Miles Davis was a restless innovator who experimented with musical styles during a long career and left his imprint on 20th century jazz. He grew up comfortably in East St. Louis, the son of a dentist and a music teacher, and began playing trumpet professionally as a teenager. In 1947 he joined the band of his mentor Charlie Parker. Although not as technically proficient as other beboppers, Davis made up for this with expressive playing and inventiveness.
In 1948 he formed a nonet with unusual instrumentation, top-notch players, and arranger Gil Evans. In contrast to the fast-paced music of the beboppers, the nonet went for a “cooler” sound that emphasized ensemble playing. Their recordings from 1949 and 1950 (later collected and released in 1957 as Birth of the Cool) were issued as singles, giving rise to the “cool” sound developed by West Coast musicians in the ‘50s. Davis’ partnership with Evans later produced Miles Ahead (1955), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960).
All-star sessions recorded in 1953-54 with jazz heavyweights such as Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, and Thelonious Monk cemented Davis’ stature. Between 1955 and 1957 the trumpeter, quick to recognize young talent, recorded his quintet with teen-aged bassist Paul Chambers, unknown saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, and drummer Philly Joe Jones to great acclaim. Pianist Bill Evans, who joined Davis in 1958, would influence Miles’ modal experiments and help take Davis’ music in yet another direction. Their recording of Kind of Blue (1959) fully developed the modal concept and became the best-selling jazz album of all time.
By the sixties Davis had assembled a new quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Davis’ sound became fiercer, and the group concentrated on original material. Miles incorporated electronic instruments into the group, leading to his next landmark album, the full-fledged-jazz-rock Bitches Brew, which rose to the top 40 on Billboard’s chart in 1970 and won a Grammy.
After retiring for a five-year period beginning in 1975 Davis returned with a group of young players to experiment with the new technology and latest forms of pop music, releasing You’re Under Arrest in1985. He collaborated with hip-hopper Easy Mo Bee on his posthumously released studio album, Doo-Bop.
Davis’ influence and genius is acknowledged in the awards he received and in compositions such as “Solar,” “Nardis,” “Milestones,” “So What,” and “All Blues.” He is traditionally credited with “Four” and “Blue in Green,” but Davis’ official web site credits Eddie Vinson for the former and Bill Evans for the latter.
Davis composed the music for the French film L’Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud in 1957 and acted in an Australian film, Dingo, in 1991. He was also a recognized artist, and his paintings and sketches can be viewed on his web site. His musical career is well-documented on video.
- Sandra Burlingame