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Davis was at the forefront of virtually every development of jazz after the Second World War. He played on some of the important early bebop records, the first cool jazz records were recorded by his band, he was largely responsible for the development of modal jazz, and jazz fusion arose from Davis's bands of the late sixties and early seventies and the musicians who worked with him. Free jazz was the only postwar style untouched by Davis. His recordings, along with the live performances of his many influential bands, were vital in jazz's increased acceptance as music with lasting artistic value. A popularizer as well as an innovator, Davis became famous for both his languid, melodic style and his laconic and at times confrontational personality. As an increasingly well-paid and fashionably-dressed jazz musician, Davis was a symbol of the music's commercial potential.
Davis was the latest, and perhaps the last, in the line of jazz trumpeters that started with Buddy Bolden and ran 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 were not considered technical virtuosos. Ellington's main strength was as a composer and leader of a large band, while Davis had a talent for drawing together talented musicians in small groups and allowing them space to develop. Most of the major figures in postwar jazz played in one of Davis's groups at some point in their career.
Early life (1926-1945)
Miles Dewey Davis III was born into a relatively wealthy African-American family living in Alton, Illinois. His father Miles Davis II was a dentist, and in 1927 the family moved to a white neighbourhood in East St. Louis, also owning a substantial ranch - Miles Davis III learned to ride as a boy. His mother Cleota wanted Davis to learn the violin - she was a capable blues pianist, but kept this hidden from her son, feeling that "negro" music was not sufficiently genteel. At the age of nine, one of his father's friends gave him his first trumpet, but he did not start learning seriously until the age of thirteen when his father gave him a new trumpet and arranged lessons with 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. Clark Terry was another important early influence and friend. By the age of sixteen, Davis was a member of the musician's union and working professionally when not at high school. At seventeen he spent a year playing in bandleader Eddie Randle 's "Blue Devils". During this time Sonny Stitt tried to persuade him to join the Tiny Bradshaw band, then passing through town, but Cleota insisted he finish his final year of high school. In 1944, the Billy Eckstine band visited East St. Louis. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were members of the band, and Davis was taken on as third trumpet for a couple of weeks due to the illness of Buddy Anderson . When Eckstine's band left Davis behind to complete the tour, the trumpeter's parents were still keen for him to continue formal academic studies.
Bebop and birth of the cool (1945-1955)
In 1945 Davis 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 Charlie Parker. His first recordings were made in 1945, and he was soon a member of Parker's quintet, appearing on many of Parker's seminal bebop recordings for the Savoy and Dial labels.
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 then-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, locking himself away from society until free of the drug.
Between 1950 and 1955, Davis recorded as a leader mainly for Prestige and Blue Note records, in a variety of small group settings. Sidemen included Sonny Rollins, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, J. J. Johnson, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson and Charles Mingus. A 1954 session for Prestige was the first time he used the Harmon mute to alter the timbre of his trumpet, and this muted trumpet tone was to be associated with Davis for the rest of his career.
First quintet and sextet (1955-1958)
In 1955, Davis formed the first great incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet. This band featured John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Musically, the band picked up where Davis's late forties sessions 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.
The first recordings of this group were made for Columbia records in 1955, released on 'Round About Midnight. Davis was still under contract to Prestige, but had an agreement that he could make recordings for subsequent release by his new label. His final recordings for Prestige were the product of two days of recording in 1956, released as Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin'..., Workin'..., and Cookin'.... The quintet was never stable, due to heroin use by several of the other members, and disbanded in 1956.
In 1958, the quintet reformed as a sextet with the addition of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto saxophone, and recorded Milestones. Musically, it encompasses both the past and the future of jazz. Davis showed that he could play blues and bebop (ably assisted by Coltrane), 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.
Recordings with Gil Evans (1957-1963)
In the late fifties and early sixties, Davis recorded a series of albums with Gil Evans, often playing flugelhorn as well as trumpet. The first, Miles Ahead (1957), showcased his playing with a traditional jazz big band and a horn section beautifully arranged by Evans. Tunes included Dave Brubeck's "The Duke", as well as Leo Delibes' "The Maids Of Cadiz", the first piece of European classical music Davis had recorded.
In Davis and Evans's 1958 arrangement of George Gershwin's Porgy And Bess, the framework of Gershwin's tunes provided ample space for Davis to improvise, showing his mastery of variations and expansions of the original themes as well as his original melodic ideas.
Sketches of Spain (1959-60) featured tunes by contemporary Spanish composers (Joaquin Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla), and Gil Evans originals with a Spanish theme. Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (1961) includes Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez along with other tunes recorded at a concert with an orchestra under Evans's direction.
Sessions in 1962 and 1963 resulted in the album Quiet Nights, a short collection of bossa nova tunes which was released against the wishes of both Evans and Davis. An unsuccessful session in 1968 was the last time the two men collaborated.
Kind of Blue (1959-1964)
In March and April 1959 Davis re-entered the studio with his current sextet, comprised of Coltrane, Adderley, Chambers, Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (both piano), to record what is widely held as his masterpiece. Evans had been part of the group the previous year, but had been replaced by Kelly. Nonetheless, the album was planned around Evans's piano style, Kelly only played on Freddie Freeloader and was not present at the April session. So What and All Blues had been played by the sextet at performances prior to the recording sessions, but for the other three compositions Davis and Evans prepared skeletal harmonic frameworks which the other musicians saw for the first time on the day of recording, in order to generate a fresh and spontaneous approach to improvisation. The resulting album, Kind of Blue, is probably the best-loved and (according to the RIAA) best-selling jazz album ever, and also proved to be hugely influential on other musicians.
The same year, while taking a break outside the famous Birdland night 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.
Coltrane finally left Davis's working group in 1960, although he returned for some of the tracks on on the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come. Various replacement saxophonists were tried, including Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, Sam Rivers, and George Coleman. A number of live albums record these transitional groups (In Person (1961), At The Carnegie Hall (1962), In Europe (1964), My Funny Valentine (1964)). 1963's Seven Steps to Heaven marks the appearance of the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, who would be part of the second great quintet.
Second quintet (1965-1968)
By the time of E.S.P. (1965) the lineup — Davis's second great quintet and the last of his acoustic bands — consisted of Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums) and Ron Carter (bass).
A two-night Chicago gig by this band in late 1965 is captured on the 7-CD set The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965 released in 1995.
There followed a series of strong studio recordings: Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). The quintet's approach to improvisation came to be known as "time no changes," because while they retained a steady pulse, they abandoned the chord-change based approach of bebop.
Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, on which electric bass, piano and guitar were tentatively introduced on some tracks, clearly pointed the way to the subsequent fusion phase in Davis's output. Davis also began experimenting with more rock-oriented rhythms on these records, and by the time the second half of Filles de Kilimanjaro were recorded, Dave Holland and Chick Corea had replaced Carter and Hancock in the working band (though both would contribute to future recording sessions). Davis was also starting to compose more, Hancock and particularly Shorter having been the principal composers on the second quintet's albums.
Recent boxed sets have shown Miles's progression from the "free-bop" (or postbop) of the Second Quintet to the dense, rhythmic world of fusion was much less abrupt than it seemed initially when In a Silent Way followed Miles in the Sky. Miles's influences, widely attributed to the tastes of girlfriend Betty Mabry, were the late '60s acid, funk and rock heroes, namely Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. Slightly later, most prominently on 1972's On the Corner, the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen became evident. This transition required that Davis and his band adapt to modern, electric instruments in both performance and the studio.
By the time In a Silent Way was recorded in February 1969, Davis had augmented his standard quintet with additional players. Hancock and Joe Zawinul were brought in to augment Corea on electric keyboards, and the young guitarist John McLaughlin made the first of his many appearances with Miles.
Six months later, an even larger group of musicians, including Jack DeJohnette and Bennie Maupin amongst others, recorded Bitches Brew. These two records were the first truly successful amalgamations of jazz with rock music, laying the groundwork for the genre that would become known simply as fusion.
Both Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way feature "extended" (more than 20 minutes each) compositions which were never actually "played straight through" by the musicians in the studio. Instead, Miles and producer Teo Macero selected musical motifs of various lengths from recorded extended improvisations, and edited them together into a musical whole which only exists in the recorded version. Bitches Brew, in particular, is a case study in the use of electronic effects, multi-tracking, tape loops, and other editing techniques.
Both records, especially Bitches Brew, proved to be huge sellers for Davis, and he was accused of "selling out" by many of his departing fans, while attracting many new fans who listened to Davis alongside the more popular rock acts of the late sixties.
Davis reached out to new audiences in other ways as well: From Bitches Brew, Davis's albums featured art typically much more in line with "psychedelic" or black power movements than with his earlier albums' art. He took significant cuts in his usual performing fees in order to open for rock music groups like the Steve Miller Band and Santana. (Carlos Santana has stated that he should have opened concerts for Davis, rather than vice-versa.) There are several live albums recorded during the early seventies at such performances: Live-Evil, At Fillmore, It's About That Time, Black Beauty, and In Concert.
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's own career, in which he felt the establishment had prevented him from receiving the acclaim and rewards that were due him. The resulting album, 1971's A Tribute to Jack Johnson, contained two long pieces that used the talents of many musicians, some of whom were not credited on the record itself. These included guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock.
Working with producer Teo Macero, Davis created what many critics regard as his finest electric, rock-influenced album, and its use of editing and studio technology would be fully appreciated only upon the release of the five-CD The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions in 2003. 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-'70s, his previous rate of production was falling. Big Fun (1974) was a double album containing four long jams, recorded between 1969 and 1972. Similarly Get Up With It (1975) collected recordings from the previous five years. Get Up With It included "He Loved Him Madly," a fine tribute to Duke Ellington, as well as one of Davis's most lauded pieces from this era, "Calypso Frelimo." Contemporary critics complained that the album had rather too many underdeveloped ideas.
In 1974 and 1975, Columbia released three double-LP live Davis albums: Dark Magus, Agartha, and Pangaea. Dark Magus is a 1974 New York concert; the latter two are recordings of consecutive concerts, on the same February, 1975 day, in Osaka, Japan. At the time, only Agartha was available in the US; Pangaea and Dark Magus were initially released only by CBS/Sony Japan. All three feature two electric guitarists (Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, deploying an array of post-Jimi Hendrix electronic distortion devices), electric bass (Davis now relying on the funk-tinged, stripped-down playing of Michael Henderson), drums, reeds, and Davis on trumpet (also electrified) and organ. These albums, documenting the working bands Miles was leading at that point, were the last music he was to record for five years. 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 into the mainstream. Whether played by Davis's many protégés, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, or bands such as Weather Report, Davis's influence could be heard everywhere, as it could after each of his previous revolutionary advances.
Davis's '70s recordings have in recent years undergone a fairly radical reassessment, and are now seen by many as a significant body of work comparable to that of his earlier periods, and as an extremely interesting mixture of ideas gleaned from jazz, funk and rock music as well as from experimental, "process-oriented" European composers. Recently, Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith, Mark Isham , Tim Hagans, Nicholas Payton and others have recorded albums more or less indebted to Davis's electric era.
Davis absented himself from the music industry for five years. For much of the early part he was seriously ill, and a serious cocaine addiction was beginning to take its toll. As Gil Evans said: "His organism is tired. And after all the music he's contributed for 35 years, he needs a rest." By the beginning of the 1980s he was back in good health and ready to assemble a new band.
Return to performance (1981-1991)
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 , an 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. Davis also noted that many accepted jazz standards were in fact pop songs from Broadway theatre, and that he was simply selecting more recent examples of pop songs to perform. You're Under Arrest would also be Davis's 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 modern studio tools — programmed synthesisers, samples and drum loops — to create an entirely new setting for Davis's playing. Ecstatically reviewed on its release, the album would frequently be described as 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's scores being particularly noteworthy (other than Morgan Freeman's celebrated turn as "Fast Black" in Street Smart), 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 fifteen years.
Miles Davis continued to tour and perform regularly through the last years of his life, before succumbing to a stroke in September 1991 at the age of 65. 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?"
- Boplicity.ogg of "Boplicity"
- Bopping the Blues (1946)
- Birth of the Cool (1948)
- Cool Boppin' (1948)
- Dig (1951)
- Conception (1951)
- Walkin' (1954)
- Bags' Groove (1954)
- Round About Midnight (1955)
- Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
- Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
- Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
- Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1956)
- Miles Ahead (1957)
- Milestones (1958)
- Kind of Blue (1959)
- Sketches of Spain (1960)
- In Person (1961)
- At The Carnegie Hall (1962)
- Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
- My Funny Valentine (1964)
- In Europe (1964)
- Miles Smiles (1966)
- Sorcerer (1967)
- Nefertiti (1967)
- Miles in the Sky (1968)
- Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968)
- In a Silent Way (1969)
- Bitches Brew (1969)
- A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
- On The Corner (1972)
- Get Up With It (1974)
- Dark Magus (1974)
- Agharta (1975)
- Pangaea (1975)
- The Man With The Horn (1981)
- Star People (1983)
- Decoy (1984)
- You're Under Arrest (1985)
- Tutu (1986)
- Amandla (1987)
- Siesta (Soundtrack) (1988)
- Doo-Bop (1992)
- Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux (1993)
- Live Around The World (1996)
- The Essential Miles Davis (2001)
- The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 (2002)
- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (2003)
- Miles Davis Discography
- Sons of Miles: Interviews and profiles with Miles Davis and musicians influenced by him
- Miles Beyond Extensive writings, interviews, pictures, sessionography, memorabilia and more, covering Miles Davis's entire electric period, 1967-91
- The Last Miles George Cole's book and website on the last decade of Miles Davis's music
- Jack Chambers, Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, ISBN 0-306-80849-8
- Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, ISBN 0-671-63504-2
- Ian Carr, Miles Davis — the definitive, exhaustively researched biography, ISBN 0006530265
- Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, pioneering and authoritative coverage of all the trumpeter's electric music, featuring interviews with most of the musicians involved. Web site at miles-beyond.com, ISBN 0-8230-8360-8
- George Cole, The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980 – 1991 — re-evaluating the last decade of Miles's music. Companion website at thelastmiles.com, ISBN 1904768180
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