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DAVID WAS (Musician): Trumpeter Miles Davis, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington before him, was not only a great musician but an astute business man and visionary band leader.

(Soundbite of jazz music)


Musician David Was has this tribute to Miles Davis on the 80th anniversary of his birth.

Mr. WAS: His first combos from the late 40s onward established him as a fine judge of jazz horseflesh as he turned to musicians little known by the public, but who were seekers like him for a sound that didn't yet exist.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. WAS: By the mid-1950s, Miles Davis was emerging from the immense shadow of his mentor, alto legend, Charlie Parker, and beginning to take the jazz world by storm. In three marathon recording sessions between 1955 and 1956, Miles churned out enough material for five albums, now available on a four CD set called, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. WAS: As a casting director for Sideman(ph), Miles was a one-man academy for upcoming talent. His recruitment of Philadelphia tenor sax man, John Coltrane, was the public's first encounter with the horn that would later challenge all of jazz's conventional thinking.

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Mr. WAS: Rounding out the rhythm section were pianist, Red Garland, 17-year old bassist, Paul Chambers, and drummer, Philly Joe Jones. Together, they played lyrical, mid-tempo music that was more palatable to the public than the speed-driven, harmonically complex habits of the bee-bop era.

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Mr. WAS: Evident on these sessions are the qualities as a trumpeter that made Miles into a more proximate and intimate player than his bee-bop forbearers like Dizzy Gillespie, whose rat-a-tat upper register cascades defined virtuoso playing for the previous decade.

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Mr. WAS: Miles favored the middle register, a warmer tone, and his by now famous use of the Harmon Mute. Dizzy told me in an interview once that Miles asked him, why can't I play those high notes like you? Dizzy responded by saying, 'cause you don't hear those notes like I do. And viva la difference.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. WAS: Miles Davis would live to become the Picasso of the jazz world, a restless artistic spirit who jettisoned styles like last year's couture, for which he also became famous. Miles was nothing if not sartorially correct. He numbered among his friends James Baldwin and Juliet Greco, as well as Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando. Known for his diffident on-stage persona, and his battles with drug addiction offstage, he was a rebel before James Dean and an outlaw way before Waylon Jennings. It is that felicitous combination of thug and poet that makes Miles Davis the godfather of mid-century African-American music. Without him, there would be no Sly Stone, Prince, or even Snoop Dog, whose lazy, behind-the-beat phrasing always reminds me of the laconic man with the horn.

CHADWICK: David Was is half of the musical duo, Was Not Was. The re-release of classic Miles Davis recordings is called The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions.

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