Davis, Miles (1926-1992)

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Davis, Miles (1926-1992)

Trumpet player Miles Davis became famous among both jazz buffs and people who know very little about the art form. He did so through a combination of intelligence, charisma, awareness of his own abilities, and a feel for the music scene rarely equaled in jazz. Some critics note that he did so with less natural technical ability than most jazz stars.

In spite of attempts to portray himself otherwise, Davis was not a street kid. Rather, he came from comfortable, upper-middle-class surroundings. His father was a dentist in East St. Louis, and his mother was a trained pianist who taught school. Miles grew up listening to classical and popular music. In common with many teens of his day, he played in the school band and worked in a jazz combo around town. Davis learned quickly from older musicians, and many took a liking to a young man they all described as "shy" and "withdrawn." Shy and withdrawn as he may have been, young Davis found the audacity to ask Billy Eckstine to sit in with his band. By all accounts, Davis was "awful," but the musicians saw something special beneath the apparently shy exterior and limited technical ability.

In 1945 Davis went to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. In a typical move, he tracked down Charlie "Bird" Parker and moved in with him. Bird sponsored Davis's career and used him on recordings and with his working band from time to time. Certainly, this work aided Davis in getting jobs with Benny Carter's band and then taking Fats Navarro's chair in the Eckstine band. In 1947 Davis was back with Bird and stayed with him for a year and a half. Although he still was not the most proficient trumpet player on the scene, Davis was attracting his own following and learning with each experience. It was, however, becoming obvious that his future fame would not be based on playing in the Dizzy Gillespie style so many other young trumpeters were imitating and developing.

In 1949 Davis provided a clear indication of his future distinctive style and pattern. He emerged as the leader of a group of Claude Thornhill's musicians, and from that collaboration sprang Birth of the Cool and the style of jazz named after it. That Davis, still in his early twenties, would assume leadership of the group that boasted Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and others was in itself remarkable, but that he had successfully switched styles and assumed leadership of the style that he did much to shape was a pattern he repeated throughout his life.

Unfortunately, Davis's heroin addiction became the predominant force in his life, and for the next few years he did little artistically. Stories about his wrecked life circulated in the jazz world, which Davis confronted in his 1990 autobiography. Whether Clifford Brown actually did blow Miles off the stage and scare him straight, which Davis denied, depends upon whose version one believes. The fact is that the challenge of young giants like Brownie, who was Davis's opposite in so many ways, did stir up Davis's pride and led to his kicking his habit.

By 1954 Miles was back and heading toward the most artistically successful years of his life. The Davis style was fully matured; that style of the 1950s and early 1960s was marked by use of the Harmon mute, half valves, soft and fully rounded tones, reliance on the middle register, snatches of exquisite melodic composition, and general absence of rapid-fire runs. Davis attributed his sound to Freddie Webster, a St. Louis trumpet master, and his use of space to Ahmad Jamal, a pianist of great genius.

In the mid-1950s Davis pioneered the funk movement with songs like "Walkin'." He kept his own rather cool approach, accentuated by unparalled use of the Harmon mute while typically surrounding himself with "hotter" players, such as Jackie McClean or Sonny Rollins. In 1955 the style came together with his "classic" quintet at the Newport Jazz Festival, where the quintet's enormous success led to a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, reputedly making Davis the highest paid jazz artist in history. The Miles Davis Quintet, consisting of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on Drums, and Red Garland on piano, was a band of all-stars and the stuff of which jazz legends are made. With the addition of Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, the sextet was able to use combinations and colorations that shaped the course of modern jazz. Above it all was the ultimate personification of cool, Milestones and Bye, Bye, Blackbird pointing the way to Miles's next experiments.

Davis's 1958 Paris recording of the music for The Elevator to the Gallows was a high point in his career. His use of unexpected note placement leading to suspended rhythms and simple harmonic structures led logically into the use of modes or scalar improvisation. (In modal improvisation the improviser uses one or two modes as the basis for improvisation rather than changing chord/scales each measure or even more frequently.) John Coltrane had taken that style to its logical conclusion, developing the work of Gillespie at a frantic pace. Davis had never been comfortable with playing at frantic speeds.

Kind of Blue, which featured Bill Evans on a number of cuts, fueled the modal explosion in jazz. Considered one of the finest jazz albums ever made, it was a commercial success, and Davis continued to use compositions from the album over a long period of his career. He did not, however, exclusively feature modal tunes in his repertoire. In fact, it should be noted that Davis never totally dropped one style as he moved on to another one. And the challenge of Free Jazz was about to launch him into another phase of his career, a series of records with his friend Gil Evans featuring a big band. The first album, which some consider the best, was Sketches of Spain, featuring "Concierto." Davis did not abandon his small group career, although he did frequently perform with a big band and recorded more albums in that format, including Porgy and Bess, featuring the marvelous "Summertime."

By 1964 Davis was ready to change again. His albums were not selling as they once had. They were receiving excellent reviews, but they were not reaching the pop audience. Davis still refused to try the Free Jazz route of Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman or even of his former colleague, John Coltrane. Davis was more inclined to reach out for the audience his friend Sly Stone had cultivated—the huge rock audience, including young blacks. It was at this point that Davis, already possessing something of a reputation as a "bad dude," truly developed his image of a nasty street tough. He had always turned his back on audiences and refused to announce compositions or performers, but now he exaggerated that image and turned to fusion.

Beginning in 1967 with Nefertiti and following in 1968 with Filles de Kilimanjaro, Davis began incorporating rock elements into his work. He used Chick Corea on electric piano and replaced his veterans with other younger men, including Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. The success of these records, although somewhat short of his expectations, forced Miles to explore the genre further. That led to his use of John McLaughlin on In a Silent Way in 1969 and the all-out fusion album, Bitches Brew, the same year. Bitches Brew, which introduced rock listeners to jazz, marked a point of no return for Davis. The 1970s were a period that led to great popular success for his group. Davis changed his clothing and performing styles. He affected the attire of the pop music star, appeared at Fillmore East and West, attracted young audiences, attached an electric amp mike to his horn, and strode the stage restlessly.

For a period of years, he stopped performing, and rumors once again surfaced regarding his condition. In the early 1980s Davis made a successful comeback with a funk-oriented group. This was a different sort of funk, however, from "Walkin"' and his other 1950s successes. He was still able to recruit fine talent from among young musicians, as saxophonist Kenny Garett attests. As the 1980s came to an end, however, Davis's loyal jazz followers saw only a few sparks of the Miles Davis whom they revered. There were, however, enough of these sparks to fuel the hope that Davis might just once more play in his old style.

Finally, at the Montreux Festival of 1992, Quincey Jones convinced Davis to relive the work he had done with Gil Evans. Davis had some fears about performing his old hits, but as he rehearsed those fears subsided, and the documentary based on that performance, as well as the video and CD made of it, demonstrate that he gained in confidence as he performed. While not quite the Davis of the 1950s and 1960s, he was "close enough for jazz." These performances as well as the soundtrack of Dingo have gone far to fuel the jazz fans' lament for what might have been. They display a Davis filled with intelligence, wit, and emotion who responds to the love of his audience and who is for once at ease with his own inner demons.

The rest of the Montreux performance featured Miles Davis with members from his various groups over the years. The range of the groups offered proof of Davis's versatility and his self-knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses. After the festival, Davis performed in a group with his old friend Jackie McClean. Rumors persist of tapes they made in Europe which have not yet surfaced commercially. In December 1992, Davis died of pneumonia, leaving a rich legacy of music and enough fuel for controversy to satisfy jazz fans for many years.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Carner, Gary, ed. The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. New York, Schimer Books, 1994.

Chamber, Jack. Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. New York, Da Capo, 1996.

Cole, Bill. Miles Davis: The Early Years. New York, Da Capo, 1994.

Davis, Miles, and Quincey Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York, Touchstone Books, 1990.

Kirchner, Bill, ed. A Miles Davis Reader: Smithsonian Readers in American Music. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Nisenson, Eric. Around about Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis. New York, Da Capo, 1996.