Miles Davis Biography Essay

For the singer born Miles Davis, see Miles Jaye.

Miles Davis

Davis photographed by Tom Palumbo in his New York City home, c. 1955–1956

Background information
Birth nameMiles Dewey Davis III
Born(1926-05-26)May 26, 1926
Alton, Illinois, U.S.
DiedSeptember 28, 1991(1991-09-28) (aged 65)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
GenresJazz
Occupation(s)
  • Musician
  • bandleader
  • composer
Instruments
  • Trumpet
  • flugelhorn
  • piano
  • synthesizer
  • organ
Years active
Labels
Associated actsJohn Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Philly Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, George Coleman, Sam Rivers, Hank Mobley, J. J. Johnson, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Cobb, Wynton Kelly, Dave Holland
Websitemilesdavis.com

Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991) was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He is among the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music. Davis adopted a variety of musical directions in his five-decade career which kept him at the forefront of a number of major stylistic developments in jazz.[1]

Born and raised in Illinois, Davis left his studies at The Juilliard School in New York City and made his professional debut as a member of saxophonist Charlie Parker's bebop quintet from 1944 to 1948. Shortly after, he recorded the Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol Records, which were instrumental to the development of cool jazz. In the early 1950s, Davis recorded some of the earliest hard bop music while on Prestige Records but did so haphazardly due to a heroin addiction. After a widely acclaimed comeback performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, he signed a long-term contract with Columbia Records and recorded the 1957 album 'Round About Midnight. It was his first work with saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist Paul Chambers, key members of the sextet he led into the early 1960s. During this period, he alternated between orchestral jazz collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, such as the Spanish music-influenced Sketches of Spain (1960), and band recordings, such as Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959).[3] The latter recording remains one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, having sold over four million copies in the U.S.

Davis made several line-up changes while recording Someday My Prince Will Come (1961), his 1961 Blackhawk concerts, and Seven Steps to Heaven (1963), another mainstream success that introduced bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and drummer Tony Williams.[3] After adding saxophonist Wayne Shorter to his new quintet in 1964,[3] Davis led them on a series of more abstract recordings often composed by the band members, helping pioneer the post-bop genre with albums such as E.S.P (1965) and Miles Smiles (1967),[5] before transitioning into his electric period. During the 1970s, he radically experimented with rock, funk, African rhythms, emerging electronic music technology, and an ever-changing line-up of musicians, including keyboardist Joe Zawinul, drummer Al Foster, and guitarist John McLaughlin. This period, beginning with Davis' 1969 studio album In a Silent Way and concluding with the 1975 concert recording Agharta, was the most controversial in his career, alienating and challenging many in jazz.[7] His million-selling 1970 record Bitches Brew helped spark a resurgence in the genre's commercial popularity with jazz fusion as the decade progressed.[8]

After a five-year retirement due to poor health, Davis resumed his career in the 1980s, employing younger musicians and pop music sounds on albums such as The Man with the Horn (1981) and Tutu (1986). Critics were generally unreceptive but the decade garnered the trumpeter his highest level of commercial recognition. He performed sold-out concerts worldwide while branching out into visual arts, film, and television work, before his death in 1991 from the combined effects of a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure.[9] In 2006, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,[10] which recognized him as "one of the key figures in the history of jazz".[10]Rolling Stone described him as "the most revered jazz trumpeter of all time, not to mention one of the most important musicians of the 20th century,"[9] while Gerald Early called him inarguably one of the most influential and innovative musicians of that period.[11]

Early life[edit]

Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926 to an affluent African-American family in Alton, Illinois, fifteen miles north of St. Louis. He had an older sister, Dorothy Mae (b. 1925), and a younger brother, Vernon (b. 1929). His mother, Cleota Mae (née Henry) of Arkansas, was a music teacher and violinist, and his father, Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., also of Arkansas, was a dentist. They owned a 200-acre estate near Pine Bluff, Arkansas that housed a profitable pig farm where Davis and his siblings would ride horses, fish, and hunt. In 1927, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, living on the second floor of a commercial building in a predominantly white neighborhood behind a dental office. From 1932 to 1934, Davis attended John Robinson Elementary School, an all-black institution, followed by Crispus Attucks School, where he performed well in mathematics, music, and sports. As a youngster Davis developed his earliest appreciation for music, citing the blues, big bands, and gospel music.

In 1935, Davis received his first trumpet as a gift from John Eubanks, a friend of his father, and later took weekly lessons with his father's patient, teacher and musician Elwood Buchanan. His mother objected to the choice of instrument as she preferred her son take up the violin. Against the fashion of the time, Buchanan stressed the importance of playing without vibrato and encouraged him to adopt a more clear, mid-range tone; Davis claimed he would slap his knuckles every time he started using heavy vibrato. Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career. He once remarked on its importance to him, saying, "I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle. If I can't get that sound I can't play anything."[19] In 1939, the family moved to 1701 Kansas Avenue in East St. Louis. For his thirteenth birthday that year Davis' father bought his son a new trumpet, and Davis began to play in local bands, earning as much as $85 a week (US$1,495 in 2017 dollars[20]). Around this time Davis took additional trumpet lessons from Joseph Gustat, principal trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

In 1941, the 15-year-old Davis began at East St. Louis Lincoln High School, where he joined the school's marching band directed by Buchanan and entered music competitions. Davis claimed the contests he did not win were largely due to prejudice over his race, but said that such experiences made him a better musician. Davis proceeded to improve his understanding of music after a drummer he played with around this time suggested Davis play a passage from the previous night, yet Davis was unable to comprehend what he meant. "That hit me ... I went and got everything, every book I could get to learn about theory". It was at Lincoln High where Davis met his first girlfriend, Irene Birth (later Cawthon). Davis had formed his own group by this time, performing in various local venues such as Elks Club and Huff's Beer Garden with hits such as "In the Mood" by Glenn Miller.[23] A portion of his earnings went towards his sister's education at Fisk University. Davis also befriended trumpeter Clark Terry, who also suggested he play without vibrato and performed together in various capacities for several years.

In 1943, at Buchanan's recommendation and Cawthon's persuasion, Davis filled a vacant spot in Eddie Randle's Rhumboogie Orchestra, also known as the Blue Devils, and eventually became its musical director which involved the scheduling of rehearsals and hiring newcomers. Davis later acknowledged his tenure as one of the most important of his career. During this time, Sonny Stitt tried to persuade him to join the Tiny Bradshaw band, then passing through town, but Davis' mother insisted that he finish his final year of high school before he could tour. He said, "I didn't talk to her for two weeks. And I didn't go with the band either". In January 1944, Davis finished his studies at East St. Louis Lincoln High School and graduated in absentia in June. The following month, Cawthon gave birth to a daughter, Cheryl.

In July 1944, Billy Eckstine and his big band, which featured Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Art Blakey, visited St. Louis for a series of performances. They needed a stand-in after third trumpeter Buddy Anderson was too ill to attend. They invited Davis, who accepted and played with the group for two weeks at Club Riviera. The experience was a profound one for Davis, after which he "had to be in New York, where the action was". His mother wanted him to continue with his education and study the piano or violin at Fisk University with his sister, but Davis declined.

Career[edit]

1944–1948: New York City and the bebop years[edit]

In September 1944, Davis accepted his father's idea of studying at the Institute of Musical Arts, later known as the Juilliard School, in New York City. Davis passed his audition and attended classes in music theory, piano and dictation, but soon lost focus and spent much of his time in the club scene and locating Parker, despite being advised against doing so by several people he met in his search, including Coleman Hawkins.[30] After finally locating his idol, Davis became one of the cadre of musicians who held nightly jam sessions at two Harlem nightclubs, Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's. The group included many of the future leaders of the bebop revolution such as Fats Navarro, Freddie Webster, and J. J. Johnson. Established musicians including Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke were also regular participants. In December 1944, Davis reunited with Cawthon and their daughter when they relocated to New York City, the three living in the same building as Parker who eventually became a roommate.

In mid-1945, Davis failed to register for the year's autumn term of study at Juilliard and dropped out after three semesters as he wished to commit to jazz performance full-time. His father advised his son to avoid sounding like everyone else and find his own style yet remained supportive and continued to send over money until Davis could earn enough on his own. Davis later criticized the school's classes for centering too much on the classical European and "white" repertoire, but credited the institution for his education in music theory and improving his trumpet playing technique. Davis began playing professionally, performing in several 52nd Street clubs with Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and, on 24 April 1945, recorded his first sessions in a recording studio as part of Herbie Fields's group with Henry "Rubberlegs" Williams, his first of many as a sideman. Davis' first recording as leader came in 1946 with an occasional group named the Miles Davis Sextet plus Earl Coleman and Ann Hathaway—one of the rare occasions when Davis is heard accompanying singers.[34] Davis would not record another session as leader until 1947.

After Gillespie split from Parker's quintet in 1945, Davis took his place in October and the group performed a residency at various clubs on 52nd Street. On November 26, Davis took part in several recording sessions as part of Parker's group Reboppers that also involved Gillespie and Roach, displaying hints of the style he would become known for. During a take of Parker's signature song "Now's the Time", Davis takes a melodic solo, whose unbop-like quality anticipates the cool jazz period that followed. In 1946, Davis played in a big and small band led by Benny Carter in St. Louis and travels with the group for performances in California. During his time on the west coast, Davis performed with Parker who had also travelled there with Gillespie. During a stop in Los Angeles, Parker suffered from a nervous breakdown that landed him in hospital for several months, leaving Davis stranded. Davis secured a spot on Eckstine's California tour which eventually brought him back to New York City in late 1946.[36] In March 1946, Davis played in studio sessions with Parker and began a collaboration with bassist Charles Mingus that summer, during which Cawthon gave birth to Davis' second child, Gregory, in East St. Louis before reuniting with Davis in New York City the following year. Davis noted that by this time "I was still so much into the music that I was even ignoring Irene", and was drinking and doing cocaine.

Following the breakup of Eckstine's band in early 1947, Davis secured work by playing in a big band led by Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet, and joining a new quintet led by Parker in April that also included Roach. Together they performed live with Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter for much of the year, including several studio sessions. In one session that May, Davis penned the tune "Cheryl", named after his daughter. Davis' first session as a leader followed in August 1947, playing as the Miles Davis All Stars that included Parker, pianist John Lewis, and bassist Nelson Boyd; together they recorded "Milestones", "Half Nelson", and "Sippin' at Bells". After touring Chicago and Detroit with Parker's quintet, Davis returned to New York City in March 1948 and joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour which included a stop in St. Louis on April 30.

1948–1950: Miles Davis Nonet and birth of the cool[edit]

In August 1948, Davis declined an offer to join Duke Ellington's orchestra as he had entered rehearsals with a new, nine-piece band with pianist and arranger Gil Evans and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, taking an active role that soon became his own project.[39] Evans' Manhattan apartment had become the meeting place for several young musicians and composers such as Davis, Roach, Lewis, and Mulligan who were unhappy with the increasingly virtuoso instrumental techniques that dominated the bebop scene. This led to the formation of The Miles Davis Nonet which featured a more unusual line-up with a French horn and tuba. The objective was to achieve a sound similar to the human voice, through carefully arranged compositions and by emphasizing a relaxed, melodic approach to the improvisations. In September, the band completed their sole engagement as the openers for Count Basie at the Royal Roost for two weeks. Davis had to persuade the venue's manager to word the advertising sign as "Miles Davis Nonet. Arrangements by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan". He prevailed only with the help of Monte Kay, the club's artistic director. Davis rejoined Parker's quintet soon after, but relationships within the quintet were growing tense mainly due to Parker's erratic behavior caused by his drug addiction. Early into his tenure with Parker, Davis had adopted a lifestyle of drug abstinence, a vegetarian diet, and spoke of the benefits of water and juice. Matters worsened when Davis and Roach objected to the addition of pianist Duke Jordan[30] and preferred to hire Bud Powell. The situation culminated in December 1948 when Davis quit, claiming he was not being paid.

Davis' split from Parker marked the beginning of a period when he worked mainly as a freelancer and sideman in some of the most important combos in the New York City jazz scene. His nonet remained active until the end of 1949; after landing a recording deal with Capitol Records they recorded sessions in January and April 1949, including the singles "Move" and "Boplicity" which sold little but became influential pieces of music on the "cool" or "west coast" style of jazz. The line-up changed throughout the year and included the additions of tuba player Bill Barber, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who had been preferred to Sonny Stitt as his style was considered too bop-oriented, pianist Al Haig, trombone players Mike Zwerin with Kai Winding, French horn players Junior Collins with Sandy Siegelstein and Gunther Schuller, and bassists Al McKibbon and Joe Shulman. One track featured singer Kenny Hagood. The presence of white musicians in the group angered some black players, many of whom were unemployed at the time, yet Davis rebuffed their criticisms. Recording sessions with the nonet for Capitol Records continued until April 1950; much of it remained unreleased until the issue of Birth of the Cool (1957), its name given to the cool jazz movement that had developed and the musical direction the group had taken.

In May 1949, Davis performed with the Tadd Dameron Quintet with Kenny Clarke and James Moody at the Paris International Jazz Festival, his first trip abroad. Davis took a strong liking for Paris and its cultural environment, where black jazz musicians, and people of color in general, were better respected than in America. The trip, he described, "changed the way I looked at things forever". During his time there Davis began a love affair with singer and actress Juliette Gréco which lasted for several years.

1949–1955: Hard bop and the "Blue Period"[edit]

The early 1950s was a period of great difficulty for Davis. Upon his return from Paris in mid-1949, he became depressed and could only secure little amounts of work which included a short engagement with Powell in October, and guest spots in New York City, Chicago, and Detroit until January 1950. To make matters worse, Davis was falling behind in hotel rent and numerous attempts were made to repossess his car. His heroin use became an expensive addition, and Davis, yet to reach 24 years old, "lost my sense of discipline, lost my sense of control over my life, and started to drift". In August 1950, during a family trip to East St. Louis and Chicago in an attempt to improve their fortunes, Cawthon gave birth to Davis' second son, Miles IV, in Chicago. The latter was where Davis befriended boxer Johnny Bratton and began his strong interest in the sport. Soon after, Davis left Cawthon and his three children in New York City in the hands of his friend and jazz singer Betty Carter who allowed his family to move in with her and looked after the children. Davis remained thankful to Carter for the rest of his life. Davis then toured with Eckstine and Billie Holiday in their backing bands, during which he was arrested for heroin possession in Los Angeles. The story was reported in Down Beat magazine, which caused a further reduction of work for Davis, though he was acquitted weeks later.

In January 1951, Davis' fortunes improved when he secured a one-year recording contract with Prestige Records, an independent jazz label, after owner Bob Weinstock became a fan of Davis' nonet. Davis chose Lewis, trombone player Bennie Green, bassist Percy Heath, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and drummer Roy Hanes; together they recorded what became a portion of Miles Davis and Horns (1956). Davis secured further studio dates for other artists in March, June, and September 1951, and had started taking up work transcribing scores for record labels to fund his heroin addiction. The following month, Davis recorded his second session for Prestige as band leader, the material of which was later released on The New Sounds (1951), Dig (1956), and Conception (1956).

During his heroin addiction, Davis supported his habit partly with his music and partly by living the life of a hustler, exploiting prostitutes and receiving money from friends. By 1953, his addiction began to impair his playing ability and his drug habit became public in a Down Beat interview with Cab Calloway, whom Davis never forgave as it brought him "all pain and suffering". After learning of his father's support, Davis returned to St. Louis and stayed with him for several months to aid his recovery. Though he continued to score heroin out of boredom, Davis caught up with Roach and Mingus in September 1953 who were on their way to Los Angeles for performances. Davis joined them, but the trip caused numerous arguments and problems. Davis returned to his father's home, "determined to kick my habit ... that was the only thing on my mind". He locked himself inside the guest house and stayed inside "for about seven or eight days" until he had gone through the painful and illness-inducing withdrawals. After the ordeal, Davis "sat down and started thinking about how I was going to get my life back together".

After kicking his heroin addiction Davis stayed in Detroit for around six months, avoiding New York City where it was easy to score drugs. Though he did take heroin during his stay, he was healthy enough to resume live performances in local venues, playing with drummer Elvin Jones and pianist Tommy Flanagan as part of Billy Mitchell's house band at the Blue Bird club. He was also "pimping a little" at this time. A widely related story, attributed to Richard "Prophet" Jennings,[54] was that Davis stumbled into Baker's Keyboard Lounge out of the rain, carrying his trumpet in a paper bag under his coat, walked to the bandstand and interrupted Roach and Clifford Brown in the midst of performing "Sweet Georgia Brown" and played "My Funny Valentine" before leaving. Davis was supposedly embarrassed into getting clean by this incident. Davis later disputed this account, stating that Roach had invited him to play and that his decision to finally quit heroin was unrelated to the incident, citing his idol boxer Sugar Ray Robinson as an inspiration to get clean and resume his career.

In February 1954 a clean Davis returned to New York City, feeling good "for the first time in a long time" and mentally and physically stronger, and joined a gym. He informed Weinstock and management at Blue Note Records that he was ready to record music with a quintet, which he was granted and set the task of recording more music than before to make up for lost time. Davis considered two albums with sessions recorded from this time, Miles Davis Quartet (1954) for Prestige and Miles Davis Volume 2 (1956) for Blue Note, as "very important" to him as he felt his performances were particularly strong. Davis was paid roughly $750 (US$6,835 in 2017 dollars[20]) for each album and denied to give away all his publishing rights. By now he had abandoned the bebop style and got to know the music of pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose approach and use of space greatly influenced Davis. When Davis returned to the studio in June 1955 to record Miles Davis Quartet and sought a new pianist, he wished for someone who played like Jamal and picked Red Garland.

Between 1951 and 1954, Davis released many records on Prestige with varied line-ups, many with Rollins and Blakey. Such albums include Blue Haze (1956), Bags' Groove (1957), Walkin' (1957), and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1959), recorded after Davis' recovery from heroin addiction. They document the evolution of Davis' style and sound, including the fixture of the Harmon mute, also known as a wah-wah mute, onto his trumpet and placed close to the microphone which became his signature sound, and more spacious, melodic, and relaxed phrasing. Davis assumed a central position in what is known as hard bop, a contrast to bebop as hard bop included slower tempos and a less radical approach to harmony and melody, often adopting popular tunes and American standards as starting points for improvisation. Hard bop also distanced itself from cool jazz with its harder beat and blues-inspired music.[61] A few critics have named Walkin (1957) the album that created the hard bop genre.[19]

In this period, Davis gained a reputation for being distant, cold, and withdrawn, and for having a quick temper. Davis later wrote that in 1954, Leonard "was the most important thing in my life besides music" and even took on his "arrogant attitude". Factors that contributed to this reputation included his contempt for the critics and specialized press, and some well-publicized confrontations with the public and with fellow musicians. A near fight with Thelonious Monk during the recording of Bags' Groove received wide exposure in the specialized press.[63] In mid-1954, Davis reunited with Gréco for the first time since 1949 after she arrived in New York City for film prospects; the two had been in occasional contact since Davis left Paris. Though Davis was too busy to move to Spain with Gréco, the two "remained lovers for many years".

Davis had an operation to remove polyps from his larynx in October 1955. Even though he was not supposed to speak at all, he had an argument with somebody and raised his voice. This outburst damaged his vocal cords forever, giving him the characteristic raspy voice that came to be associated with him. "[It was] in February or March 1956 that I had my first throat operation and had to disband the group while recovering. During the course of the conversation I raised my voice to make a point and fucked up my voice. I wasn't even supposed to talk for at least ten days, and here I was not only talking, but talking loudly. After that incident my voice had this whisper that has been with me ever since."[30] The "nocturnal" quality of Davis' playing and his somber reputation, along with his whispering voice,[66] earned him the lasting moniker of "prince of darkness", adding a patina of mystery to his public persona.[67]

1955–1959: Signing to Columbia, first great quintet, and modal jazz[edit]

In July 1955, Davis' fortunes improved considerably when he landed a last minute booking at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival on July 17, with a line-up of Monk, Heath, drummer Connie Kay, and horn players Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan. Davis convinced organizer George Wein that he should be on the bill, and Wein complied. The performance was hailed as a triumph by critics and widened Davis' music to the larger affluent white audience, and Davis soon tied first place with Gillespie in the 1955 Down Beat reader's poll in the trumpet category. Davis noted that after his set at Newport "things began to happen". Among them was the start of his longtime association with Columbia Records after producer George Avakian saw Davis perform at Newport and wished to sign him. With a year remaining on his Prestige agreement, which required Davis to release four more albums, Davis secured a contract with Columbia which included a $4,000 advance (US$36,542 in 2017 dollars[20]) and a condition that his recordings for the label remained unreleased until his Prestige agreement had expired.

After recording sessions for Mingus for his newly established Debut label, and a successful gig at Café Bohemia with Rollins, Garland, Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Davis used this line-up to record his final sessions for Prestige. It took Davis two sessions, held on 11 May and 26 October 1956, to record enough material to fulfil his contract which was released in a series of four albums: Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957), Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958), Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), and Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961), each being instrumental in establishing Davis' quintet as one of the best on the scene.

In mid-1955, Davis recruited players for what became known as his first "great quintet" of Garland, Chambers, Jones, and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who was chosen after the unsuccessful attempt to recruit Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Neither of Davis' picks were widely known at the time, nor had they received a great deal of exposure. The five debuted on record with the widely received 'Round About Midnight (1957), Davis' first for Columbia. Their live repertoire included a mix of bebop mainstays, jazz standards from the Great American Songbook and pre-bop eras, and traditional tunes. The prevailing style of the group was a development of the Davis experience in the previous years—Davis playing long, legato, and essentially melodic lines, while Coltrane, who during these years emerged as a leading figure on the musical scene, contrasted by playing high-energy solos.

In November 1956, Davis split his quintet temporarily to tour Europe as part of the Birdland All-Stars, formed of himself, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and a line-up of French and German musicians. During his stay in Paris, he reunited with Greco for the first time since 1949. He then returned home, reunited his quartet, and toured the US for two months from December 1956. The tour was met with internal friction however, as Davis had gotten tired of Jones' and Coltrane's drug addictions, causing them to turn up late to gigs or at times not at all. Davis, on the other hand, was exercising regularly and consuming alcohol in moderation, despite the occasional time he would "snort a little coke". Davis fired Jones and Coltrane at the tour's end in March 1957, and were replaced by saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Art Taylor.

In November 1957, Davis returned to Paris where he recorded the soundtrack to Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958). With the aid of French session musicians Barney Wilen, Pierre Michelot, and René Urtreger, and American drummer Kenny Clarke, the group recorded the score without relying on written material and improvised as they watched the film on a screen in the studio. Davis returned to New York City in December and revived his quintet with a returning Coltrane, now clean from his drug habit, and Adderley. Now a sextet, the group recorded material in early 1958 that was released on Milestones (1958), an album that first showcased Davis' interest in modal jazz. Davis had witnessed a performance of Les Ballets Africains from Guinea which sparked his interest in such music, then new concept that called for a slower, deliberate pace of music and allowed the creation of solos out of harmony rather than chords. Such music from the ballet featured the kalimba played for long periods of time on a single chord, weaving in and out of consonance and dissonance. By May 1958, Davis had replaced Jones with drummer Jimmy Cobb and faced Garland walking out of the group, leaving Davis to play piano on "Sid's Ahead" on Milestones. Davis wanted a new pianist who could get into modal jazz which he found in Bill Evans, a young white musician with a classical background. Evans had a unique, impressionistic approach to the piano, and his musical ideas had a strong influence on Davis. After eight months of touring, however, Evans was burned out and left in late 1958. He was replaced by Wynton Kelly who brought a swinging, bluesy approach that contrasted with Evans' more delicate playing. The six made their recording debut on a compilation album, Jazz Track (1958).

1957–1963: Collaborations with Gil Evans and Kind of Blue[edit]

By early 1957, Davis was exhausted from recording and touring with his quintet and wished to pursue new projects. During a two-week residency in Chicago in March, the 30-year-old Davis told journalists of his intention to retire at its conclusion and revealed offers he had received to become a teacher at Harvard University and a musical director at a record label. Avakian agreed that it was time for Davis to explore something different, but Davis rejected his suggestion of returning to his nonet as he took it as a step backward. Avakian then suggested that Davis work with a bigger ensemble, similar to what he had played on Music for Brass (1957), an album of orchestral and brass-arranged music led by Gunther Schuller featuring Davis as a guest soloist. Davis accepted, and wished to work with arranger and composer Gil Evans in what became a five-album collaboration from 1957 to 1962. The first, Miles Ahead (1957), showcased Davis playing a flugelhorn and a rendition "The Maids of Cadiz" by Léo Delibes, the first piece of European classical music that Davis recorded. Evans devised orchestral passages as transitions between each track were joined together with studio editing, turning each side of the album into a seamless piece of music.[88]Porgy and Bess (1959) features arrangements of pieces from George Gershwin's opera which included Chambers, Jones, and Adderley. Sketches of Spain (1960) explored Spanish music with tracks by contemporary composers Joaquín Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla with originals from Evans. Recording was met with difficulties as the classical players were unable to improvise to what Evans wished for and the jazz musicians found the arrangements too difficult. "Solea" features a 10-minute trumpet solo by Davis. The album was a critical success and sold over 120,000 copies in the US. Davis performed with an orchestra conducted by Evans at Carnegie Hall in May 1961 to raise money for charity. The pair's final album was Quiet Nights (1962), a collection of bossa novas released against their wishes; Evans stated it was only half an album and blamed the record company; Davis blamed producer Teo Macero, and did not speak to him for more than two years. Davis noted later that "my best friend is Gil Evans"; their work was featured in the boxed set Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (1996) which won a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes in 1997.

In March and April 1959, Davis recorded what many critics consider his greatest album, Kind of Blue (1959). Davis named the album to describe its overall mood. He called back Bill Evans, months away from forming what would become his own seminal trio, for the album sessions, as the music had been planned around Evans' piano style. Both Davis and Evans were acquainted with the ideas of pianist George Russell regarding modal jazz; Davis from discussions with Russell and others before the Birth of the Cool sessions, and Evans from studying with Russell in 1956. Davis, however, had neglected to inform current pianist Wynton Kelly of Evans' role in the recordings; Kelly subsequently played only on the track "Freddie Freeloader" and was not present at the April dates for the album. "So What" and "All Blues" had been played by the sextet at performances prior to the recording sessions, but for the other three compositions, Davis and Evans prepared skeletal harmonic frameworks that the other musicians saw for the first time on the day of recording, to allow a fresher approach to their improvisations. The resulting album has proven both highly popular and enormously influential. Released in August 1959, Kind of Blue was an instant success, with widespread radio airplay and rave reviews from critics. It remains the best selling jazz album of all time; in October 2008, the album reached 4× platinum from the Recording Industry Association of America for selling over four million copies in the US alone.[97] In 2009, the US House of Representatives voted 409–0 to pass a resolution that honored it as a national treasure.[98][99]

During the success of Kind of Blue, Davis found himself involved with the law. On August 25, 1959, during a recording session at the Birdland nightclub in New York City for the US armed services, Davis took a break outside the club. As he was escorting a blonde woman across the sidewalk to a taxi, Davis was told by patrolman Gerald Kilduff to "move on".[101] Davis explained that he was working at the club and refused to move,[102] yet Kilduff proceeded to arrest Davis and grabbed him as Davis tried to protect himself.[101] Witnesses said the patrolman punched Davis in the stomach with his nightstick without provocation.[101] Two detectives held the crowd back, while a third approached Davis from behind and beat him in the head. Davis was arrested and taken to jail where he was charged for assaulting an officer before he was taken to hospital where he received five stitches.[101] Davis was released on a $525 bail (US$4,407 in 2017 dollars[20]). By January 1960, Davis was acquitted of disorderly conduct and third-degree assault. Davis later stated the incident "changed my whole life and whole attitude again, made me feel bitter and cynical again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country".

Davis supported Kind of Blue with an extended tour with his sextet. He persuaded Coltrane to play with the group on one final European tour in the spring of 1960. Coltrane then departed to form his classic quartet, although he returned for some of the tracks on Davis' album Someday My Prince Will Come (1961). Its front cover features a photograph of his wife at that time, Frances Taylor, after Davis demanded that Columbia depict black women on his album covers. By 1961, Ebony magazine estimated Davis was earning as much as $150,000 a year (US$1,228,396 in 2017 dollars[20]).[54] After Coltrane, Davis tried various saxophonists, including Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, and Hank Mobley. The quintet with Hank Mobley was recorded in the studio and on several live engagements at Carnegie Hall and the Black Hawk jazz club in San Francisco. Stitt's playing with the group is found on a recording made in Olympia, Paris (where Davis and Coltrane had played a few months before) and the Live in Stockholm album.

In early 1958, Davis began a relationship with Frances Taylor, a dancer whom he had first met in Los Angeles five years prior, and they married on December 21, 1960.[105] The relationship involved numerous incidents of Davis' domestic violence towards Taylor. Davis later wrote, "Every time I hit her, I felt bad because a lot of it really wasn't her fault but had to do with me being temperamental and jealous".[108] One reason for his behavior was that by early 1963, Davis had increased his abuse of alcohol and cocaine in an attempt to reduce the pain from his hip and joint pain and discomfort caused from his recent diagnosis of sickle cell anemia. He also experienced hallucinations, "looking for this imaginary person" in his home to the point of searching the house wielding a kitchen knife. About a week after the photograph for Davis' album E.S.P. (1965) was taken, Taylor left Davis for the last time. They remained separated until they officially divorced in February 1968.

1963–1968: Second "great quintet"[edit]

In December 1962, Davis and his line-up of Kelly, Chambers, Cobb, and Rollins played together for the last time after the first three wished to leave and play as a trio. Rollins left to join them soon after, leaving Davis to pay over $25,000 (US$202,255 in 2017 dollars[20]) to cancel upcoming gigs and quickly assemble a new group. Following auditions, he found his new band in tenor saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Victor Feldman, and drummer Frank Butler, and the five proceeded to record in the studio. By May 1963, Feldman and Butler were replaced by pianist Herbie Hancock and the 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams who made Davis "excited all over again". With this group, Davis completed the rest of what became Seven Steps to Heaven (1963) and recorded the live albums Miles Davis in Europe (1964), My Funny Valentine (1965), and Four & More (1966). The quintet played essentially the same repertoire of bebop tunes and standards that earlier Davis bands had played, but tackled them with increasing structural and rhythmic freedom and, in the case of the up-tempo material, breakneck speed.

In mid-1964, Coleman was replaced by saxophonist Sam Rivers until Davis persuaded Wayne Shorter to end his tenure with Art Blakey and join him, thus becoming what is known as Davis' second "great quintet" which lasted through 1968. Shorter became the group's principal composer and Davis' album E.S.P. (1965) was named after his composition recorded for it. While touring Europe, the group made their first official recording, Miles in Berlin (1965). On returning to the US in late 1964 Davis, at Jackie DeShannon's urging, was instrumental in getting rock band The Byrds signed to Columbia.

By 1965, Davis required medical attention for the pain in his hip, which had worsened since his Japanese tour the previous year. He underwent hip replacement surgery in April 1965 with bone taken from his shin, but it failed. After his third month in the hospital, Davis discharged himself and went home due to boredom. He returned to the hospital in August, however, after a fall in his home caused damage that required a second operation, with a plastic hip joint inserted. In November 1965, Davis had recovered enough to return to live performance with his quintet, which included gigs at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, marking the return of Macero as Davis' engineer and producer after their rift over Quiet Nights had healed. Unlike their studio albums, the quintet still played primarily jazz standards and bebop tunes, although some of the titles remain the same as the tunes played by Davis' first quintet, the quick tempos and musical departure from the framework of the tune are dramatic.

The house at 1701 Kansas Avenue in East St. Louis, Illinois where Davis lived from 1939 to 1944.
Davis on piano with Howard McGhee (trumpet), Joe Albany (pianist, standing) and Brick Fleagle (guitarist, smoking), September 1947
A wah-wahmute for the trumpet which Davis started to use in the mid-1950s. It became his signature sound and he used it for the rest of his career.
Davis performing in Antibes, France in July 1963

Over six full decades, from his arrival on the national scene in 1945 until his death in 1991, Miles Davis made music that grew from an uncanny talent to hear the future and a headstrong desire to play it. From his beginnings in the circle of modern jazz, he came to intuit new worlds of sound and challenge. While the vast majority of musicians – jazz, rock, R&B, otherwise – find the experimental charge and imperviousness of youth eventually running down, Miles forever forged ahead, trusting and following instinct until the end.

In doing so, Miles became the standard bearer for successive generations of musicians, shaped the course of modern improvisational music more than a half-dozen times. This biography attempts to explain those paradigm-shifts one after another, through his recordings and major life changes.

The factors leading to that process are now the foundation of the Miles Davis legend: the dentist’s son born in 1926 to middle-class comfort in East St Louis. The fresh acolyte learning trumpet in the fertile, blues-drenched music scene of his hometown. The sensitive soul forging a seething streetwise exterior that later earned him the title, Prince Of Darkness. The determined teenager convincing his parents to send him to New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music in 1944, a ploy allowing him to locate and join the band of his idol, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

It wasn’t long before the headstrong young arrival grew from sideman to leading his own projects and bands of renown, from the restrained, classical underpinning of the famous “Birth of the Cool” group (Miles’ first foray with arranger Gil Evans), to the blues-infused hardbop anthem “Walkin’”, to his first famous quintet (Coltrane, Chambers, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones) with whom his recordings on muted trumpet helped him develop a signature sound that broke through to mainstream recognition. His subsequent jump from recording with independent labels (Prestige, Blue Note) to Columbia Records, then the Tiffany of record companies, propelled his career further from a limited jazz audience and a series of late ‘50s albums (Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain) secured his widespread popularity.

Miles’ group shifted and morphed through the early ‘60s until he settled for a four-year run with his classic quintet, a lineup that is still hailed today as one of the greatest and most influential jazz groups of all time. Their albums together — from Miles Smiles, ESP and Nefertiti, to Miles In The Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro — traced a pattern of unparalleled growth and innovation.

Had Miles stopped his progress at that point, he’d still be hailed as one of the greatest pioneers in jazz, but his creative momentum from the end of the ‘60s into the ‘70s would not let up. He was listening to the world around him — the amplified explosion of rock bands and the new, heavy-on-the-one funk of James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone. From the ambient hush of In A Silent Way, to the strange and unsettling – yet wildly popular Bitches Brew, he achieved another shift in musical paradigm and a personal career breakthrough.

Bitches Brew was controversial, a best-seller and attracted another, younger generation into the Miles fold. Thousands whose musical taste respected no categorical walls flocked to hear Miles, and a slew of fusion bands were soon spawned, led by his former sidemen: Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever. The studio albums that defined Miles’ kaleidoscopic sound in the ‘70s included a series of (mostly) double albums, from …Brew to 1971’s Live-Evil, ‘72’s On The Corner and ‘75’s Get Up With It. The covers listed populous line-ups that reached up to 11 musicians, adding new names to an ever-widening circle of on-call talent.

By the end of 1975, Miles was tired – and sick. A period of seclusion ensued, full years to deal with personal demons and health issues, bouncing between bouts of self-abuse and boredom. It was the longest time Miles had been off the public radar – only amplifying the appetite for his return.

When Miles reappeared in 1981, expectation had reached fever pitch. A final series of albums for Columbia reflected his continuing fascination with funk of the day (Rose Royce, Cameo, Chaka Khan and later, Prince), and the sounds of synthesizer and drum machines (Great Miles Shift Number 8). The Man With A Horn, We Want Miles and Decoy found him still working with Teo Macero and still surrounding himself with young talent, including bassist Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones). In 1985, his album You’re Under Arrest — with unexpected covers of recent pop charters (Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”) – brought the long Davis-Columbia association to a close. He embarked on a new relationship with Warner Bros. Records and producer Tommy LiPuma, scoring successes with Tutu (written in a large part by his bassist Marcus Miller), Music from Siesta (also with Miller), Amandla (featuring a new breed of soloists, including alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza, guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco, and others) and Doo-Bop (his collaboration with hip hop producer Easy Moe Bee.)

Those titles proved Miles’ farewell, still pushing forward, still exploring new musical territory. Throughout his career, he had always resisted looking back, avoiding nostalgia and loathing leftovers. “It’s more like warmed-over turkey,” the eternal modernist described the music of Kind of Blue twenty-five years after recording it. Ironically, in 1991, only weeks after performing a career-overview concert in Paris that featured old friends and collaborators from as early as the ‘40s, he died from a brain aneurysm.

Like his music, Miles always spoke with an economy of expression. And for Miles, it had to be fresh, or forget it. “I don’t want you to like me because of Kind of Blue,” he insisted. “Like me for what we’re doing now.”

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