Davis, Miles (actually, Dewey III)

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Davis, Miles (actually, Dewey III)

Davis, Miles (actually, Dewey III) , innovative American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer; b. Alton, 111., May 25, 1926; d. Santa Monica, Calif., Sept. 28, 1991. Though Davis maintained the same restrained, intimate approach to his trumpet playing throughout his career, the contexts in which he played could hardly have been more varied, and he triggered a series of stylistic developments in jazz. A central figure in the bebop scene of the 1940s, he pioneered the cool style of the 1950s, undertook orchestral experiments with arranger Gil Evans at the end of that decade, led the premier small jazz group of the 1960s, and initiated the jazz-and-rock hybrid of fusion music in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His appeal transcended jazz to the extent that he placed 28 albums in the pop charts between 1961 and 1992, his most ovsuccessful recording, Bitches Brew, being one of his most challenging.

As the son of Dr. Miles Dewey Davis Jr., a dental surgeon, and Cleota Mae Henry Davis, a former music teacher, Davis had a comfortable upbringing in East St. Louis, where the family moved when he was an infant. He began taking trumpet lessons at 12, his principal teacher being Elwood Buchanon, and played in his high school band. By 1941 he was playing professionally with Eddie Randall’s group in St. Louis. In 1944 he sat in with Billy Eckstine’s band for two weeks, encountering bebop masters Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and after graduating from high school he moved to N.Y. to attend the Juilliard School of Music but spent much of his time playing in clubs with Parker. He had left behind Irene Davis, his common-law wife, who later joined him in N.Y.; they had three children.

Davis left Juilliard in 1945 and joined Benny Carter’s band. He made his first recordings that year as a sideman with Charlie Parker. He played with Billy Eckstine’s band in 1946–47 and with Parker’s group in 1947–48. He made his first recordings under his own name in 1947 with a quintet that included Parker. In 1948 he organized a nine-piece group featuring instruments unusual to jazz, such as French horn and tuba, and using unusual arrangements by Gil Evans and others. The group played very few shows, but it did a series of recordings for Capitol Records later compiled by the label into the 1957 album Birth of the Cool, music that fostered the post-bebop style of more relaxed cool jazz.

Davis’s progress was interrupted in the late 1940s by his addiction to heroin, which made him only an intermittent presence in jazz for the first half of the 1950s, though he recorded frequently for the independent Prestige Records label. By 1954 he had succeeded in giving up heroin, and he made a strong comeback with an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 that convinced the major label Columbia Records to sign him.

Davis organized a permanent group featuring saxophonist John Coltrane and made a series of recordings in the late 1950s that propelled jazz into new directions. With the group, these included the modal experiment Kind of Blue (1959), a critically acclaimed album that became a perennial seller. He also teamed again with Gil Evans for a series of recordings with a larger studio group, including Miles Ahead (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), and Sketches of Spain (1960). The attention given these recordings may be illustrated by the recognition given them by NARAS. Miles Ahead was enrolled in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Sketches of Spain won Davis and Evans a Grammy for Best Jazz Composition, while Davis also earned a nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Large Group, for the album. (He also earned a nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Small Group, for the album Jazz Track, which contained music from his score for the film UAscenseur pour I’Echafaud [Elevator to the Gallows].) Davis and Evans also earned Grammy nominations in the large group jazz performance category in 1962 for M.D. at Carnegie Hall and in 1964 for Quiet Nights, and in 1996 the box set compilation The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of all the Da vis/Evans collaborations won the Grammy for Best Historical Album.

On Dec. 21, 1960, Davis married Frances Taylor, a dancer; they later divorced. Coltrane left the group, but Davis continued to perform and record extensively with changing personnel in his band. In 1961, M. D. in Person (Friday & Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco), a double live album, became his first to reach the pop charts. He earned another Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Large Group, for Seven Steps to Heaven in 1963. That year he assembled most of the members of what is generally considered his greatest group: drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter, and pianist Herbie Hancock, joined the following year by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. With this group he largely abandoned playing standards in favor of originals, usually written by members of the group. He earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Small Group, for M. D. in Europe in 1964.

The Davis quintet of the mid-1960s made a series of highly regarded albums including E. S. P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1967; Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Small Group), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertitti (1968), Miles in the Sky (1968; Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Small Group), and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969). Appreciated by jazz fans, these albums did not reach the pop charts. Davis had begun to experiment with electrified instruments by 1968, and in 1969In a Silent Way employed electric keyboards played by Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as electric guitar by John McLaughlin; it earned a small group jazz performance Grammy nomination and returned Davis to the pop charts for the first time in more than four years. With the demise of the quintet (all of whose members became bandleaders themselves), he moved toward a closer association between jazz and rock music.

The result was Bitches Brew (March 1970), a double album of jazz-rock that went gold, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement, and won Davis his second Grammy for Large Group Jazz Performance. It also alienated traditional jazz fans. For the next five years Davis recorded extensively in his new style, creating such chart albums as M.D. at Fillmore East (1970; Grammy nomination), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971; soundtrack to the film Jack Johnson), Live-Evil (1971), On the Corner (1972), In Concert (1973), Big Fun (1974), and Get Up with It (1974), most of them double albums containing lengthy compositions, them-selves edited down from even longer performances to fit onto LPs. In the meantime, several of his former sidemen formed bands in the new fusion style: Corea’s Return to Forever, Zawinul and Shorter’s Weather Report, and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orch.

Davis eventually was overcome by injury and illness. He broke both ankles in a car accident in October 1972, and in late 1975 he underwent surgery for hip replacement. He was out of action for the next several years. In November 1981 he married actress Cicely Tyson; they divorced in 1989. He finally returned to music in 1981, by which time opinion about his work had calmed, but also solidified. Traditional jazz fans disdained him, but he continued to find favor with more general music fans.

In the last decade of his life, Davis performed regularly on the music festival circuit and recorded a series of albums that usually sold well enough to reach the pop charts for a few weeks and earned Grammy nominations, especially in the jazz fusion category that had been created in his absence. They included:The Man with the Horn (1981), We Want Miles (1982; Grammy winner for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Soloist), Star People (1983), Decoy (1984), You’re Under Arrest (1985), Tutu (1986; his first album under a new contract with Warner Bros. Records; Grammy winner for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance), Music from Siesta (1988; a soundtrack), Amandla (1989), Aura (recorded in 1984, released by Columbia in 1989; Grammy winner for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Soloist [on a Jazz Recording]), and The Hot Spot (1990; soundtrack performed with John Lee Hooker and others).

During his final concert appearance, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on July 8, 1991, Davis surprisingly agreed to re-create recordings with Gil Evans of Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess in combination with a band conducted by Quincy Jones. Less than three months later, he died of pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke at 65. In 1992, Warner Bros, released Doo-Bop, his final studio album, on which he performed with rapper Easy Mo Bee. It won him his sixth Grammy, for Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance. He won his seventh Grammy along with Quincy Jones for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance for Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux.


With Q. Troupe, M.: The Autobiography (N.Y., 1989).


Birth of the Cool (1957); Miles Ahead (1957); ]azz Track (1958); Kind of Blue (1959); Porgy and Bess (1959); Sketches of Spain (1960); Miles Davis in Person (1961); Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (1962); Seven Steps to Heaven (1963); Miles Davis in Europe (1964); Quiet Nights (1964); E. S. P. (1965); Miles Smiles (1967); Sorcerer (1967); Nefertitti (1968); Miles in the Sky (1968); Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969); In a Silent Way (1969); Bitches Brew (1970); Miles Davis at Fillmore East (1970); A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971); Live-Evil (1971); On the Comer (1972); In Concert (1973); Big Fun (1974); Get Up with It (1974); The Man with the Horn (1981); We Want Miles (1982); Star People (1983); Decoy (1984); You’re Under Arrest (1985); Tutu (1986); Music from Siesta (1988); Amandla (1989); Aura (recorded in 1984; released in 1989); The Hot Spot (1990); Miles &Quincy Live at Montreux (1991); Doo-Bop (1992); The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (with Gil Evans; 1996).


M. James, M. D. (London, 1961); B. Cole, M. D.:A Musical Biography (N.Y., 1974; repr., as M.D.: The Early Years, N.Y., 1994); I. Carr, M. D.:A Critical Biography (London, 1982; U.S. edv 1982, as M. D.:A Biography)- E. Nisenson, ’Round About Midnight: A Portrait ofM. D. (N.Y., 1982); J. Chambers, Milestones 1: The Music and Times of M. D. to 1960 (Toronto, 1983); Chambers, Milestones 2: The Music and Times ofM. D. Since 1960 (Toronto, 1985); B. McRae, M. D. (London, 1988); D. Long, M. D. for Beginners (N.Y., 1992); G. Carner, ed., The M. D. Companion: Four Decades of Commentary (N.Y., 1996); B. Kirchner, ed., A M. D. Reader (Washington, D.C., 1997).

—William Ruhlmann