Miles Davis - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            A single line of type says it all: “Directions In Music By Miles Davis.” There it was, on the cover of the 1968 album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, just above the title. In the twenty-four years since Davis had first come to New York to study at Juilliard, jazz had been through amazing changes, and the trumpeter was usually leading the way. Miles Davis always had a distinctly personal and recognizable voice on trumpet, but more importantly, he continually changed the context in which that voice was heard. From bebop to the birth of the cool, through hard bop and modal music, and on into electrified music of various stripes, Davis was usually first on the scene. As an innovative bandleader, talent scout, and jazz composer, Davis had few peers.


            Davis’ own autobiography, plus a myriad of books by biographers and associates, describe his gargantuan drug abuse and associated health problems, the feuds with critics, other musicians and record companies, his love of exotic cars and fancy clothing, his tangled relationships with women, family, and the law. Our focus here is the music, without which none of the other stuff would really matter.


            Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, where his father was a dentist. Just a year later, Dr. Miles Davis II moved the family to East St. Louis. Young Miles started his musical education at thirteen, when his father bought him a trumpet and arranged for lessons from local luminary, Elwood Buchanan. Buchanan stressed the importance of a vibrato-less trumpet sound, a lesson Davis never forgot; “a round sound with no attitude in it,” as he later described it, became the essence of his approach to the horn. Early heroes included Harry James, Bobby Hackett, and Clark Terry, also from St. Louis and six years older than Davis. A quick study, Davis joined the musicians union at the age of sixteen, then from 1941-1943, played with Eddie Randall’s Blue Devils. When the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, stopped in the St. Louis area in 1944, Davis was hired as the third trumpet for a couple of weeks, but his parents, intent on his formal education, convinced him not to leave town with the band.


            In accord with his parent’s wishes, Davis enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York in the fall of 1944. But the classroom didn’t hold much interest for the budding bebopper, and he almost immediately sought out Charlie Parker so he could learn more about the new music directly from the source. Davis made his first recordings in February 1945 for the Savoy label, as part of the Herbie Fields band, backing vocalist Rubberlegs Williams. By the fall of that year, Davis was a member of Parker’s quintet, and the band’s own Savoy recording date in November gave him a considerable higher public profile. Never capable of the pyrotechnics of a Dizzy Gillespie, Davis made his technical limitations an asset as he forged his thoughtful and generally relaxed personal style.


            Davis joined Benny Carter’s group to follow Parker out to California in 1946, but  returned to New York when Parker was confined to a mental institution in Camarillo. Parker got back to New York in the spring of 1947 and reconstituted his quintet, again with Davis in the trumpet chair. The quintet recorded extensively for the Savoy and Dial labels in 1947 and 1948.


            Soon, Davis got the notion to lead his own group. He’d met a circle of progressive-minded musicians that included arranger Gil Evans, and saxophonists, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan. They formed a nonet to play original songs and arrangements by Evans, Davis, Mulligan, pianist John Lewis, and trumpeter Johnny Carisi, emphasizing a calm and unhurried approach to the music, with unusual charts that included tuba and French horn. The band only managed to get one gig, in April 1948, but they were captured in the studio by Capitol (Birth Of The Cool, 2001 Blue Note). By the time the recordings trickled out in 1949 and 1950, Davis was ready to inspire an entire school of “cool” jazz and forever restless, he moved on. He had left the Parker group at the end of 1948, and through 1949 worked both with the nonet and with Tadd Dameron.


            The early Fifties were a personal low for Davis as he struggled with a heroin habit. But musically it was a significant period marked by recording dates for Prestige and Blue Note, which presented the germ of a hard bop sound that would be the major development of the decade. His musical associates at this time included such future stars as saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Art Blakey.


            In the winter of 1953-1954, Davis retreated to East St. Louis and the family farm, where he managed to kick heroin. Returning to the jazz scene, he made important albums for Prestige, including Walkin’ and Bags’ Groove (both 1954 Prestige). During this period, he began to use the Harmon mute, which gave him an even more expressive and instantly identifiable sound. Appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1955, Davis performed in a group with Mulligan, Zoot Sims and pianist Thelonious Monk. His electrifying solo on Monk’s “Round Midnight” made a strong impression on an audience that included the movers and shakers of the jazz world, serving notice that Davis was back in no uncertain terms. Davis formed his first great quintet that fall, with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. The group recorded five albums for Prestige, sounding a lot like they did on the bandstand, serving up a potent mix of standards and original compositions. Four of these famous albums, Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’ and Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet, were recorded during two marathon sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in May and November 1956, fulfilling his Prestige contract before he moved to Columbia Records, the major label that would be his home for the next three decades. ‘Round About Midnight (1955) was the quintet’s debut on Columbia, but Davis broke up his first “classic quintet” in 1957 due to Jones’ and Coltrane’s heroin addiction.


            Using the larger resources of his new label, Davis embarked on another collaboration with Gil Evans, the critically-acclaimed, Miles Ahead (1957 Columbia). In late 1957, Davis traveled to France to work on the score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L'echafaud. On his return to New York in early 1958, he reformed his small group as a sextet by adding alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. With what was perhaps his greatest band, Davis fashioned the classic Milestones (1958 Columbia) and one of the best loved jazz recordings of all time, Kind Of Blue (1959 Columbia). This essential album, which includes “So What,” “All Blues,” and “Blue In Green,” helped to popularize the idea of modal jazz, with the musicians improvising on modes or scales rather than a series of chord changes. The success of the album also helped to introduce pianist Bill Evans to a wider audience. Further important collaborations with Gil Evans on Porgy And Bess (1958 Columbia) and Sketches Of Spain (1959 Columbia) were also recorded during this amazingly fertile and productive period. Davis’ reputation and stature were secure, yet there were still many years of innovation to come.


            When Coltrane left in the early Sixties to lead his own groups, he was succeeded by Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, and in 1963, by George Coleman. The rhythm sections changed too, especially when pianist Herbie Hancock and teenage drummer Tony Williams joined the quintet in early 1963. The quintet with Coleman recorded two of Davis’ best-loved concert recordings of the day, My Funny Valentine and Four & More (both 1964 Columbia). Davis, who had heard saxophonist Wayne Shorter in Art Blakey’s group, wanted him in the band, but had to wait until September 1964. Now all the elements were in place for the second great quintet. As a result of a dispute with Columbia, most of Davis’ recording activity in the first half of the Sixties took place on concert stages around the world, but in early 1965, he began a series of studio albums that would, once again, change the direction of jazz. With albums like E.S.P. (1965 Columbia), Miles Smiles (1966 Columbia), and Nefertiti (1967 Columbia), the Davis quintet rewrote the rules for small group interaction. Combining Hancock’s developing understated style, Carter’s supple timing, and Williams’ rhythmic intricacy, the rhythm section developed rapidly as they largely abandoned a reliance on chord changes in favor of a free-floating approach often dubbed, “time no changes.”


            Davis, with the “big ears” of a master musician and talent scout, was always in touch with what was happening in popular music. He continually found young, talented players to keep the band's sound fresh,and they were musicians who would go on to be some of the most influential voices in jazz. As the Sixties progressed,  the huge success of rock attracted his attention. Electric instruments and rock rhythms began to insinuate themselves into Davis’ recordings, beginning with Miles In The Sky (1968 Columbia). The release of the transitional Filles de Kilimanjaro album (1968 Columbia) re-inforced the new direction with personnel changes, as Chick Corea on electric piano replaced Hancock and Dave Holland replaced Carter.


            Davis later expanded the group to include Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul for In A Silent Way (1969 Columbia). With its two side-long suites, creative tape editing, and firm embrace of rock rhythms, this was a ground-breaking album in many ways. Its successor, Bitches Brew (1969 Columbia), upped the ante even more. For this sprawling double-album, the band grew with the addition of more percussionists, Harvey Brooks on electric bass, and Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet. The album was controversial for a number of reasons, from the impolite title to the aggressive sprawl of the music, but it remains one of Davis’ best-selling albums.


            The electric period in Davis’ musical journey was criticized by jazz critics at the time, and puzzled much of his previous audience. But the music also won him a new generation of fans as he played rock-oriented venues like the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York. After Williams left to form Emergency, and then Shorter to co-found Weather Report (with Joe Zawinul), a younger crew of musicians joined the Davis group, including Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham on drums, Airto Moreira on percussion, Steve Grossman on soprano sax, Keith Jarrett on keyboards, and from 1970-1975, Michael Henderson on electric bass.


            Davis wrote in his autobiography that his aim was to make music for the young African-American audience. A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Live-Evil (both 1970 Columbia) moved the music toward a studio-crafted funk/jazz fusion. Under the influence of Sly Stone and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Davis worked on his next album with the assistance of cellist and arranger Paul Buckmaster. On The Corner (1972 Columbia) was widely reviled in the jazz press at the time, and was one of Davis’ poorest-selling albums. But the years have been more kind to the music’s unique world fusion funk, and today it’s seen as a progenitor of electronica and drum and bass.


            The 1972 edition of the Davis group that recorded the raucously funky In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall (1973 Columbia) included Carlos Garnett on soprano sax, Cedric Lawson on keyboards, Reggie Lucas on guitar, Khalil Balakrishna on electric sitar, Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, Badal Roy on tabla, and Mtume on percussion. By early 1973, Davis had started to take over organ duties, and he added several more guitarists to the mix, along with saxophonist Dave Liebman. Three double-albums of live performances (Dark Magus, 1974 Columbia, Agharta and Pangaea, both 1975 Columbia) were released before Davis was forced to retire in the face of overwhelming physical problems, including osteoarthritis and sickle-cell anemia.


            Six years later, at the age of 55, once again surprising those who had written him off, Davis made a comeback. The first release was the lackluster, The Man With The Horn (1981 Columbia), but subsequent albums showed him reinvigorated. He returned to touring in 1982 with a sextet of Bill Evans on soprano sax, Mike Stern on guitar, Marcus Miller on electric bass, good friend Al Foster on drums and Mino Cinelu on percussion. Guitarist John Scofield soon joined as well, in time to work on Star People (1983 Columbia). He stayed with this band until 1985.


            Davis briefly turned to the pop world for material, performing Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” and a hauntingly lyrical version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” on You’re Under Arrest (1985 Columbia), the final album released under his Columbia contract. While on a European tour in early 1985, Davis had recorded as a guest soloist in Aura, a suite composed by Palle Mikkelborg to commemorate the awarding of the Léonie Sonning Music Prize to the trumpeter. When Columbia was slow about releasing the music (the Grammy-winning double-album didn’t appear until 1989), Davis decided to move to Warner Bros.


            Working closely with bassist/producer Marcus Miller, Davis continued to evolve, using modern studio technology like synthesized backgrounds and drum loops on Tutu (1986 Warner), Music From Siesta (1987 Warner) and Amandla (1989 Warner). There were three other movie scores, for The Hot Spot (1990), Street Smart (1987), and Dingo (1992). Davis also continued to tour with an ever-changing cast of sidemen, including saxophonists Bob Berg, Rick Margitza and Kenny Garrett, keyboardists Robert Irving III, Adam Holzman, and Kei Akagi, guitarist Robben Ford, electric bassists Joe "Foley" McCreary and Benny Rietveld, and percussionists Ricky Wellman, Marilyn Mazur, and Munyungo Jackson.


            In 1991, Quincy Jones convinced the resolutely forward-looking Davis to look back over his career for a special presentation at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival. The concert, featuring the Gil Evans Orchestra, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, was issued as Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (1991 Warner). Davis played only a handful of dates after the Montreux retrospective. He died in Santa Monica, California, on September 28, 1991. His final studio recordings were releases posthumously as Doo-Bop (1991 Warner), a collaboration with rapper Easy Mo Bee.


            The vast majority of Miles Davis recordings remain in print. His work has also been the subject of numerous boxed sets, beginning In 1980, when Prestige Records presented all seventeen of Davis’ sessions in the multi-LP set, Chronicle: The Prestige Recordings 1951-1956, later re-issued as an 8-CD box. Columbia Records, his label for 30 years, has assembled much of his prolific output in a series of Grammy-winning boxed sets. There are seven multi-disc collections devoted to studio recordings, concerts, and special projects from 1955 to 1975, plus three more sets dedicated to documentation of live performances in 1961, 1965, and 1970. In 2002, Montreux Sound/Warner Music issued The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, a 20 CD box set covering 11 appearances by Miles Davis at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1973 and 1991.

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