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Miles Davis Biography

Miles Dewy Davis, 25 May 1926, Alton, Illinois, USA, d. 28 September 1991, Santa Monica, California, USA. Davis was born into a comparatively wealthy middle-class family and both his mother and sister were capable musicians. He was given a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday by his dentist father, who could not have conceived that his gift would set his son on the road to becoming a giant figure in the development of jazz. Notwithstanding his outstanding talent as master of the trumpet, Davis’ versatility encompassed flügelhorn and keyboards together with a considerable gift as a composer. This extraordinary list of talents earned Davis an unassailable reputation as the greatest leader/catalyst in the history of jazz. Such accolades were not used lightly, and he can justifiably be termed a ‘musical genius’. Davis quickly progressed from his high school band into Eddie Randall’s band in 1941, after his family had moved to St. Louis. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1945 before joining Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, with whom he had previously played in the Billy Eckstine band.

In 1947 Davis had topped a DownBeat poll and by 1948 he had already played or recorded with many jazz giants, most notably Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Max Roach, George Russell, John Lewis, Illinois Jacquet and Gerry Mulligan. The following year was to be a landmark for jazz; Davis, in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, whose basement apartment Davis rehearsed in, made a series of 78s for Capitol Records that were eventually released as one long-player in 1954, the highly influential Birth Of The Cool. Davis had now refined his innovative style of playing, which was based upon understatement rather than the hurried action of the great bebop players. Sparse and simple, instead of frantic and complicated, it was becoming ‘cool’. The Birth Of The Cool sessions between January 1949 and March 1950 featured a stellar cast, mostly playing and recording as a nonet, including Lee Konitz (saxophone), Kenny Clarke (drums), Mulligan (baritone saxophone), Kai Winding (trombone), Roach (drums). Davis was on such a creative roll that he could even pass by an invitation to join Duke Ellington!

During the early 50s Davis became dependent on heroin and his career was effectively put on hold for a lengthy period. This spell of drug dependency lasted until as late as 1954, although he did record a few sessions for Prestige during this time. The following year his seminal quintet/sextets included, variously, Red Garland, John Coltrane, Percy Heath, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Horace Silver, J.J. Johnson, Lucky Thompson, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins. Among their output was the acclaimed series of collections released on the Prestige label, Walkin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’. During this time Davis was consistently voted the number 1 artist in all the major jazz polls. No longer totally dependent on drugs he set about collaborating with Gil Evans once again, now that he had signed with the prestigious Columbia Records. The orchestral albums made with Evans between 1957 and 1960 have all become classics: Miles Ahead, (featuring pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Art Taylor), Porgy And Bess and the sparsely beautiful Sketches Of Spain (influenced by composer Joaquin Rodrigo). Evans was able to blend lush and full orchestration with Davis’ trumpet, allowing it the space and clarity it richly deserved.

By 1957 Davis had assembled a seminal sextet featuring a spectacular line-up, including Coltrane, Chambers, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb and Cannonball Adderley. Two further landmark albums during this fertile period (1957-1959), were the aptly titled Milestones, followed in 1959 by the utterly fabulous Kind Of Blue. The latter album is cited by most critics as the finest in jazz history. More than 40 years later all his albums are still available, and form an essential part of any jazz record collection, but Kind Of Blue is at the top of the list. ‘So What’, the opening track, has been covered by dozens of artists, with recent offerings from guitarist Ronny Jordan, Larry Carlton, saxophonist Candy Dulfer and reggae star Smiley Culture, who added his own lyrics and performed it in the movie Absolute Beginners. Ian Carr, Davis’ leading biographer, perceptively stated of Kind Of Blue in 1982: ‘The more it is listened to, the more it reveals new delights and fresh depths’. Davis was finding that as Coltrane grew as a musician their egos would clash. Davis would always play simple and sparingly, Coltrane began to play faster and more complicated pieces that soloed for far too long. Shortly before their inevitable final split, an incident occurred which has been passed down and repeated by musicians and biographers. Davis, who had a dry sense of humour and did not tolerate fools, had chastised Coltrane for playing too long a solo. Coltrane replied apologetically that; ‘Sorry Miles, I just get carried away, I get these ideas in my head which just keep coming and coming and sometimes I just can’t stop’. Davis laconically replied; ‘Try taking the motherfucker out of yo’ mouth’. Another repeated anecdote (this time from Adderley); Miles; ‘Why did you play so long, man?’, Coltrane; ‘It took that long to get it all in’.

In 1959, following an incident outside a New York club during which Davis was provoked and arrested for loitering, he was taken to the police headquarters and arrived covered in blood from a large cut in his head. Davis took out a lawsuit against the New York Police, which he subsequently and wisely dropped after they had accepted he was wrongfully arrested. This incident deeply upset Davis. However he entered the 60s comfortably as the leading innovator in jazz, and shrugged off attempts from John Coltrane to dethrone him in the jazz polls. Davis chose to keep to his sparse style, allowing his musicians air and range. In 1964, while the world experienced Beatlemania, Davis created another musical landmark when he assembled a line-up to match the classic sextet. The combination of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams delivered the monumental E.S.P. in 1965. He continued with this acoustic line-up through another three recordings, including Miles Smiles and ending with Nefertiti.

By the time of Filles De Kilimanjaro, Davis had gradually electrified his various groups and taken bold steps towards rock music, integrating multiple electric keyboards and utilizing a wah-wah pedal connected to his electrified trumpet. Additionally, his own fascination with the possibilities of electric guitar, as demonstrated by Jimi Hendrix, assumed an increasing prominence in his music. Young US west coast rock musicians had begun to produce a form of music based upon improvisation (mostly through the use of hallucinogens). This clearly interested Davis, who recognized the potential of blending traditional rock rhythms with jazz, although he was often contemptuous of some white rock musicians at this time. The decade closed with his band being accepted by rock fans. Davis appeared at major festivals with deliriously stoned audiences appreciating his line-up, which now featured the brilliant electric guitarist John McLaughlin, of whom Davis stated in deference to black musicians: ‘Show me a black who can play like him, and I’d have him instead’. Other outstanding musicians Davis employed included Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul, Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette. Two major albums from this period were In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which unconsciously invented jazz rock and what was later to be called fusion. These records were marketed as rock albums, and consequently appeared in the regular charts.

By the early 70s Davis had alienated himself from the mainstream jazz purists by continuing to flirt with rock music. In 1975, after a succession of personal upheavals including a car crash, further drug problems, a shooting incident, more police harassment and eventual arrest, Davis, not surprisingly, retired. During this time he became seriously ill, and it was generally felt that he would never play again, but, unpredictable as ever, Davis returned healthy and fit six years later with the comeback album, The Man With The Horn. He assembled a new band and received favourable reviews for live performances. Among the personnel were guitarist John Scofield and the young saxophonist Bill Evans. On the predominantly funk-based You’re Under Arrest, he tackled pure pop songs, and although unambitious by jazz standards, tracks such as Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ were given Davis’ brilliant master touch. The aggressive disco album Tutu followed, featuring his trumpet played through a synthesizer. A soundtrack recording for the Dennis Hopper movie The Hot Spot found Davis playing the blues alongside Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker, Tim Drummond and slide guitarist Roy Rogers.

During his final years Davis settled into a comfortable pattern of touring the world and recording, able to dictate the pace of his life with the knowledge that ecstatic audiences were waiting for him everywhere. Following further bouts of ill health, during which times he took to painting, Davis was admitted to hospital in California and died in September 1991. The worldwide obituaries were neither sycophantic nor morose; great things had already been said about Davis for many years. Django Bates stated that his own favourite Davis recordings were those between 1926 and mid-1991. Ian Carr added, in his impressive obituary, with regard to Davis’ music: ‘unflagging intelligence, great courage, integrity, honesty and a sustained spirit of enquiry always in the pursuit of art - never mere experimentation for its own sake’. Miles Davis’ influence on rock music is considerable (hence his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006), but his continuing influence on jazz is inestimable.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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