The history of African American music is long and rich in content. This is why the question about who qualifies as the greatest African American musician of all time always elicits big debates. When it comes to the greatest African American musician of all time, more than a dozen names come up. There are those who came earlier like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker.
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Then there are later participants like Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye. Both lists feature personalities of great talent. Most of these musicians qualify for the title of the greatest musician.
However, when it comes to modern music, I believe Jazz musician Miles Davis deserves this title. Miles, a Jazz trumpeter has his origins in Missouri. This paper will trace Miles’ roots, his career, his contribution to African American music, and his influences.
Unlike most African Americans of his time, Miles was brought up in a wealthy household. He was born in 1926 in Alton Illinois. His father Henry Davis was a successful dentist. His family owned a big town house as well as a 100-acre ranch. In his younger days, Miles frequented the ranch where he loved to ride horses. When he was young, Davis’ mother wanted her son to learn how to play the piano.
However, when he was about thirteen years old, his father gave him a trumpet. After noting the young boy’s interest in the instrument, Miles’ father decided to hire a tutor for his son. Therefore, St. Louis’ musician Elwood Buchanan became Mile’s first trumpet teacher. Buchanan was the one who taught Miles how to play the trumpet without vibrato. Miles used this style throughout his career.
Miles Davis was once quoted commenting on the role music played in his life. He said that music was “like a curse” to him because it dominated his every thought. However, as a young boy Miles dreamt of being a baseball player. This all changed when his father gave him his first trumpet.
At Lincoln high school, Miles’ talent was well known. It is said that his first encounters with jazz were on St. Louis-Mississippi’s riverboats where artists were paid to entertain commuters.
Miles showed great talent when it came to playing the Trumpet. By the time he was seventeen years old, Miles had already managed to penetrate the music society. When in high school, Miles used to follow the performances of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Finally, the two musicians asked Miles to replace a sick trumpeter in their band. This incident marked Miles’ first appearance with a popular band.
After a few gigs with Charlie Parker’s band, Miles moved to New York to study music. This was right after he had graduated from high school and Miles thought that a chance to study classical music at the prestigious Juilliard Music School would help launch his career. After arriving in New York, Miles sought to continue his music relationship with Tony Parker.
After he succeeded in doing so, Miles would be a student in the daytime and a professional musician at night. It was during these night jam sessions at Harlem nightclubs that he got the chance to interact with several musicians. Later in his career, he ended up collaborating with most of these musicians.
Mile Davis is considered a pioneer of bebop style of jazz. However, this style was invented by Charlie Parker one of Miles’ earliest jazz influences (Gridley and Cutler 34). This style would later be one of the main influences of modern jazz.
When studying music at Juilliard, Miles had a hard time adjusting to the school’s mostly European Classical music curriculum. It is possibly the reason why Miles opted to drop out of the school with his father’s blessings. However, in his biography Miles admitted to benefitting greatly from the training he got during his stint at the music school. After dropping out of music school, Miles became a full time Jazz musician.
The first band he worked with was Charlie Parker’s Quintet. Miles continued to work closely with Parker between 1945 and 1948. During the many times Davis recorded with Parker, it was becoming clear that he was already breaking out with a unique style. This style featured a deviation of Parker’s bebop style and it was later to be known as Cool Jazz (Meadows 98).
When with Parker’s quintet band, Miles Davis had the chance of touring expansively across the United States. It was during one of such tours in Los Angeles that Parker suffered a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized for a few weeks. Following Parker’s absence, Davis found himself without a permanent band. It was during this period that Miles experimented and finally found his unique playing style.
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During this period, Davis teamed up with other jazz artists like Charles Mingus and Billy Eckstine (Stewart 197). After Parker came out of the hospital, his relationship with Miles began becoming more strained. Finally, the two parted ways in 1948.
In 1949, Miles formed a band that featured his original ideas. The band incorporated extraordinary instruments such as the tuba. Using this band, Miles was able to make the first significant contribution to jazz music through his album “The Birth of Cool” (Meadows 45). His collaboration with composer and arranger Bill Evans was a significant development in the realization of this project.
His band at the time consisted of musician Roach, piano player John Lewis, and Saxophone player Gerry Mulligan. Initially, there was controversy over the inclusion of white members in Miles’ band. Soon after, Miles moved on to another band that he co-lead with piano player Tad Dameron. However, Davis’ career hit a roadblock when a heroin addiction proved too hard to manage.
By 1950, Miles’ recordings had become more haphazard mostly because of his drug problem. However, in 1951 he signed a deal to record for Prestige Records. His work for this label continued for the next few years. Somewhere in the mid 1950s, Davis was able to overcome his addiction and focus solely on his music.
The strongest indication that he had completely recovered was during his performance of “Round Midnight” during the Newport Jazz festival in 1955. This particular performance caught the eye of executives at Columbia Records a major recording label at the time. He then signed a very prestigious deal with the company.
His financial security made it possible for him to form a permanent band. In 1955, his Quintet began work on the band’s debut album at Columbia. The album was titled “Round about Midnight”. This band included drummer Philly Joe, base guitarist Paul Chambers, Saxophonist John Coltrane, and Red Garland as the pianist. His previous contract with Prestige Records was however not over and he still had some work left.
This meant he had to work with two recording outfits at the time. However, his new permanent band enabled him to finish his previous commitment with Prestige Records. This band also became one of Miles most recorded outfits. Later on, Miles again teamed up with Bill Evans to work on his second project for the new label. The album was called “Miles Ahead” and it included the flugelhorn as the lead instrument.
This album was later inducted into the Grammy hall of fame. After the release of this album in 1958, Miles Davis went to Paris where he met Cannonball Adderley an adept saxophone player. He then made the saxophonist an addition to his band making it a sextet. This new band’s first project was the album “Milestones”.
In July 1958, Miles collaborated with composer Bill Evans and an orchestra to record a compilation that was known as “Porgy and Bess”. By that time Miles had began experimenting with his sextet. He was trying to make his inventions based on music-scales as opposed to chord-changes. His next album “Kind of Blue” featured some of these experimentations and it went on to become one of the most influential jazz albums to date. The album is practically his most popular recording and it managed to sell over two million copies.
This is quite a milestone especially for a jazz album. From that time onwards, Miles formed a pattern of alternating his releases between collaborations with Evans and work with his sextet. One of his collaborations with Evans was “Sketches of Pain” an album that featured traditional Spanish music.
The album was quite successful. His subsequent works mostly featured Coltrane, the sixth member of his band, as a guest. His quintet was also involved in the recording of two LP sets in 1961.
In 1963, Miles recorded the album “Seven Steps to Heaven” using a completely new outfit. He featured future jazz heavy weights like Tony Williams and Ron Carter. The album performed well in both the charts and the awards circuit managing to earn a double nomination at the Grammys.
Using a saxophonist from his 1958 band and other players from his 1963 band, Miles was able to record back-to-back successful albums. These albums featured original compositions and they include “Miles in the Sky”, “Files de Kilimanjaro”, “Sorcerer”, and “Nefertiti”
In the following years, Miles kept alternating between old and new band members. With his new album of 1969 “In a Silent Way”, Miles was able to come up with an original Jazz-rock fusion. “Bitches Brew” was the most successful album that featured this new genre. In 1971, he was able to record five albums using this popular genre.
In the following year, Miles was involved in a car accident that rendered him inactive for the next five years. During this period, he fell back into alcohol and cocaine addiction. In 1980, he made a recovery from his drug addiction and made a successful comeback with “The Man with the Horn”.
Thereafter, he went on a successful tour. However, by this time he was already an honorary jazz-musician godfather. The next years marked an extensive touring period for Miles. He however continued to record music. His last recording was a collaboration with the famous musician Quincy Jones.
Miles Davis suffered from respiratory complications that took his life in1991. Some of his music was released posthumously. He also managed to win a Grammy award in 1993.
During his later years, Miles refused to perform his earlier recordings. When asked why he did not want to play them, he simply said that their influence was over (Iyer 56). Nevertheless, there were those who felt that his earlier work was more solid content-wise.
Miles is undoubtedly one of the greatest musicians in the history of African American Music. His innovative approach to music has come to dominate modern music. The Rolling Stone magazine noted that Miles was influential in every change assumed by Jazz music from the late 1940s. His role in this change has always been controversial.
There is no other musician in the history of Jazz music that came close to Miles in terms of influence. His “Kind of Blue” album is still the best selling jazz album to date (O’Meally 135). The album was also recognized by the United States House of Representatives. Miles has influenced tens of jazz musicians. Many other musicians also rose to prominence after being members of Miles’ ensembles.
One of the things that made Miles such a great performer was his incorporation of traditional African American Music into his work. For instance, his love for Blues was particularly great. Miles also managed to preserve some of the greatest elements of African American music in his recordings over the four decades he was active.
Gridley, Mark and David Cutler. Jazz Styles, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Print.
Iyer, Vijay. “Microtiming in African-American Music.” Music Perception 19.3 (2002): 387- 414. Print.
Meadows, Eddie. Bebop to Cool: Context, Ideology, and Musical Identity, New York: Praeger Publishers, 2003. Print.
O’Meally, Robert. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Print.
Stewart, Earl. African American Music: An Introduction, New York: Schirmer Books, 1998. Print.