Remember back to those halcyon days of February, kids? The world seemed a simpler, rounder place in which to live. Disney-esque choirs of singing cartoon mice heralded even our most mundane daily routines, the air smelled of fresh lilacs, we all walked around in a dreamlike haze where our feet barely touched the ground, and I had not yet given up alcohol for Lent.
Be that as it may.
February was also the month I began the first in my series of in-depth profiles of some of the greatest figures in jazz history. The first in the series was John Coltrane, my personal favorite and one of the seminal figures in all of music in the past fifty years. So it is only natural that the next article should be about Miles Davis, another of my personal favorites and another one of the seminal figures in all of music in the past fifty years. And it is amazing how much easier this column has become since I discovered the cut-and-paste function in Word.
Miles Dewey Davis (Dewey Decimal System jokes to the left, Dewey Defeats Truman jokes to the right. Huey, Louie, and Dewey jokes free to a good home) was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois. His family moved to East St. Louis shortly thereafter, but he eventually caught up with them and by the age of thirteen had forgotten all about it. It was also at this age, he received a professional-grade trumpet as a birthday gift. The Jewish people believe that a boy becomes a man at the age of thirteen, but since Davis was not Jewish, we can be assured that this had absolutely nothing to do with it. The fact that he was playing professionally just a couple of years later is viewed by Rabbinical scholars as being purely coincidental.
Enrolling at Juilliard after high school, he found himself in the center of the jazz world. Rooming with his idol, Charlie Parker, Miles began his real education. Playing the clubs with Bird every night, he began to understand the relationship of individual notes within the chordal structure rather than just the isolated notes of the melody. He also began to understand that jazz musicians were virtually automatic with the ladies, and if he played it cool enough he was pretty much guaranteed some serious leg.
After some time spent largely learning his craft alongside more established musicians, it was time for Miles to step to the forefront as a leader. Though schooled in the breakneck, thrill-a-minute world of Bebop, Miles wanted to take the music in a new direction. During the fabled "Birth of the Cool" sessions, he began experimenting with softer instrumentation and less acrobatic techniques, concentrating on an intimate, almost contemplative melodic solo. He also became the first modern jazz musician to employ a tuba player for anything other than yard work or waxing his car.