Miles Davis created a career remarkable for its varied nature and its exploration of all the different aspects of music that make up jazz. In the five decades that he was a fixture in the jazz world, he played music ranging from bebop, blues and cool jazz to experiments with fusion, rock and funk. More importantly, over those years, and with the seminal albums that he recorded with the jazz world’s greatest musicians, he continually evolved, permanently changing the face of jazz four separate times.
Born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois, Miles’ family soon moved to East St. Louis. He began taking music lessons when he was around ten, and after playing in his high-school band, he made his way to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. His musical education was further developed in Harlem, at nightclubs like the fabled Minton’s Playhouse. At that point, he really adopted New York as his home, and lived much of his life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
He made his recording debut in 1945 and counted among his early influences Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, playing in Parker’s quintet in New York and recording extensively with him from 1946-1948. He struck out on his own in 1948, creating the nine-piece ensemble with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan that would be the main force to bring “cool jazz” to the world’s attention. Though the band ultimately performed in only two separate engagements, the tracks that they recorded for Capitol were issued several years later as the album, Birth of the Cool, the first of Miles’ seminal recordings. For Miles personally the time with the nonet established him as a band leader in his own right.
After conquering an addiction to heroin, Miles made a comeback at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, with a now legendary performance of “Round Midnight.” This led to one of the most fertile periods in his career. From 1955 until the end of the decade, Miles was one of the most dominant figures in jazz. The quintet he formed which included John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones recorded six albums within one year. In 1957, he teamed up with Gil Evans and began recording the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and most importantly Sketches of Spain, which would introduce orchestral jazz as another layer in American music.
The next two years brought Kind of Blue, recorded with the sextet which included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans, and which is considered by some to be the most influential album in jazz history. It signaled another tidal shift in music, opening up modal jazz, which diverged from traditional harmonies and allowed for soloists to improvise based more on melody and less on chord structure.
In the 1960s, Miles continued his pattern of finding and collaborating with the best young and upcoming musicians of the day. His new quintet brought together Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Their work between 1963 and 1967 took improvisation to new heights, frequently deconstructing standards and traditionally themed music and rendering them almost unrecognizable.
At the end of the decade, Miles once again shifted gears, and began his exploration of what would eventually become known as jazz-rock fusion. He began to play longer songs, with less concentration on standard song structure, frequently without any written themes at all. He began to alter instrumentation in his ensembles, incorporating electric keyboards and guitar and eventually in rock rhythms. The albums that came out of this period, In a Silent Way and most importantly, Bitches Brew, illustrated yet another genre for which Miles helped pioneer – fusion.
He continued with his exploration of fusion until illness forced him to retire in 1975. He didn’t perform again for five years, showing back up on the scene in 1980. In the next eleven years, he regained a great deal of his former capacity, touring frequently. In 1984, Miles traveled to Denmark, where he was presented with the Sonning Award, a lifetime achievement award which had previously only been given to classical musicians.
In the last decade of his performing career, Miles incorporated many of the elements of his music history, using electronic instruments and rhythms borrowed from rock, but also using traditional structures in his music. His last major appearance was at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991, lwhere he surprised the audience by revisiting the orchestral arrangements that he had made famous with Gil Evans in the 1950s.
He died two months later, on September 28, 1991, of a stroke following a bout with pneumonia and respiratory failure.
Miles Davis’ legacy is unshakeable for its sheer breadth and evolution. Never content to stay tied to one style of playing, he led the jazz world in different directions, time after time. His brilliance for bringing young and talented musicians into his ensembles cannot be understated, having helped launch the careers of everyone from Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly to the next generation of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and then to the next generation of Keith Jarrett, Dave Liebman and Kenny Garrett. His continued influence can be seen among the scores of contemporary musicians who look back to all of his career - his days in bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz, orchestral jazz and rock and fusion – for inspiration.