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Miles Davis

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1926 - 1991

The musical legacy of Miles Davis seems too huge for one man. Especially since he was a vital part of nearly every important development of innovation and style in jazz after the Second World War. His protean approach put him at the forefront of bebop, cool, modal, hard bop, and fusion. From there his sound went on to influence many other forms of music including pop, soul, R&B, funk, and rap. Davis was the last of the great trumpet players, employing a lyrical, melodic style that was known for its minimalism as much as its introspection. Another talent was his ability to assemble great up-and-coming musicians and nurture their creativity within his many bands. Both the man and his music have come to symbolize everything that jazz represents - innovative, cool, complex, and unpredictable.

Miles Davis came from middle class beginnings. Born in small town Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926, he was raised in an integrated suburb of East St. Louis. Miles' mother wanted him to take up violin, however his father enticed him with the purchase of a trumpet. An early trumpet teacher advised Miles to develop a straight, vibratoless tone, unlike popular trumpeters of the period like Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge. It was a direction which would influence him significantly later in his career.

In his mid-teens Miles was mixing influences of symphony instruction with a fondness for jazz and it was already apparent that he was headed for a career in music. By high school he was getting a few money paying gigs with a local dance band. A fortuitous visit to St. Louis by Billy Eckstine's band, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, was a definite stimulus to go the next step. Eager to return with them to New York, Miles applied to the Juilliard School of Music and was accepted in September of 1944.

New York's jazz scene provided a heady and dynamic setting for the young musician, one that couldn't compete with Juilliard's formal teachings, and Miles was lured to the alternative schools of jazz clubs like the Savoy and Minton's. He sought out Charlie Parker who introduced him to other musicians and eventually invited Miles to join his quintet. It was an invaluable experience and Miles soon quit Juilliard to devote his energies to nightly gigs and recordings with Parker, Gillespie, and others.

Miles' confidence was growing steadily. He was finding his own voice, exploring the harmonies and phrasings of bebop, and contributing cautious, but pure-toned solos. Parker was willing to mentor him whenever possible and enlisted his playing on a series of sides throughout 1947 and 1948. By late 1948 the association with Parker had come to an end and Miles was meeting regularly with arranger/composer Gil Evans at his New York apartment along with other musicians to exchange ideas.

Davis and Evans were searching for a big band sound outside the confines of swing and bebop, one which would ultimately be tagged "cool jazz. Together with similar-minded musicians like Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Lee Konitz they formed a nonet comprised of new forms of instrumentation and improvisation. While Miles was the visionary and organizer, Evans brought his orchestration skills and Mulligan did the bulk of the writing. Together they forged a sound that was subdued, stylish, and detached, the antithesis of the current bebop trend. The ensuing recording sessions produced twelve tracks and were eventually released as the album The Birth of the Cool. It served as a template for the "cool school, inspiring numerous musicians to pursue a moodier, more relaxed aesthetic in jazz.

Yet Miles was quickly bored with "cool and this coterie of musicians broke up soon after the sessions. Miles entered a dark phase, mostly attributed to heroin addiction. He found it hard to get work and until 1954 his recordings for the Prestige label during this period were irregular. A clean Davis emerged to enthrall audiences at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, in particular, with an inspired take on Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight. The triumph of this performance led to a contract with Columbia Records and a chance to form a first-rate band.

This new quintet, including John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones, would establish Miles as a true jazz star and produce some of the most prolific jazz of the 1950s. As well as recording the archetypal Round Midnight for Columbia the quintet would fulfill a five album obligation to Prestige, including marathon sessions for the albums Steamin', Cookin', Workin', and Relaxin' in only two days. These albums captured spontaneous single takes and a band discovering its full potential on the spot, as if they were live on stage.

Miles had made definite headway in his trumpet playing since his days with Parker. No longer dependent on bebop phrasing, he was now applying a minimalist approach. Ornate phrasing gave way to a smattering of tones. He was also utilizing a Harmon mute, sometimes adding reverb, which furnished a whisper effect and personalized his sound. Elements of texture and silence between notes were becoming more dominant.

In 1957 Miles and Gil Evans were reunited for the first of four major albums that would leave a lasting imprint on the jazz community. Evans complemented Miles' pure, tasteful tones on flugelhorn with a nineteen piece jazz orchestra, arranging a unifying suite of cross-harmonizing orchestral pieces. The result was a seductive album called Miles Ahead and it laid the groundwork for two more similarly dramatic projects, Porgy and Bess and the luxurious, classically influenced Sketches of Spain. Miles Ahead was immensely popular and awakened people to the adventurous possibilities of jazz.

A new direction was already in the works with a more propulsive sound in the form of a sextet. The Prestige quintet was joined by alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball Adderley and many jazz buffs consider it Davis' finest group ever. The 1958 album, Milestones, showcased energetic, hard-swinging playing from all involved. The chemistry between Adderley and Coltrane was particularly enthralling and the music delivered an improvisation on scales instead of chords, hinting at what was to come.

Recorded in March and April of 1959, Kind of Blue has been called "the perfect jazz album. This time the sextet included Coltrane, Adderley, Chambers, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano. Miles introduced the music to the musicians just before recording, provoking modal improvisation (using scales instead of chords as a springboard for solos). The outstanding caliber of musicians rose to the occasion, creating a deeply meditative quality that spoke volumes with its simplicity. Kind of Blue not only popularized modality in jazz, it made jazz accessible to a wide cross section of listeners. Miles had reached a new peak in playing and experimenting, an artistic pinnacle among many in his long and distinguished career.

For Miles Davis album recommendations, see our Building a Jazz Library: Miles Davis.

Photo Credit
Freddy Warren

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