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Miles Davis (January 1955).
Miles Davis (January 1955). Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Miles Davis, 'Kind of Blue'
Miles Davis was the personification of restless spirit, always pushing himself and his music into uncharted territory. He was an innovative lightning rod for musicians from all genres — particularly the brightest young players. Davis created some of the 20th century's most challenging and influential music.
Born May 25, 1926, in Alton, Ill., Miles Dewey Davis began playing the trumpet as a youngster in East St. Louis, Ill., and soon showed promise. At the age of 17, Davis sought out bandleader Eddie Randall for advice, but as soon as Randall heard the teenager play, Davis was hired for his first real gig.
Just a year later, Davis was invited to sit in when the Billy Eckstine Big Band played St. Louis. In that setting, Davis was able to play with two of his idols, bebop pioneers saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The Eckstine experience left Davis determined to make his mark in the band's home base, New York City. Fate intervened when Davis was accepted at New York's Julliard School of Music. Davis moved to New York, but never really made it to the classroom, spending his time instead on 52nd Street listening to Diz and Bird.
Charlie Parker's speed and technique were beyond Davis' reach at the time, but the young trumpeter still jumped at an offer to replace Dizzy Gillespie in Parker's band. For Davis, it was both a dream come true and a nightmare of technical challenges. When Davis first recorded with Parker in 1945, his playing was tentative compared with the hard-charging leader, and Davis often just filled in with harmonies behind Parker's powerful alto sax. But Davis' sense of time and space is a direct result of this apprenticeship. The sheer velocity of Parker's technique forced Davis to take a more measured, introspective tack.
In the late 1940s, Davis emerged as a leader himself, and he and arranger Gil Evans organized a nonet — including baritone saxophone, French horn and tuba. With arrangements by band members Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, they recorded the classic, The Birth of the Cool in January 1949. The nonet soon fell apart for lack of work, but the sound it created worked its way west to be reborn as "cool jazz." Davis, however, was rooted firmly in bebop. In 1951, he began recording for the Prestige label and enlisted some the most talented beboppers of the day.
Sonny Rollins was the first in a long line of stellar saxophone players whom Davis signed up. From his time with Charlie Parker, Davis had developed an affinity for the partnership of trumpet and saxophone. A few years later, Davis discovered the Harmon mute and the otherworldly quality it lent his tone. What soon became a Davis trademark made its first appearance on the song "Solar," recorded in 1954.
At the same time that he was expanding his sound, Davis took care to build his repertoire throughout the early 1950s. He was composing, but he was also applying his style to popular songs such as "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "My Funny Valentine," helping to make those tunes and others jazz standards. He often mixed young lions with bebop veterans during loose, improvised recording sessions.
Davis dropped out of the scene for a while with drug and personal problems, but in the summer of 1955, he made a strong comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival. His playing there convinced Columbia Records to sign him as a solo artist.
The label insisted that Davis put together a solid touring band. Davis, with his ear for talent, hand picked a group of virtually unknown players: 20-year-old bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Garland had a hard, driving swing and was a boxer, as was Davis.
Jones was well-respected in jazz but essentially unknown to the public. The same was true of the young Coltrane, who had played with Gillespie's Big Band but was not an established name. In fact, many critics disliked Coltrane's playing at the time.
This classic quintet recorded the album Round About Midnight in 1955, and it was an immediate success. Two years later, Davis reunited with arranger Gil Evans, and the two of them built on the "cool" jazz sound. The pair first produced Miles Ahead, with Davis in front of a big band conducted by Evans. A year later, they triumphed with George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
Yet, Davis remained restless. In the late '50s, he added another voice to his successful quintet — the alto saxophone of Cannonball Adderley. Many people were surprised by the move because the quintet was so balanced.
In the spring of 1958, the band produced Milestones. The recording marked the beginning of Davis' exploration of modal music, where improvisation is based on a single "mode" or scale instead of chord progressions. Davis began to look for something else in his sidemen, too, and was moved by the classical music approach of the young pianist Bill Evans. Evans' style was different from Garland's hard swing and was akin to the subdued, introspective music Davis had been crafting.
With Jimmy Cobb on drums and Bill Evans on piano, Davis recorded the landmark Kind of Blue, which furthered the modal experiments of Milestones. In a simple unrehearsed, two-day recording session, the group created some of the most enduring music of the 20th century. The record was a high-water mark for Davis, but even so, he could not keep the talented group together, as Evans, Coltrane and Adderley each had become leaders.
Once again, Davis relied on his instinct for finding the most talented musicians available. He found a rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams and, with George Coleman on tenor for a time, the new quintet began to explore the outer reaches of harmony and rhythm.
By 1964, Davis had added the final member of his classic 1960s quintet when young Wayne Shorter replaced George Coleman on tenor. Shorter, who possessed an accomplished book of tunes and arrangements, immediately took the quintet to another place. He says the players seemed to be more attuned to each other than any band in memory. They were immensely influential.
Shorter recalls that the first tune Davis saw in Shorter's book was the first one the group recorded: "E.S.P." Davis, spurred on by Shorter's creative instincts and compositions, reached a new level of intuitive ensemble playing in his '60s quintet.
Davis would not relax, however. In the late '60s, he began to pay attention to the rock revolution, and he liked what he heard. Guitarist George Benson joined the Miles Davis Quintet for the 1967 album Miles in the Sky. Davis also was drawn to the music of James Brown and Sly Stone, and he began to use driving funk rhythms in his own music.
Again, Davis' embrace of other traditions necessitated a larger canvas on which to paint, and he sought out the right musicians for a bigger group. Using guitarist John McLaughlin and a three-keyboard ensemble of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, Davis recorded In a Silent Way in 1969. That same year, Davis recorded an album that became the standard for the nascent jazz-fusion movement: Bitches Brew. The double album was an abrupt commingling of jazz, rock and funk.
Although he had created yet another musical genre, Davis left it behind — along with everything he had created before — in 1974 when he dropped out of music because of fatigue and other health issues. But in the early 1980s, Davis emerged again, and as fusion sputtered, he returned to an aspect of his approach during the 1950s bop years. Davis bravely began to embrace and reinterpret popular songs like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature."
Davis died Sept. 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, Calif. By stretching boundaries and keeping an eye out for like-minded musicians, he crafted an array of sounds that were all distinctively "Miles."