“The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to invent new ways to play, if you’re gonna ad lib and be what they call a jazz musician,” Miles Davis told down beat. Using that criterion, Davis is perhaps the consummate jazz artist of all time. During a career that began in the late forties and is still going strong, he has been the spearhead of at least five different stages in music: hard bop, cool jazz, orchestral jazz, modal improvising, and fusion.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 25, 1926; his family moved to East St Louis a year later. Davis’s father, Miles II, was a dental surgeon who raised his family in a middle class atmosphere that stressed the importance of money. After receiving a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday, Davis began taking lessons from a local teacher named Buchanan. It was at this early stage that Davis acquired his trademark sound characterized by the lack of vibrato. In just two years he had joined the musicians union and was working in a St Louis band led by Eddie Randall called the Blue Devils.
Like his mentor at the time, Clark Terry, Davis began using a Heim mouthpiece, which produces a higher quality tone but is much more difficult to play. His sound was gaining recognition in jazz circles, and before he was out of high school Davis was earning $85.00 a week gigging with pianist ‘Duke’ St. Clare Brooks’s group. The Billy Eckstine Band, featuring Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, was in town for a two-week stint and asked Davis to sit in with them. The experience wetted his appetite for a shot at the Big Apple and the chance to play with the jazz heavy-weights.
His mother, recognizing her son’s musical talent, yet fully aware of the difficult life of a jazzman, agreed to let him go to New York, but only if he would attend the Juilliard School of Music to study the classics. Davis was already a husband and a father by now (having been married at age 17), and after graduation, he and his wife and child left for the East Coast. Davis began juggling his time between strict lessons at Juilliard and free-style jam sessions in the nightclubs of 52nd Street. At Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem he met Freddy Webster, a trumpeter who would have an enormous impact on the youngster. “I used to love what he did to a note,” Davis said in Esquire.”He didn’t play a lot of notes; he didn’t waste any. I used to try to get his sound…. Freddie was my best friend. I wanted to play like him.”
Davis felt that he already knew what was being taught at Juilliard and decided to drop out and concentrate solely on jazz. On May 4, 1945, he played on his first recording session with sax man Herbie Fields, and years later he would tell down beat that “I was too nervous to play, and I only performed in the ensembles
Full name, Miles Dewey Davis III; born May 25, 1926, in Alton, III. ; son of Miles Davis II (a dental surgeon); married c. 1943 (divorced); married Frances Taylor (a dancer), in the early 1960s (divorced); married c. 1967 (divorced); married Cicely Tyson (an actress), 1981; children: two sons. Education: Attended Juilliard School of Music.
Began studying trumpet at the age of thirteen, and started playing with local bands in St. Louis, Mo., at the age of fifteen; after graduating from high school, moved to New York City and played at various clubs while attending Juilliard School of Music; began recording, 1945; played with a number of well-known bandleaders in New York and California, including Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, and Benny Carter; bandleader, beginning 1948. Composer; has also written scores for a number of feature films.
Awards: Has won numerous awards from jazz magazine readers polls.
Addresses: Office –c/o Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
—no solos.” His inexperience must not have shown through too often, because by the end of the year he had joined Charlie Parker’s group playing at the Three Deuces club. And, at the tender age of 19, Davis appeared alongside Bird, Diz, and Maz Roach on one of the first bebop recordings (November 26, 1945). Although the material was well-received by the critics, Davis’s performance did not go over as well and he was slammed by a reviewer in down beat.
New York’s jazz clubs were drying up at the time, so Parker and Gillespie headed to California to try out their new sound while Davis went back to East St. Louis. He hooked up with Benny Carter whose band was also going to the West Coast to work. Once there, Davis was asked by Parker to replace Dizzy who was fed up with the lack of response their music was getting. On March 28, 1946, the group recorded in Hollywood, and the results won Davis the down beat award for New Star on Trumpet that year. Shortly after, he began to work with Charles Mingus and then replaced Fats Navarro in Billy Eckstine’s band, working his way back east.
In 1947, Parker and Davis formed a quintet in New York that lasted 18 months. It was a period that saw Parker playing at his best with Davis acting as musical director of the group. On May 8, Davis made his debut as a composer when the quintet recorded for the Savoy label. He was also starting to develop his own sound instead of playing the usual licks that Dizzy had made famous. In August they recorded four more tunes of which lan Carr said, “The solos too—and for the first time, Miles shares the honours on equal terms with Parker—echo the smooth fluency of the themes. Miles is poised and assured, tending to understate and imply melodic ideas.”
Also in 1947, Davis befriended Gil Evans, a composer who was 14 years his senior. Evans would look over Davis’s work and help him to write less cluttered tunes. The two formed a partnership that would last for nearly four decades. By late 1948, Davis quit Parker and started to lead his own nine-piece group at the Royal Roost club. He began trimming down his sound, making it lighter and saying more with fewer notes. Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who was undergoing a similar process, stated, “Miles dominated the band completely; the whole nature of the interpretation was his.” Although the group was not a big hit, they did leave behind some broadcast recordings that mark the beginnings of Miles’s ability to influence those who play with him.
He signed his first recording contract with Capitol (for twelve sides at 78 rpm; about three minutes each) and brought the band into the studio to tape. The selections were all later released in 1957 as The Birth of Cool and became the foundation for the West Coast Jazz School. Davis headed to Europe to play the Paris Jazz Festival where he was a huge success. But it was a different story back in the States; when he returned he found no jobs available. Like many musicians of the time, Davis turned to heroin and became an addict for the next four years.
He joined Eckstine’s band again, and while on tour he was arrested on suspicion of being a heroin addict. The charges were later dropped, but the bad publicity caused him to move to Chicago to do session work to pay for his habit. While other trumpet players who were indebted to Davis were gaining noteriety, he was going nowhere and decided to quit heroin cold turkey. By 1954 he was leading his own group again and recording some of the best performances in jazz history. He would also begin to use the amplified sound of the metallic harmon mute with its stem removed, which according to Ian Carr, “sounded so right and was so immediately attractive, that it spawned imitators everywhere.” The song “Oleo” is a prime example of this tone.
After trying various groups through 1955, Davis finally settled on what has come to be known as “the rhythm section”: Philly Joe Jones—drums, Paul Chambers—bass, and Red Garland—piano. The group also included John Coltrane on tenor sax. Their first album, The New Miles Davis Quintet, was just the beginning of a prolific period in which they would record enough material for over five albums in one year alone. Columbia Records offered Davis $4, 000 to join their label, but he still owed Prestige four more albums. They worked out a compromise that allowed Davis to record for both labels:(Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ for Prestige and Round About Midnight for Columbia were all released in 1956.)
After the recordings, Davis went to Europe to work. When he came back to New York, he and Gil Evans collaborated on the seminal LP Miles Ahead. With orchestral arrangements by Evans and Davis on flugelhorn, the album met with rave reviews by the critics. Davis and Evans joined forces again in 1958, working on their version of Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, called “a major contribution to twentieth-century music” by lan Carr. “It is outstanding in the way that a sustained dialogue is created between a great improvising soloist and a great orchestrator.” Two years later their third orchestral-jazz masterpiece, Sketches of Spain, would be released.
During this same period, Davis’s combo was recording also. For awhile Coltrane was joined on sax by Sonny Rollins. Coltrane quit soon after to kick his heroin habit, working with Thelonious Monk in the meantime, developing a style of his own with the pianist. Back working with Davis, he was able to put his new theories to use. “Miles’ music gave me plenty of freedom,” Coltrane told down beat.”It’s a beautiful approach.” The addition of Cannonball Adderely on second sax helped to create two superb albums for the sextet, Milestones and Kind of Blue.
The early sixties saw still more changes for Davis. He was remarried, this time to dancer Frances Taylor. Columbia assigned musician and producer Teo Macero to be his A&R (artist and repertoire) man, a relationship that would have some extreme highs and lows. Davis was once again in trouble with the law, this time for fighting with the police. In addition, his group was going through many personnel changes, missing gigs and having to cancel ones they couldn’t make. The 1963 lineup included Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on keyboards, and George Coleman on sax. They released a fine studio effort, Seven Steps to Heaven, in addition to a few live LPs. At the same time, Columbia released Quiet Nights, which consisted of previous material by Davis and Evans. Unhappy with the selections, Davis was so mad at Macero that the two did not talk for over two years.
In 1965 Davis recorded ESP, an abstract jazz album where the solos have no set chorus length. This same format was also used on three other albums:Miles Smiles, The Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Davis wrote none of the tunes for the last two, utilizing instead concepts developed by his sidemen. He began leaving the tape machines rolling whenever they were in the studio, later splicing ideas together to form the songs. Davis would later tell down beat, “Listening to what they do and feeding it back to them is how any good bandleader should lead his musicians.”
By late 1968 Davis had a new wife and more musicians to work with. Dave Holland was brought in on bass, and Chick Corea was added on keyboards. Davis is credited with writing all the tunes, but Filles de Kilimanjaro has the stamp of Gil Evans on it. It would be the last album the two would work on together. It would also mark the period known as jazz-rock. “Yes, Miles is the daddy of the whole thing,” Chick Corea told Rolling Stone.”He structured the music mostly by predicting the way interrelationships between musicians develop. He would write out little or nothing, but he would put the musicians together and nudge them with comments in such a way that he would in effect be structuring the music. Whatever the individuals came up with from his directions was OK.”
Musicians like John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Jack DeJohnette were brought in to fuel the fire on these landmark LPs:In A Silent Way, “which left the listener feeling suspended in space,” wrote Mikal Gilmore;Jack Johnson, “mood music for a vacation on the moon,” according to Robert Christgau; and Bitches Brew, the one that made rock and rollers take a listen to jazz. The impact of electronics and musicians who were mastering them (like Jimi Hendrix) forced Davis to reevaluate his music and to come up with something fresh and exciting, thus fusion.
The early 1970s started off badly for Davis. He was in trouble with the law again, both his sons were hooked on dope, he broke both his legs in a car accident, and he fought against a number of health problems (pneumonia, arthritis, bad hip joint, leg infection, and bursitis). He has since remarried, this time to actress Cicely Tyson. More importantly, he continues to tour and record (with occasional pauses for health reasons) with over 40 albums to his credit. While his latest records may not offer anything as dramatically different as the jazz world has come to expect from him, as recently as 1985-86 he has won the down beat readers’ and critics’ polls for best electric jazz group. “Miles is a leader in jazz because he has definite confidence in what he likes and he is not afraid of what he likes,” said Gil Evans. “He goes his own way.”
The Complete Birth of the Cool, Capitol, 1957.
Workin, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’, Prestige, 1956.
Round About Midnight, Columbia, 1956.
Miles Ahead, Columbia, 1957.
Milestones, Columbia, 1958.
Someday My Prince Will Come, Columbia, 1961.
In Person at The Blackhawk, Columbia.
Kind Of Blue, Columbia, 1959.
Seven Steps to Heaven, Columbia, 1963.
My Funny Valentine, Columbia.
“Four” And More, Columbia.
Porgy and Bess, Columbia, 1958.
Quiet Nights, Columbia.
Sketches of Spain, Columbia, 1960.
Miles Smiles, Columbia, 1966.
E.S.P., Columbia, 1967.
Sorcerer, Columbia, 1967.
Nefertiti, Columbia, 1967.
Miles in the Sky, Columbia.
Filles de Kilimanjaro, Columbia, 1968.
In a Silent Way, Columbia, 1969.
Water Babies, Columbia, 1978.
Bitches Brew, Columbia, 1970.
At Fillmore, Columbia, 1970.
Black Beauty, CBS.
Jack Johnson, Columbia, 1970.
Live-Evil, Columbia, 1971.
On the Corner, Columbia, 1972.
Big Fun, Columbia, 1974.
Get Up With It, Columbia, 1974.
Agharta, Columbia, 1976.
The Man With the Horn, Columbia, 1981.
We Want Miles, Columbia, 1982.
Star People, Columbia, 1983.
Decoy, Columbia, 1983.
You’re Under Arrest, Columbia.
Tutu, Warner Bros.
Siesta, Warner Bros.
The Columbia Years, 1955-1985, Columbia, 1988.
Carr, Ian, Miles Davis, Quill, 1984.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Fong-Torres, Ben, editor, What’s That Sound?, Anchor Books, 1976.
Hentoff, Nat, The Jazz Life, Panther Books, 1964.
Marsh, David, editor, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
down beat, September 29, 1960; April 6, 1967; August, 1987;October, 1988; November, 1988; December, 1988.
Esquire, March, 1959.
Guitar Player, November, 1982; September, 1984.
Guitar World, September, 1983.
Rolling Stone, March 11, 1976.
—Calen D. Stone
Davis, Miles 1926–1991
Miles Davis 1926–1991
Trumpet player, composer, bandleader
Renowned trumpet player Miles Davis was a great inspiration not only to musicians the world over, but to music scribes and theorists as well; admirers and critics alike have written so much on Davis’s place in the history of music that they have amply ensured their occasionally embattled subject’s position as a bona fide cultural icon. To some he was a near-mythic maverick who in his more than 40-year career in jazz flamboyantly blazed a trail of musical innovation. To others his often thorny temperament, inveterate substance abuse, and brushes with the law made him an unsavory character at best. Yet Davis is one of the rare figures of contemporary music whose artistic reputation, despite the efforts of some to denigrate it, elevates him to a transcendent status achieved by very few.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born May 25, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, the second of three children in a prosperous family. His mother, Cleota, played the violin and encouraged her son to take up that respectable, classical instrument. Miles would later learn that his genteel mother, whose sartorial splendor he took as a model, was also well versed in the decidedly more homely musical phrases of the blues. Davis’s father, an oral surgeon, was the seminal figure in his son’s early life, passing on lessons about the importance of financial security and the rewards of studiousness and scholarship.
It was also in his father that Davis saw how the black sensibility was shaped by racism. During his childhood, southern Illinois was blighted by many of the racist trappings that plagued the Deep South, and the Davises, as well-to-do professionals, were viewed by some as “uppity” blacks who had risen above their natural, presumably lowly, station. Davis’s father reacted to this attitude by embracing the ideas of black separatist Marcus Garvey, who advocated the return of blacks to Africa on the assumption that they would never achieve complete integration in a country where prejudice and bigotry were cultural cornerstones. Consistent with his intellectual leanings, the senior Davis repudiated the more conciliatory efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although throughout his career Davis led integrated bands and prided himself on color-blindness in his selection of players, he retained a powerful sense of racial division in America; he frequently lashed out at white music critics who, he felt, had misunderstood or diminished the place of jazz and black artists in the musical landscape.
Born Miles Dewey Davis III, May 25, 1926, in Alton, IL; died of causes including pneumonia, respiratory failure, and stroke, September 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, CA; son of Miles Davis II (an oral surgeon) and Cleota Davis; married c. 1943 (divorced); married Frances Taylor (a dancer), early 1960s (divorced); married c, 1967 (divorced); married Cicely Tyson (an actress), 1981; children: two sons. Education: Began trumpet study c. 1936; studied at Juilliard School of Music, New York City.
Trumpet player, composer, bandleader, recording artist, and writer. Played with local bands, St. Louis, MO, c. 1941; played with Eddie Randall’s Blue Devils, 1943-1944, and Adam Lambert’s Six Brown Cats, 1944; performed in New York City clubs; played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, 1945-1949; made first recordings, 1945; performed with bandleaders Billy Eckstine and Benny Carter; became bandleader, 1948; formed quintet, including John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones, 1955; performed with numerous artists, including Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Hank Mobley; pioneered jazz fusion, late 1960s, with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and John McLaughlin.
Awards: Numerous Grammy awards and Down Beat magazine awards; Sonning Music Award for lifetime achievement, Denmark, 1984.
More interested in sports than melodies as a boy, Davis first began paying attention to music when he was six or seven. He was drawn to a radio program that showcased the records of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington. And on visits to his grandfather in Arkansas he became fascinated by the soulful church music resonating along the backcountry lanes. “Music is a funny thing when you really come to think about it,” Davis wrote in Miles: The Autobiography, “because it’s hard to pinpoint where it all began for me. But I think some of it had to have started on that Arkansas road and some on that ‘Harlem Rhythms’ radio show. When I got into music I went all the way into music; I didn’t have no time after that for nothing else.”
Davis took music lessons privately and in school from the age of ten. Although his teachers emphasized standard elementary trumpet fare—marches and simple overtures—Davis, when given the opportunity, experimented with improvisation, the signature of modern jazz. In 1943, after having spent his spare time honing his skills and following the acts that came to play in East St. Louis, where his family had moved when he was a small boy, Davis joined Eddie Randall’s Blue Devils, a hard-driving dance group that played the arrangements of swing giants like Ellington and Benny Goodman. After a lucrative year for Davis, he joined a New Orleans group, Adam Lambert’s Six Brown Cats, which featured then-unknown jazz singer Joe Williams, who would later become a major star. On the heels of gigging in Chicago, Davis grew tired of swing and returned home, where, fortuitously, he happened upon his career’s launching pad.
With his reputation growing, Davis went to see Billy Eckstine direct a band boasting the luminaries of contemporary jazz: trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Anderson, saxophonists Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and Gene Ammons, drummer Art Blakey, and Lucky Thompson. One of the trumpeters became ill, and a frantic Gillespie ran up to Davis and asked the young man to sit in with the group. That night and for the following two weeks Davis stood shoulder to shoulder with his idols, watching in awe and trying to replicate the new, spirited sounds of bebop, particularly those emanating from the eloquent horn of Gillespie. “From Gillespie, he learned bebop harmony,” New Republic contributor Stanley Crouch wrote in 1990. “He even took from Gillespie an aspect of timbral piquancy that settled beneath the surface of his sound. But Davis rejected the basic nature of Gillespie’s tone, which few found as rich or as attractive as the idiomatic achievements of the... brass vocabulary that had preceded the innovations of bebop. Davis grasped the musical power that comes of having a sound that is itself a musical expression.”
With that experience under his belt, Davis felt an urgent need to follow his heroes to the jazz mecca of New York City, with wife—Davis was married at 17—and young son in tow. At his mother’s insistence, he enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School, studying music theory and classical composers by day and by night quenching his thirst for the cutting-edge sounds of musicians like trumpet player Freddie Webster, drummer Max Roach, Gillespie, and Parker. Although he heeded many of the lessons taught him at Juilliard—he would always look to composers Ravel and Rachmaninoff for inspiration—Davis found the school’s atmosphere oppressively white and discriminatory. He dropped out, preferring to further his education in the hallowed halls of jazz clubs under the tutelage of professors Gillespie and Parker.
Davis’s mid-register, no-vibrato style was featured on a 1945 Parker recording, but the precocious trumpeter’s contributions were slammed by critics who said his solos were error-laden and transparently derivative of Gillespie. After extended stays in California, during which Davis befriended legendary bassist Charles Mingus, he organized a nine-piece New York-based ensemble featuring saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Lee Konitz, with lyrical arrangements by pianist-composer Gil Evans, who would become Davis’s longtime collaborator. Recordings of this band, dating from 1949 through 1950, were later released as Birth of the Cool.
Critics generally lauded the release but observed a paradox in its effect on the musical scene. “The [group’s] laid-back quality and calm, intricate, deep-red arrangements made it the most adventurous small band since the Ellington small bands and some of the Woody Herman... sides of 1946, yet it helped launch the pale, conservative Goody Two-Shoes music known as West Coast Jazz,” Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker. Balliett’s opinion notwithstanding, the genesis of West Coast jazz, viewed by many as a direct offshoot of Birth of the Cool, was an early example of Davis’s creative and tutorial initiative.
After further triumph in Europe, most notably at the Paris Jazz Festival, Davis fell victim to the work scarcity that plagued his fellow jazzmen. And like many of them, the trumpeter began a descent into drug addiction. He had resisted drugs in the past, dispirited by the tragic toll they had taken on the lives and music of stars such as Parker and Webster. But the prevalence of drugs and a pessimism about his future conspired to overwhelm Davis. “I started to get money from whores to feed and support my habit,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “I started to pimp them, even before I realized that this was what I was doing. I was what I used to call a ‘professional junkie.’ That’s all I lived for. I even chose my jobs according to whether it would be easy for me to cop drugs. I turned into one of the best hustlers because I had to get heroin every day, no matter what I had to do.”
For a while Davis was blacklisted by club owners who worried that they might be wasting money on a trumpet player whose musicianship could be affected by drug use. In 1954, as the result of a self-imposed physical discipline that involved Davis’s cultivation of boxing skills, he quit drugs and began what some have called his best musical period. His quintet of the time, which featured saxophonist John Coltrane, drummer Philly Joe Jones, bass player Paul Chambers, and pianist Red Garland, was widely considered peerless and produced classic albums such as Milestones and Round About Midnight. “The quintet,” according to writer-educator Amiri Baraka, commenting in the New York Times, “combined the fingerpopping urban funk blues of the hard-bop era with a harmonic cushion and Davis’s gorgeous melodic invention. It caused a sensation among jazz people.” With the addition of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, a sextet emerged to create an expressive, groundbreaking sound that contained, according to Baraka, “the elements for establishing or redefining... significant jazz styles that have dominated to one degree or another... for the last thirty years.”
Buoyed by mainstream success, Davis developed considerable flexibility in his musical style. He recorded a celebrated version of American composer George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and penned the score to French director Louis Malle’s film L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (“Elevator to the Gallows”). In the early 1960s, as jazz clubs closed and rock and roll threatened to sound the death knell of jazz itself, Davis formed a group that included keyboardist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams and produced several hard-hitting records that kept afloat the appeal of improvisation. Toward the end of the decade, Davis underwent his most dramatic musical transmutation; inspired by the power of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and the funk of rock and R&B acts Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown, Davis electrified jazz, pioneering what would later be called fusion.
Davis’s revolutionary 1969 release Bitches Brew, while carving out another marketable niche for jazz players, appalled many jazz purists. “What one actually heard was the still-eloquent Davis trumpet overpowered by a whirlpool of gurgling synthesizers, overamplified rock guitars, and funky drumming better suited to a combo playing a fraternity-house party,” Tony Outhwaite sniffed in the National Review. But others saw the incorporation of rock into jazz as another example of Davis’s remarkable elasticity and a landmark opportunity for this talent-nurturer to unleash the potential of young players such as keyboardists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett and bass player Dave Holland. “Critics always like to pigeonhole everybody, put you in a certain place in their heads so they can get to you,” Davis wrote in Miles. “When I started changing so fast like that, a lot of critics started putting me down because they didn’t understand what I was doing. But critics never did mean much to me, so I just kept on doing what I had been doing, trying to grow as a musician.”
Between 1975 and early 1980 Davis did not pick up his horn; illness and recurrent substance abuse kept him away from music. His 1981 comeback album, The Man with the Horn, was panned by critics, who found his playing weak, but subsequent recordings like We Want Miles and Decoy garnered Grammy awards. Although his work during the 1980s was not characterized by the radical innovation people had come to expect of him, Davis continued to launch successful tours and records, still looking beyond the musical cages in which people had always tried to place him; one of his hopes was to collaborate on a record with pop star Prince. But on September 28, 1991, despite his well-publicized hard living, the world was stunned to learn that Davis, suffering from pneumonia, respiratory failure, and the debilitating effects of a stroke, had died.
In response to those who argued that Davis compromised his musical ideals for the sake of commercial success, John Ephland asserted in Down Beat, “A conservative position on jazz, which allows little or no room for musical dialog... is a prescription for folk music only, insulated and codified, and one diametrically opposed to Miles’ artistic thirst for imagination, possibility, and open sky. Not just a trumpet stylist, Miles the conceptualist and band-leader has changed forever the way we hear music.”
Round About Midnight, Columbia, 1956.
Birth of the Cool (recorded 1949-50), Capitol, 1957.
Porgy and Bess, Columbia, 1958.
Sketches of Spain, Columbia, 1960.
Bitches Brew, Columbia, 1969.
We Want Miles, Columbia, 1982.
Decoy, Columbia, 1983.
Also composer of film scores.
(With Quincy Troupe) Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Carr, Ian, Miles Davis, Quill, 1984.
Chambers, Jack, Milestones One: The Music and Times of Miles Davis to 1960, Morrow, 1985.
Chambers, Jack, Milestones Two: The Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960, Morrow, 1985.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Hentoff, Nat, The Jazz Life, Panther Books, 1964.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Random House, 1979.
What’s That Sound?, edited by Ben Fong-Torres, Anchor Books, 1976.
Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1992.
Down Beat, September 29, 1960; April 6, 1967; August 1987; October 1988; November 1988; December 1988; December 1991.
Esquire, March 1959.
Guitar Player, November 1982; September 1984.
Guitar World, September 1983.
National Review, August 20, 1990.
New Republic, February 12, 1990.
New Yorker, December 4, 1989.
New York Times, June 16, 1985.
Rolling Stone, March 11, 1976; November 14, 1991.
Best-selling album since 1990: Kind of Blue (1997 re-issue)
Hit songs since 1990: "Time after Time"
Miles Davis has been the missing giant of American popular music since his death in September 1991, little more than two months after his final performances and a session on his posthumously released, Grammy-winning hip-hop effort, Doo-Bop (1992). His distinctively spare, introspective, vibratoless style was a marvel of taste and power. An indefatigable innovator, Davis was characterized by Duke Ellington as the jazz Picasso.
Davis's death was rumored to have been related to AIDS. Certainly his constitution was affected by hard living, organic disease, diverse accidents, and self-inflicted knocks. In the year prior to his death, he toured stadiums and festivals with a young electric jazz band featuring the saxophonist Kenny Garrett. He made two major appearances before his death. The first was a one-time-only review at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 8, 1991, when he played big-band charts written by his late friend Gil Evans and conducted by Quincy Jones. Two days later in Paris, he appeared at a concert along with his longtime associates: saxophonists Jackie McLean and Wayne Shorter; pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul; guitarists John McLaughlin and John Scofield; bassist Dave Holland; and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Davis was the son of a prosperous Midwestern oral surgeon and his wife, descendants of accomplished African-Americans and bearers of high cultural standards. They afforded their three children enriching opportunities. Miles started his trumpet studies in sixth grade and took private lessons with a trumpeter from the St. Louis symphony from the age of thirteen, when his father bought him a horn for his birthday. His mother never approved of his musical career.
As a young teen playing local clubs, Davis was encouraged by the trumpeter Clark Terry. Hired as a last-minute substitute on one occasion by balladeer and bandleader Billy Eckstine, Davis met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the chief proponents of bebop, the virtuosic, small-group jazz movement that flourished after World War II. In 1945 Davis moved to New York City to attend the Juilliard School's Institute of Musical Art, and immediately sought out Parker and Gillespie in the jazz clubs of Fifty-second Street.
Davis was quickly accepted by the boppers, becoming a mainstay of Parker's group in 1947. He also participated in informal jam sessions hosted by Gil Evans, a collaboration that resulted in the short-lived nonet that recorded the groundbreaking album Birth of the Cool (1950). The bebop milieu was pervaded by heroin addiction, and Davis fell prey to the drug in 1949, after which his career wobbled as he freelanced erratically with musicians including Eckstine, Stan Getz, and Billie Holiday. After kicking his drug habit by returning to his parents' home and going cold turkey, Davis surged to the fore of the jazz scene, working with J. J. Johnson, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, and others. After an acclaimed performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, he never looked back.
The upward trajectory of Davis's career brought him into the leadership of his first quintet, with John Coltrane; a long association with Columbia Records (abandoned in 1985 for Warner Bros.); and the landmark albums Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960), which drew on the work of the contemporary Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. His band that featured Coltrane, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and pianist Bill Evans produced the landmark modal take on the blues, Kind of Blue (1959), considered by some critics the greatest album in the history of jazz; it remains the best-selling album in the history of the genre.
Nevertheless, reams of criticism has piled up about the music of Kind of Blue ; among its chief attractions is the mood it sets, and maintains, of relaxed yet alert, soothing but never soporific sweet sadness. The themes are simple (though deceptively so) and repetitious, yet not cloying. The rhythms are mostly soft and mid-tempo, nonetheless propulsive. Davis's improvisations seem casual yet are perfectly phrased; his ideas are never forced, but by turns bold and vulnerable. Each major soloist matches this standard: Adderley, Coltrane, and Evans give performances of their lives, the saxophonists flowing and lucid, the pianist spreading a color spectrum of harmonies. Kind of Blue redeems a promise of jazz: to bestow a dollop of grace on those who hear it.
In the early 1960s Davis hired his second great quintet, composed of pianist Hancock, saxophonist Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and seventeen-year-old drummer Tony Williams, all of whom ably enacted Davis's visionary experiments with elliptical forms, newly available electric instruments, and rhythmic variation. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the creatively restless Davis was enthralled with the budding progressive rock scene; he gathered guitarist John McLaughlin; bassist Dave Holland; electric keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett; electric bassists; sitar players; and drummers Don Alias, Jack DeJohnette, and Lenny White for the suitelike jazz-rock fusion recording (produced by Teo Macero) titled Bitches Brew (1970).
That two-LP set announced a revolution in American contemporary instrumental music, fusing grandiose themes and dense orchestrations at high volumes with ferocious improvisation and roiling polyrhythmics. Davis followed with a dozen albums in the same vein—many of them live-in-concert before integrated young audiences—and an international tour of venues that could accommodate his requirements of sound.
Many key members of that ensemble and of other heavily amplified and processed bands Davis maintained until the late 1970s have remained in the forefront of jazz: among them are saxophonists Gary Bartz, Sonny Fortune, Steve Grossman, and David Liebman; tablaist Badal Roy; percussionist Airto Moirea; Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal; and guitarist Pete Cosey. After a period of inactivity, Davis rebounded with the album Man with a Horn (1981), which features an even younger ensemble in stripped-down productions that did not tax his lapsed trumpet technique.
In the 1980s Davis regained his trumpet technique while continuing to talent-scout and develop material for electronically enhanced, improvising ensembles. He employed guitarists Scofield and Mike Stern; saxophonists Bob Berg, Bill Evans, and Branford Marsalis; bassists Marcus Miller, Darryl Jones, and Foley McCreary; percussionists Alias, Mino Cinelu, and Marilyn Mazur; drummer Al Foster; and a succession of electric keyboardists (including George Duke and Joey DeFrancesco) and synthesizer programmers.
As Davis renewed his career, he extended himself, commercially, artistically, and politically. He was among the first jazz musicians to adapt pop hits of the eighties for his own use, claiming both Cindy Lauper's "Time after Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" with unique interpretations. He recorded soundtracks—Siesta (1987), The Hot Spot (1990), and Djingo (1990)—for films in which he also acted. He appeared as an icon of cool in advertising campaigns, and began to exhibit his paintings in art galleries. Davis gave pointed titles to his albums: Tutu (1986), named for the black archbishop and antiapartheid leader of South Africa, and Amandla (1989), meaning "freedom" in Swahili. He also contributed a cameo to the album released by Artists United Against Apartheid, Sun City (1985). His personal life, however, remained tempestuous; his fourth marriage, to actress Cicely Tyson, was marked by bursts of violence and ended in divorce.
Davis's gaunt scowl, dramatic clothing, and hoarse voice became legendary, even among those who did not know his music. But they are part of the sensibility that underlay his unforgettable trumpet sound, a gripping evocation of the loneliness, strangeness, exhilaration, and pathos of life in postwar America that rivals the achievement of any artist in any medium of the past fifty years.
Decoy (Columbia, 1984); Tutu (Warner Bros., 1986); Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: The Hot Spot (Antilles, 1990); Doo-Bop (1992); Live Around the World (Warner Bros. 1996); The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of Miles Davis and Gil Evans (Columbia Legacy, 1996); Dark Magus (Columbia reissue, 1997); Live-Evil (Columbia reissue, 1997); Black Beauty (Columbia reissue, 1997); Live at the Philharmonic (Columbia reissue, 1997); Live at the Fillmore East Columbia reissue, 1997); Kind of Blue (Columbia reissue, 1997); The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions Columbia Legacy, 1998); Birth of the Cool (Capitol EMI reissue, 2001); The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973–1991 (Warner Music, 2002).
J. Szwed, So What, the Life of Miles Davis (New York, 2002); B. Kirchner (ed.), A Miles Davis Reader (Washington, DC, 1997); P. Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electronic Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967–1991 (New York, 2001); M. Davis, Miles, the Autobiography (New York, 1989).
www.milesdavis.com/home.html; www.wam.umd.edu/~losinp/music/miles_ahead.html; servercc.oakton.edu/~larry/miles/mile-stones.html.
May 26, 1926
September 28, 1991
One of the most influential musicians in America in the 1950s and 1960s, jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis was a restlessly innovative performer, a central figure in several post-bebop jazz styles, including cool, hardbop, modal, fusion, and electric jazz. Born in Alton, Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III grew up in East St. Louis. His mother was a classically trained pianist and violinist. Davis received his first trumpet at the age of thirteen from his father, a successful dentist. In high school he studied with Elwood Buchanan, and trumpeter Clark Terry also served as a mentor. Davis began playing dates in the St. Louis area in his mid-teens, and in 1943 and 1944 he played with Eddie Randle's Rhumboogie Orchestra. He also performed with Adam Lambert's Six Brown Cats in Chicago and with Billy Eckstine in St. Louis before moving to New York in 1944. Davis's ostensible reason for going to New York was to study at the Juilliard School, but he gained his real education in the jazz clubs of Harlem and Fifty-second Street.
Once in New York, Davis began associating with the young musicians beginning to popularize bebop. He made his first recordings in 1945 with vocalist Rubberlegs Williams. Later that year he recorded with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker ("Billie's Bounce," "Now's the Time"). Parker became Davis's mentor and roommate, and over the next few years the two made many important and influential bebop recordings, including "Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," "A Night in Tunisia," "Donna Lee," "Chasin' the Bird," and "Parker's Mood." On these recordings Davis distinguished himself by his intimate tone and sparse, hesitant style of improvisation. During this time Davis was a fixture on Fifty-second Street, performing and recording with pianist Tadd Dameron, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, vocalist Billy Eckstine, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. He first recorded as a band leader in
1947 ("Milestones" and "Half Nelson," with Parker on tenor saxophone), and the next year he left Parker to form an experimental nine-piece group in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans. The ensemble, which included a French horn and tuba and featured advanced harmonies and unusual compositional forms, was short-lived, performing at the Royal Roost nightclub for only two weeks. Nonetheless, its recordings from 1949–1950 ("Move," "Venus de Milo," "Boplicity," and "Israel") spawned the cool jazz movement of the 1950s and became particularly popular upon their 1954 re-release in LP form as The Birth of the Cool.
Despite a period of heroin addiction from 1949 to 1953, Davis continued to perform and record in a cool style, often with saxophonist Sonny Rollins ("Morpheus," "Dig," "The Serpent's Tooth," "Tune Up," and "Miles Ahead"). His career took another leap forward with the 1954 recording of "Walkin'." That recording, with its more extroverted approach, inaugurated hard bop, a rugged and bluesier version of bebop. In 1955 Davis formed his first significant quintet, including tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Red Garland, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. They recorded the landmark Round About Midnight (1955) and performed and recorded until 1957, when Davis added alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to the group. In 1957 Davis went to France to record the soundtrack for Louis Malle's film Elevator to the Gallows. Back in the United States the next year, Davis recorded Milestones, which introduced the concept of modal jazz, in which modes or scales, as opposed to chord changes, determine a song's harmonies. In 1959 Davis recorded perhaps his greatest record, Kind of Blue, which included the modal compositions "So What," "All Blues," and "Freddie Freeloader," with an ensemble that included drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. In the late 1950s Davis also renewed his association with arranger Gil Evans. They produced three acclaimed orchestral works, Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1959–1960). During this time Davis achieved his mature instrumental style, delicate and tentative on ballads, boldly lyrical on up-tempo numbers.
Davis's trumpet style resembled, in a famous description, "a man walking on eggshells," but he was often belligerent and profane, on stage and off. He refused to announce titles, walked off the stage when sidemen soloed, and rarely acknowledged applause. Nonetheless, he openly demanded the respect he felt was appropriate to jazz musicians. During the 1950s Davis also became an internationally known public figure noted for his immaculate attire, his interest in sports cars, and for taking up boxing as a hobby.
In 1960 Adderley and Coltrane left the ensemble, which underwent a number of personnel shifts until 1963, when Davis hired pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. With saxophonist Wayne Shorter's arrival the next year, Davis began featuring churning, lengthy improvisations built around Shorter's quirky compositions (E.S.P., 1965; Miles Smiles, 1966).
During the late 1960s Davis became disenchanted with the poor reception his music found among black audiences, and he began to search for a new, more commercially appealing style. He found inspiration in the funk rhythms of James Brown and Sly Stone, as well as in Karlheinz Stockhausen's vast electric-mystic soundscapes. Davis added Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea on electric pianos and John McLaughlin on electric guitar to his regular ensemble and recorded In a Silent Way (1969) and the best-selling Bitches Brew (1969), albums that introduced the style that has become known as jazz-rock or "fusion," using loud rock instruments and funk rhythms to accompany extended solo and group improvisations. Davis continued in this vein on Big Fun (1969), Live-Evil (1970), On the Corner (1972), Agharta (1975) and Pangea (1975). Although Davis gained many fans of rock music, jazz fans were perplexed and unsympathetic. Health problems due to drug abuse and a 1972 car accident convinced Davis to retire in 1975.
In 1980 Davis returned to music, but to the disappointment of many of his fans he continued using popular forms of electric instruments. In his best performances Davis still communicated with the intensity and fire he had in the 1950s, but his recordings, including The Man with the Horn (1981), Star People (1982), Tutu (1986), and Amandla (1989), were largely panned by critics, who were particularly harsh on his undistinguished accompanists. Davis, who lived in New York and Malibu, continued to perform and record in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1982 Davis married his third wife, the actress Cicely Tyson; they were divorced in 1989.
Davis published an outspoken memoir, Miles, the Autobiography, in 1989. After many years of battling alcoholism, drug addiction, and circulatory and respiratory ailments, Davis died in 1991 in New York.
Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1982.
Chambers, Jack. Milestones, 2 vols. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1983, 1985.
Cole, Bill. Miles Davis: A Musical Biography. New York: Morrow, 1974.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles, the Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Szwed, John. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
william s. cole (1996)
A jazz trumpeter, composer, and small-band leader, Miles Davis (1926-1991) was in the jazz vanguard for more than two decades. His legend continued to grow even after poor health and diminished creativity removed him from jazz prominence.
Miles Dewey Davis 3rd was born into a well-to-do Alton, Illinois, family on May 25, 1926. His father was a dentist, his mother a woman of leisure: there were two other children, an older sister and a younger brother. In 1928 the family moved to East St. Louis. At the age of 10 Miles began playing trumpet; while still in high school he met and was coached by his earliest idol, the great St. Louis trumpeter Clark Terry.
After fathering two children by a woman friend, Miles in 1944 moved to New York City. He worked for just two weeks in the talent-packed Billy Eckstine Band, then enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music, by day studying classical music and by night interning in jazz's newest idiom, bebop, with the leaders of the movement, notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, and Max Roach.
Miles' 1947-1948 stint in a quintet led by bebop genius Charlie Parker gained him a modicum of early fame; a fine trumpeter in the bebop idiom, he nevertheless began to move conceptually away from its orthodoxy. He felt a need to divest his music of bebop's excesses and eccentricities and to restore jazz's more melodic and orchestrated elements. The result was the seminal LP recording Birth of the Cool (1949), played by a medium-sized group, a nonet, featuring, in addition to Miles, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and pianist Al Haig. A highly celebrated record date, it gave "birth" to the so-called "cool," or West Coast, jazz school, which was more cerebral, more heavily orchestrated, and generally more disciplined (especially in its shorter solos) than traditional bebop, and it gave Miles a musical identity distinct from Parker and the other beboppers.
In the early 1950s Miles became a heroin addict, and his career came to a near halt for three years, but his ultimately successful fight against the drug habit in 1954 led to his greatest period, the mid-to-late 1950s. During that six-year span he made a series of small group recordings regarded as jazz classics. In 1954, with tenor saxophone titan Sonny Rollins, he made memorable recordings of three Rollins originals—"Airegin," "Doxy," and "Oleo"—as well as two brilliant versions of the Tin Pan Alley standard "But Not for Me." Additionally, in the 1954-1955 period Miles recorded with a number of other jazz giants—tenorist Lucky Thompson, vibist Milt Jackson, and pianist Thelonious Monk.
In 1955 Miles formed his most celebrated group, a remarkably talented quintet (later, a sextet, with the addition of alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley) that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Until Coltrane's defection in the 1960s, Miles' band was the single most visible and dominant group in all of jazz. The early 1960s saw a succession of personnel shifts until the band stabilized in 1964 around an excellent new rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams, as well as a new tenor saxophonist, Wayne Shorter. Miles continued to be the greatest attraction (and biggest moneymaker) in all of jazz, but his new band couldn't match the impossibly high standards of its predecessor. Late in the decade his music took a radically new direction. In two 1968 albums, Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles experimented with rock rhythms and non-traditional instrumentation. For the last two decades of Miles' career his music was increasingly rhythm-and-drone and Miles himself became more of a jazz curiosity than a musician to be taken seriously.
A good part of Davis' fame owed less to his considerable musicianship than to his strange persona. He was notorious in performance for turning his back on audiences, for addressing them inaudibly or not at all, for expressing racial hostility toward whites, for dressing nattily early in his career and outlandishly later, and for projecting (especially in a series of motorcycle ads on television) a voice hoarse to a point of strangulation—all of which contributed to his charismatic mystique. Davis also had many health problems and more than his share of brushes with officialdom (widespread racism and his own racial militancy made the latter inevitable).
Miles was, in reality, a paradox. Himself the victim of a policeman's clubbing (reportedly, racially-inspired), he had the fairness and courage in the late 1950s to defy Black jazzmen's expectations by filling a piano vacancy with a white player, Bill Evans, but then, by all accounts, often racially taunted him. A physical fitness enthusiast (with his own private gym), he nevertheless ingested vast quantities of drugs (sometimes, but not always, for arthritic pain). Forbiddingly gruff and solitary, he was also capable of acts of generosity toward down-at-heels musicians, both African American and white.
Davis was married three times—to dancer Frances Taylor, singer Betty Mabry, and actress Cicely Tyson; all ended in divorce. He had, in all, three sons, a daughter, and seven grandchildren. He died on September 28, 1991, of pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke.
Davis, in addition to the classic small group recordings of the 1954-1960 period, recorded memorable orchestral works with arranger and long-time friend Gil Evans, most notably Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Davis' extended works include scores for Louis Malle's film Elevator to the Gallows (1957) and for the full-length documentary Jack Johnson (1970). Among Davis' best-known shorter compositions are the early "Tune Up," "Milestones," "Miles Ahead," "Blue Haze," and "Four"; from 1958 on his best tunes, such as "So What" and "All Blues," are based on modal scales rather than chords. Early and late, both the compositions and the trumpet playing are trademarked by Davis' hauntingly "blue" sound.
Miles: An Autobiography (1989), written with Quincy Troupe, is inadvertently self-revealing—opinionated, irreverent, egotistical, obscene, abusive, and wrong-headed (e.g., he is almost totally dismissive of his finest work and aggressively defensive of his worst). More balanced is Ian Carr's Miles Davis (1982). The two most rewarding articles are both negative assessments—Whitney Balliett's "Miles" in the New Yorker (December 4, 1989) and Stanley Crouch's "Play the Right Thing" in The New Republic (February 12, 1990), which labels Miles as "the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz" (for having abandoned his early artistry in favor of jazz-rock fusion). A 1993 biography, Miles Davis: The Man in the Green Shirt, by Richard Williams is little more than a coffeetable book. □
A jazz trumpeter, composer, and small-band leader, Miles Davis was the leading jazz musician for more than two decades. His legend continued to grow even after poor health and diminished creativity removed him from jazz royalty.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born to Miles Davis Jr. and Cleota Henry in Alton, Illinois, on May 25, 1926. There were also two other children, an older sister and a younger brother. In 1928 the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where Davis's father became a successful oral surgeon. Davis enjoyed a comfortable childhood and the family lived in a white neighborhood. At the age of thirteen his father gave him a trumpet and soon Davis joined his high school band. While still in high school he met and was coached by his earliest idol, the great St. Louis trumpeter Clark Terry (1920–).
After fathering two children by a woman friend, Davis moved to New York City in 1944. He worked for just two weeks in the talent-packed Billy Eckstine Band, then enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music. By day he studied classical music, and by night he gained experience in jazz's newest movement, bebop, with the leaders of the movement, notably Charlie Parker (1920–1955), Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993), Fats Navarro, and Max Roach (1924–).
Davis's stint from 1947 to 1948 in a quintet (group of five musicians) led by bebop genius Charlie Parker brought him early fame. A fine bebop trumpeter, Davis soon felt a need to rid his music of bebop's style and to restore jazz's more melodic elements. The result was the influential recording Birth of the Cool (1949), which gave "birth" to the so-called "cool," or West Coast, jazz school. This recording established Davis' musical identity, separate from Parker and the other beboppers.
In the early 1950s Davis became a heroin (dangerous drug made from morphine) addict. His career came to a near halt for three years, but his ultimately successful fight against the drug habit in 1954 led to his greatest period: the mid-to-late 1950s. During that six-year span he made a series of small group recordings regarded as jazz classics. In 1954, with tenor saxophone titan Sonny Rollins (1930–), he made memorable recordings of three Rollins originals—"Airegin," "Doxy," and "Oleo"—as well as two brilliant versions of the Tin Pan Alley (a respected group of musicians and songwriters) standard "But Not for Me."
In 1955 Davis formed his most celebrated group, a remarkably talented quintet that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–1967), pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Until Coltrane left in the 1960s, Davis's band was the single most visible and dominant group in all of jazz. In 1964 he put together a new band, and Davis continued to be the greatest attraction (and biggest money-maker) in all of jazz. His new band, however, could not match the impossibly high standards of the original band.
Davis, the person
For the last two decades of Davis's career he became more of a jazz curiosity than a musician to be taken seriously. A good part of his fame owed less to his considerable musicianship than to his strange personality. Davis gained a poor reputation in performance for turning his back on audiences, for expressing racial hostility toward whites, for dressing poorly early in his career and wildly later—all of which contributed to his mysterious image.
Davis was a complex man with strengths and weaknesses that would ultimately destroy him. Himself the victim of a policeman's clubbing (reportedly, racially inspired), he had the fairness and courage in the late 1950s to challenge black jazzmen's expectations by filling a piano vacancy with a white player, Bill Evans (1929–1980); but then, by all accounts, Davis often racially taunted him. A physical fitness enthusiast (with his own private gym), he nevertheless took vast amounts of drugs (sometimes, but not always, for pain). Oftentimes unfriendly, he was also capable of acts of generosity toward struggling musicians, both black and white.
Davis was married three times—to dancer Frances Taylor, singer Betty Mabry, and actress Cicely Tyson. All three marriages ended in divorce. He had, in all, three sons, a daughter, and seven grandchildren. He died on September 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, California, of pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke.
Davis remains one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz. His music lives on in recordings like Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960), and the hauntingly "blue" sound of his trumpet.
For More Information
Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998.
Crouch, Stanley. "Play the Right Thing." New Republic (February 12, 1990).
Davis, Miles. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Williams, Richard. Miles Davis: The Man in the Green Shirt. New York: H. Holt, 1993.
Miles Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois , on May 25, 1926. He was the second of three children. His mother played the violin, and his father was an oral surgeon. The family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1927.
Davis first became interested in music around the age of six, when he began listening to the music of jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) and Duke Ellington (1899–1974) on the radio. Visits with his grandfather in Arkansas introduced him to the soulful sounds of gospel, strains of which would find their way into his music compositions later on in his career.
Launches a career
When he was ten years old, Davis took trumpet lessons, and he was given the chance to improvise (make up his own music spontaneously). In 1943, when he was seventeen, he joined the Eddie Randall Blue Devils and played with them for a year before joining a New Orleans–based swing band called Six Brown Cats. Swing was not the kind of music Davis wanted to perform, so after a short time with the band, he returned to St. Louis, Missouri , where his family had moved to earlier.
While watching a jazz band play at a local club, Davis was asked to sit in with the group when one of the trumpeters became ill. A thrilled Davis sat in with this group of jazz greats that included Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993) and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920–1955) for two weeks. He learned more about playing jazz and experimenting with sound in those two weeks than he had in his entire lifetime.
No longer content to play music that he was not passionate about, Davis moved to New York City, the center of the jazz world. There he enrolled in the Juilliard School, where he studied music theory and composition. Davis dropped out of Juilliard before graduating and furthered his education by playing with Gillespie and Parker.
The young trumpeter recorded record albums with the jazz greats, but critics panned his solos, saying they were full of errors. Davis organized his own nine-piece ensemble, and the band recorded songs from 1949 through 1950. The compilation of songs was eventually released as an album titled Birth of the Cool. This time, critics praised Davis's sound. The group traveled abroad and experienced more acclaim throughout Europe, especially in Paris, where an annual jazz festival was held.
Turns to drugs
Like many jazz musicians in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Davis soon began to use drugs. What began as experimentation turned into addiction, and the trumpeter soon found himself in a downward spiral. It got so bad that he accepted jobs only if they would make it easy for him to get heroin.
Club owners knew of Davis's addiction, and in the first few years of the 1950s, he was blacklisted (included on a list of people who club owners would not hire). In 1954, the musician quit drugs by sheer willpower and self-imposed physical discipline, and in the period that followed he produced music that some critics consider his best. He formed a quintet whose recordings sounded like nothing else being played at the time. Its sound was a combination of jazz, bop, and urban funk blues. Davis was finally accepted by mainstream musicians and listeners.
The 1960s saw the end of the jazz era as rock and roll took over the music scene. Davis, inspired by the sounds of guitar great Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) and the funk of Sly and the Family Stone, turned to electrified jazz, a unique sound that would later be labeled “fusion.”
Davis's new sound thrilled some listeners and critics while horrifying others as he moved away from “pure” jazz. Although he claimed he never let the critics negatively affect him, Davis returned to a life of substance abuse and subsequent illness. Between 1975 and 1980, he did not pick up his trumpet. He recorded a comeback album in 1981, which was criticized as weak sounding, but two later releases earned him Grammy Awards. Davis continued to play throughout the 1980s.
Davis died on September 28, 1991. He had been suffering from pneumonia, respiratory failure, and the aftereffects of a stroke. Despite his weakness for drugs, Davis changed the music scene forever and left his own personal sound embedded in the culture. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 13, 2006.