Been out of town for business most of this week; just got in.  Sorry for posting late.

Miles Davis

While the following may seem long and detailed, it is in fact an abridgment of the wealth of information available at the Wikipedia site on Davis, if you are interested in investigating Davis or any of the periods or styles he pioneered – or the musicians with whom he worked – in more detail.  My hat is off to the folks at Wikipedia for pulling together such an amazing amount of information in an easily readable, informative form.

Early Life and Career

Continuing our profile of important figures in Jazz, this week we take a look at Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991), a jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer.  From the 1940s until his death from pneumonia, respiratory failure and a stroke in 1991 at the age of 65, he pushed the boundaries of jazz, from bebop through jazz fusion and beyond; each time he innovated, a new generation of musicians would build on his breakthroughs to expand the horizons of the art form.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Miles Davis is as important a figure in jazz as is Picasso in art.

Davis was born in Alton, Ill., and raised in East St. Louis.  His family was relatively affluent (his father was a dentist).  He began trumpet lessons at 13.  By age 16 he was a member of the musician’s union, and playing professionally while still in high school.  In 1945, he went to New York – his parents thought he was attending the Julliard School of Music, but he neglected his studies to play with well-known jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, joining Parker’s quintet on seminal bebop recordings in the late 1940s.  By 1948, his own recording career began to bloom.  He formed a nonet that included such unusual instruments in a jazz setting as a French horn and a tuba.  The group recorded a number of singles in 1949 – 1950 later released in 1957 as the album “Birth of the Cool.”  This is an amazing album, whose ideas are 15 or even 20 years ahead of other musicians.  It is almost impossible to believe it was recorded in 1949 until the final tune, a vocal track that suddenly jars you back from the sonic horizons you were exploring and returns you to 1949. (Can you tell I think that cut was a mistake, LOL?)  He continued to perform and record with some of the brightest stars in the jazz universe of the era.  Unfortunately, like many musicians of the time, he became addicted to heroin, and put his career on hold in 1954 to return to East St. Louis where his father helped him kick his habit.  

First Quintet & Sextet – 1955-58

In 1955, his period of seclusion over, he performed concert dates with Thelonius Monk, and then formed his first quintet, which included John Coltrane on saxophone.  He also began using a mute on his trumpet to create a more somber sound, which he would often use for the remainder of his career.  Rather than continuing in the popular bebop style of the time, with its emphasis on rhythmic complexity and player virtuosity, the group developed a slower, more melodic style exploring the musical possibilities of different, non-standard, musical modes (musical modes differ from one another in where they place the half-steps in an octave; see here for a more in-depth discussion).  Albums from this group include “‘Round About Midnight” and four albums from one two-day recording session in 1956: “Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet,” “Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet,” “Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet,” and “Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.”  Unfortunately, due to drug use by some group members, the quintet broke up in 1957.  

In 1958 the quintet reformed as a sextet, with the addition of Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on alto saxophone.  This group recorded the album “Milestones,” which featured both the new modal jazz as well as bebop and blues numbers.

With Gil Evans – 1957-63

Davis next turned to an exploration of large-group music, working with arranger Gil Evans for several albums.  The first album, “Miles Ahead” featured a jazz big band.  Their next collaboration was a 1958 recording of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” with the well-known tunes providing a showcase for Davis’ improvisations.  In 1959-60 they recorded “Sketches of Spain,” where Davis improvised on pieces by Spanish composers, including Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” backed up by a full orchestra.  While the two would work together on other projects up to 1968, these are their best known albums.

Kind of Blue – 1959-64

Overlapping with the large-group sessions above, Davis continued to record with his quintet, although there were some personnel changes.  A fortunate addition was Bill Evans (no relation to Gil Evans) on piano; the group recorded the album “Kind of Blue,” which the RIAA reports is the best-selling jazz album ever.  The album was also a huge influence on other musicians.  Amazingly, in keeping with their “modal jazz” approach, Davis and Evans only sketched out the basic ideas for each piece, which were not provided to the other musicians until they arrived at the studio to record, to make sure their improvisations for each piece were “fresh.”  This success was followed by some bad luck, however, as Davis was beaten by New York police and arrested outside the “Birdland” jazz club, and personnel in the group left.  Reorganizing a new quintet followed, however; the new group in its final form included bassist Ron Carter, saxman Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and pianist Herbie Hancock.  This would be Davis “second Great Quintet.”

Second Quintet – 1965-68

The second quintet was the last of Davis’ all-acoustic groups, and they were responsible for albums such as “E.S.P” (1965), “Miles Smiles” (1966), “Sorcerer” and “Nefertiti” (both 1967), “Miles in the Sky” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro” (both 1968).  Wayne Shorter brought significant skills to the group as a composer, and the second quintet has a distinctive sound from any other of Davis’ periods.  For the 1968 albums, Davis switched to electric bass, piano, and guitar, and by the time F. de K. was recorded, Dave Holland and Chick Corea had replaced Carter and Hancock.  Davis took over composing duties, and the group left its “free-bop” or “post-bop” style and entered a new, electric-instrument phase.

Jazz Fusion – 1969-75

Davis took the group in a very different sound direction, influenced by the rock music of the era, especially Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.  Now that more previously unreleased music from the time is available on CD, we can tell the shift was not as abrupt as it must have seemed in 1969, when the new group released the album “In a Silent Way.”  Joe Zawinul and Hancock were added on additional electric keyboards, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin made an appearance (Zawinul would go on to form the group Weather Report in later years; McLaughlin would form the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  Williams left, and was replaced on drums by Jack DeJohnette, who would go on to perform with Corea in the piano trio format (acoustic and electric) to this day.  Six months later an even larger ensemble would go on to record “Bitches Brew.”  These albums were the first successful merger of jazz with rock music, forming a style called “jazz fusion” or just “fusion.”  “Bitches Brew” was Davis’ first gold album.  Both albums made extensive use of studio editing; the pieces on the final albums were not those actually recorded.  

Touring during this time with the “Lost Quintet” (Shorter, Corea, Holland, and DeJohnette), the groups’ music often spilled over into long, edgy, free-jazz (which Davis had previously rejected) performances that reflected the psychedelic sound of the time.  The group toured with rock acts like the Steve Miller Band and Santana.  Additional albums from this period, notable for their psychedelic and black power influenced artwork, were “It’s About Time,” “Black Beauty,” “At Fillmore,” and “Live-Evil” (all 1970).  By the time of “Live-Evil” the group had evolved into a more funk-like sound.  1971 saw the release of “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” which some consider his finest electric, rock-influenced album.  1972’s “On The Corner” continued the exploration of funk, and several albums and double-albums were released in the 1974-75 period of previously recorded material:  “Big Fun” and “Dark Magus” (both 1974); “Get Up With It,” “Agharta,” and “Pangaea” (all 1975).

At this point, troubled by chronic pain, diabetes, kidney trouble, and a renewal of drug use (both cocaine and heroin), Davis withdrew from public life for five years, but his fellow musicians continued in the paths he had trail blazed.

Return to Performance – 1981-91

Davis returned to performance and recording with a new batch of young lions in 1981, but the first few albums were a mixed bag, although he could still put out an amazing concert performance.  His 1986 album “Tutu” was his first to make use of the new studio tools of synthesizers, tape loops, samples, etc. and was very well received, winning a Grammy award in 1987.  Two additional albums, not as successful followed.  He married actress Cicely Tyson in 1981, and they divorced in 1988.  He continued to tour with a rotating group of musicians until he died of a stroke in 1991.  He is buried in the Bronx, New York.

A Suggestion

“The Essential Miles Davis” is a 2001 2-CD overview of Davis’ work, for those who want to sample a range of his styles in one place before deciding on which periods of his work they might want to investigate further.

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