years of his life, before succumbing to a stroke in February 1991. He is interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
In 1987 Davis attended a reception in honor of Ray Charles at Ronald Reagan's White House. A Washington society lady, seated next to him, asked him what he had done to be invited. "Well," Davis replied, "I've changed music four or five times. What have you done of any importance other than be white?"
Miles Davis Discography
Sons of Miles: Interviews and profiles with Miles Davis and musicians influenced by him
Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis - Jack Chambers (ISBN 0-306-80849-8)
Miles: The Autobiography with Quincy Trope (ISBN 0-671-63504-2)
Miles Davis - Ian Carr. The definitive, exhaustively researched biography (ISBN 0006530265)
Other musicians who played with Miles Davis
Self-taught Brazilian pianist Hermeto Pascoal appears on Live-Evil
Jackie McLean recorded his first jazz sides with Davis