MILES DAVIS (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991)
Acclaimed jazz musician who revolutionized the genre and recorded its most celebrated album, Kind of Blue.
- In 1959 he released the album, Kind of Blue, which has now sold over four million copies.
- Contributed to the development of jazz fusion throughout the late 1960s.
- Won several Grammy awards for monumental works such as We Want Miles (1982).
Widely considered one of the top musicians of the 20th century, Miles Davis was a major force in jazz. He was not only a gifted trumpeter and composer but an innovator who created a nine-member band called the “nonet,” in which unconventional (in jazz) instruments like the French horn and tuba were used. He also invented a style known as “cool jazz,” characterized by softer and more subdued tempos than traditional jazz rhythms.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois, in 1926. His mother was a music teacher, and his father was a successful dental surgeon. He had two siblings: an elder sister named Dorothy and a younger brother named Vernon. The three of them spent much of their childhood summers riding on horseback and hunting around their parents’ farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Davis started learning the trumpet in his adolescent years and quickly began playing in local shows around St. Louis. After graduating from East St. Louis Lincoln High School in the spring of 1944, he enrolled at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City, now known as Julliard. After being quickly sucked into the nightlife, he began playing shows with fellow jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker. After a mere three semesters of study, Davis dropped out of college and became a full-time musician.
He recorded with Parker for three years, from 1945 to 1948. In late 1948, Davis left Parker’s group following internal tensions and claims of not being fairly compensated. He then formed a band with names such as Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Clarke, and others. The group recorded twelve singles, which changed the course of jazz history. They blended instruments such as the french horn and tuba to create an orchestral sound and combined these textures with the smooth flows of improvisational trumpet solos.
Following a brief bout with drug addiction, Davis entered the glory days of his career in 1954. He worked with legends such as John Coltrane, “Philly” Joe Jones, and Cannonball Adderley. With the help of these greats, Davis recorded albums such as ‘Round About Midnight, released by Columbia Records in March 1957, as well as Kind of Blue in 1959. It was Kind of Blue’s focus on sparse chords, melodic solos, and maintenance of a relaxed mood that drove its success among jazz enthusiasts.
During the late fifties and early sixties, Davis recorded three albums with the arranger, Gil Evans: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Similar in style to his work with Mulligan and Clarke, these albums featured a grander feel with various instruments and complex solos. During this era, Davis formed a signature sound using a trumpet mute called a Harmon mute or casually named the wah-wah mute. He repeatedly used this mute throughout the rest of his career. People can hear the unique sound on the album Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1959).
Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Davis’ renown only grew. With the release of the controversial Bitches Brew in 1970, Davis became popular among an entirely new generation. The influence of this album was largely due to his wife, the twenty-three-year-old model, Betty Mabry. She introduced him to the revolutionary pop-artists of the day, and soon enough, Davis’ music began reflecting the electric-funk of the era.
From 1975 to 1980, Davis was on hiatus. After suffering from addiction to alcohol and cocaine, he left the public eye in hopes of recovery. In 1981 he returned and released an album titled The Man with the Horn and set his career back on track.
He continued to release songs that reflected his adoration for the sound of the times and even recorded covers of top-chart songs such as Michael Jackson’s, Human Nature. His continued insistence on creating funky music led Columbia Records to drop him from the label. Davis then moved on to Warner Bros. Records and produced more legendary albums such as the lush and electronic Tutu, which turned into a huge commercial success.
His contributions to the progression of music led him to receive an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory. When asked about his desire to move forward in music and not return to his Kind of Blue roots, he commented, “I have no feel for it anymore,” that style “is more like warmed-over turkey.” His following recordings and performances would not stray from that statement because he never looked back to his old ways of playing, but always searching for new methods to employ and new audiences to entertain.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Davis passed away on September 28, 1991, at the age of sixty-five. The cause of death was pneumonia and respiratory failure. After spending a few days on life support, he died in the arms of his then partner, Jo Gelbard.
People remember him as one of the greatest musicians ever to live. Regarding the life and work of Davis, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll commented, “Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style—in attitude and fashion—as well as music.”