Even those with the narrowest familiarities with jazz know Miles Davis. The epochal trumpeter/composer is simultaneously evocative of the classic ’50s jazz sound—the one most people think when they hear the word “jazz”—and then nearly every subsequent style that emerged in the following decades. Cool jazz. Hard bop. Post-bop. Freebop. Jazz fusion. He was at or near the forefront of every single movement. For nearly half a century, jazz invariably evolved through Miles Davis. He is the epitome of jazz in all its shades and colors, and he died 25 years ago yesterday. This week’s Audio Rewind is dedicated to Miles and all of his hues.
Miles Davis was born in 1926 in Alton, Illinois. He showed a proclivity for music at early age and selected the trumpet as his weapon of choice. Those early days would prove instrumental to his career. Whenever he played with vibrato, which was modish at the time, his first teacher gave him a rap on the knuckles, a reprimand that helped develop the clarion call that would come to define his trumpet sound.
That sound eventually took Davis to Juilliard, the eminent New York arts school. While there, he spent much of his downtime seeking his jazz hero, Charlie Parker, with whom he’d played briefly as a third trumpet when one of Parker’s band’s regulars was ill. In 1945, Davis dropped out of Juilliard, criticizing the institution for its Eurocentric (aka white) repertoire, and replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Parker’s band (which also included notable drummer, Max Roach).
After several years playing with Parker, Davis left the band and began pursuing freelance and solo endeavors. In 1948 and 1949, he spearheaded the Birth of the Cool project, imbuing the record and its name with the emerging “cool jazz” sound. Davis was so committed to the album that he prioritized its completion over playing in Duke Ellington’s band, which, at the time, was perhaps the most sought after position in all of jazz. In short, cool jazz was where it was at and Davis knew it.
The accreditation of “cool jazz,” though, is often given to white musicians—one being Dave Brubeck—because of the biased attention the media gave him. This irritated Davis, who thought himself to be the style’s progenitor. The issue is revelatory of the racial lines that divided artists and their audiences at that time; not even music was immune to the sustained racial tensions in America. Davis, though, seems to have navigated it gracefully, and despite inequities like improper accreditation and Juilliard’s biased curriculum, he did not wish to exclude whiteness from jazz.
Others felt differently, though. Jazz emerged as a black movement in early 20th century New Orleans, after all, and it’s understandable that, after so many centuries of exclusion from mainstream arts movements, African Americans felt protective of their own. Still, despite the rebukes of some black jazz players, Davis would employ many white people in his bands over his career (Bill Evans is probably the most notable example). Davis’ brief introduction to Western music theory at Juilliard, too, would prove invaluable in later compositions.
In the ’50s, Davis moved to hard bop, a bluesy take on jazz with a harder beat, while working through a heroin addiction. In 1957, he recorded Round About Midnight, marking both his first collaboration with John Coltrane and the beginning of his first “great quintet” (Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones). A variation of this group (Coltrane, Chambers, Bill Evans, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and Jimmy Cobb) would be the noisemakers behind Davis’ 1959 masterpiece, Kind of Blue, one of the most acclaimed and definitive endeavors in the history of music. Rather than use chord progressions to drive harmony, Davis and Gil Evans, his longtime collaborator in composition, used modality, general tonal areas based on musical modes. These skeletal harmonic frameworks informed the sextet’s improvisations and resulted in one of the greatest records of all-time. Kind of Blue sold four million copies and, in 2009, the US House of Representatives voted 409-0 to honor it as a national treasure.
Throughout his career, Davis oscillated between orchestral jazz, as can be heard on Sketches of Spain, a Davis/Evans joint and Spanish-inflected trip through space and time (and my personal favorite Miles album), and smaller ensemble recordings like those behind Kind of Blue. In the ’60s, Davis would form his second great quintet (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) while exploring post-bop, an amalgam of hard bop, free jazz, avant-garde, and modal jazz, and then freebop, a radical take on improvisation that elided planned chord changes altogether.
Then came the ’70s and jazz fusion. Davis would incorporate elements of rock, funk, electronic music, and African rhythms into the extant jazz lexicon. This novel approach to the genre led to more brilliant albums, like In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew, the platinum LP that would cement jazz fusion as the lifeblood of jazz’s continued evolution.
In retrospect, tracing Davis’ career is to invoke the firmament of jazz. Nearly every seminal jazz musician played with the trumpeter at some point, and he helped launch many of their careers. He once roomed with Charles Mingus. He notoriously almost fought Thelonious Monk. And, in addition to all the jazz dignitaries already mentioned, he worked with Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin; the list goes on.
His musical genius transcended jazz, too. His diverse musical interests were on display throughout his career, and they helped color all of his jazz. He recorded classical music (Léo Delibe’s “The Maids of Cadiz” was the first such piece he recorded). He wrote an impeccable arrangement for George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. He released a collection of bossa nova pieces called Quiet Nights. He studied art music and cited Karlheinz Stockhausen as a major influence on what would be called his “space music.” And he even took performance pay cuts to open for rock ‘n’ roll heroes like the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and Santana.
The 1980s, the fifth decade of his storied career, were less innovative for Davis, but the decade was his most commercially successful. He helmed massive concerts that helped introduce the world to his manifold mastery of jazz. In 1990, he received a lifetime achievement Grammy for those efforts. Then, one year later, he died from a combination of stroke, pneumonia, and respiratory failure.
Miles Davis was known endearingly as the Prince of the Darkness, nicknamed thus for both his enigmatic persona and his penchant for playing in the wee hours of the night. The sobriquet is also befitting of the more sinister themes in his life. His heroin addiction (which he eventually kicked), for instance, and lengthy bouts of domestic violence. He certainly had his demons, as most geniuses do, but those demons also drove his genius, and he became arguably the greatest jazz mind of all-time.
Today, Miles Davis lingers on. We are experiencing a resurgence of jazz as cultural capital. Kamasi Washington. Flying Lotus. And all the other musicians that continue to fuse jazz’s free spirit with the contours of modern music styles. Many of these names are probably more directly rooted in Coltrane, but before Coltrane became the outré free jazz maven we all know and love, he was a saxophonist in Miles Davis’ band, discovering his latent brilliance within the varicolored vision of jazz’s doyen. Davis was always miles ahead of the rest, and for that we owe him, at the very least, our appreciation and a retrospective or two.
Image: Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons