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Broadly accepted and considered as one of greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century, Miles Davis was at the forefront of every reincarnation of jazz. From the earlier genres of bebop jazz, that was characterized by a “fast, inventive soloing and dynamic rhythm variation, to the slower and less flashy style of jazz” referred to as cool jazz for which he is most famous for. His experimentations with hard bop and jazz funk gave birth to the modern day rock and roll and rap music respectively.
Though critics might argue his best work was earlier in his career, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, St Louis Walk Hall of Fame and Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame only speaks volume of a master of his art who was ahead of his time who created an unblemished style of jazz that will withstand the test of time.
Born in May 25 1926 in Alton Illinois, Miles Davis was exposed to music from an early age by his parents. His father, Dr. Miles Dewey Davis II, a dentist, bought him a trumpet probably to annoy his mother, Cleota Mae (Henry) Davis who was a talented blues pianist. His mother would have preferred Miles to learn to play the piano since she was irritated by the sound of the trumpet. While still at a tender age of 13, his tutor at that time Elwood Buchanan, a local musician, expected his student to learn to play without the vibrato, whereby you rely on tone rather than speed, which was unlike many musicians at that time. Davis would later “carry this signature style throughout his career” (Davis.106).
The young musician’s talents didn’t go unnoticed and by the age of 16 he had cut a niche for himself and was now part of the music society in St Louis. He was now playing gigs in local bars and by the age of 17 was the band leader of Eddie Randle’s outfit, the Blue Devils. In 1944, Billy Eckstine’s band, which also consisted of Dizzy Gellespie and Charlie Parker, visited his hometown St Louis in 1944 and “Davis was asked to play as third trumpet after Buddy Anderson fell suddenly ill.” (Floyd A et al.) This could have been his big break but his parents insisted that he must finish his studies so the band continued with the rest of their tour without him.
After finishing high school Miles Davis was enrolled to study at the esteemed Julliard School of music at New York City. The influence of Bebop jazz was quite big in New York City and Miles found concentrating on his classical studies to be a tall order. Shortly after he abandoned his studies and immersed himself into the world of jazz, becoming a full time musician at spring of 1945. His earlier gigs involved him playing Bebop combos mostly with “Charlie Parker’s Quintet” (Cole. 72)
Birth of the Cool
The Bebop style of Jazz was different to what Miles Davis had in mind. “The fast, inventive soloing and dynamic rhythm variation” would be substituted by a more laid back style that was totally different. In 1948 he organized musicians to form a new band that would play a different style of jazz. The group landed a contract with Capitol Records after a superb performance at the Royal Roost in New York. They recorded this new style between 1949 and 1950 which was typically referred to as cool jazz. This session was later renamed as “Birth of The Cool”. Later on, Miles would record another session, titled “Walkin” which was slower than ordinary Bebop but still quite different from cool jazz. It had a much heavier groovier beat to it which contained certain elements of rhythm and blues. This genre was referred to as “hard bop.” (Cole. 82)
The New Miles Davis Quintet
An addiction to heroin the early1950s affected his performances and his recordings became more haphazard with some albums not being highly accredited. He was able to get rid of the habit by the middle of the 50s and what followed was a phenomenal show at the Newport Jazz Festival that led to him being signed by Columbia Records. The prestigious contract allowed him to assemble a more stable band that contained “John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.” (Carr Ian) The outfit went on to record some classic albums even though the group was later restructured due to the departure of Red garland and Philly Joe Jones.
Miles Davis continued with his checkered career throughout the 1950s and 60s produced some masterpieces like “Kind of Blue” that is a landmark in modern jazz and “Bitches Brew” that was a jazz-rock style which appealed to young, non-jazz listeners but surprisingly put off staunch jazz fans.
Miles was a mystery. His brush with police, fighting off a heroin addiction and a grief, solitary appearance didn’t define his character. Maybe this unique personality is what separated him from other artists of his time. All the great minds in the world from Albert Einstein to Leonardo da Vinci were never really understood. Miles Davis died in September 28 1991, leaving behind a legacy that is simply, timeless.
Ian Carr, Miles Davis: A Critical Biography. New York: Morrow, 1982; London: Quartet Books, 1982.99-111.
Cole Bill, Miles Davis: The early Years. New York. Da Capo Press, 1994. 63-87.