Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


DAVIS, Miles

(b Miles Dewey Davis Jr, 25 May 1926, Alton, IL; d 28 September 1991, Santa Monica CA) Trumpet, composer, leader; one of the most influential and popular jazz musicians of all time, also one of the most controversial, unusually willing to change direction and blaze new trails: 'I have to change,' he said, 'it's a curse.' Yet it was the settings that changed rather than the unique beauty of his own playing.

The family moved to East St Louis when he was an infant; his father, a dentist, gave him a trumpet for his 13th birthday. He was something of a prodigy, playing in local bands in the early 1940s; he met and was influenced by Clark Terry, then Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as they passed through (the last two in the Billy Eckstine band). He went to NYC to study at Juilliard '45 but soon worked on 52nd Street with Parker, Coleman Hawkins, others; he never had the ability to play lightning-fast runs boppers liked, but his understatement on some of Parker's greatest records was the seed of an alternative: he developed a lyrical style of great tonal beauty that did not depend on speed. Played in the Eckstine and Benny Carter bands; won Esquire magazine critics' poll as new star '47; recorded with Parker on Savoy and Dial, with Hawkins and an Illinois Jacquet big band on Aladdin; with Tadd Dameron on broadcasts. The first session under his own name was Miles Davis All Stars on Savoy '47 (quintet with Parker included 'Milestones'). In '48 his nine-piece group broadcast from the Royal Roost; at the suggestion of arranger Pete Rugulo, Capitol recorded its library: twelve tracks on three dates '49-50, arranged by Gil Evans, John Lewis, Johnny Carisi and Gerry Mulligan, with Gunther Schuller, Sandy Siegelstein, Junior Collins playing French horn on various dates, John 'Bill' Barber on tuba, Lee Konitz, J. J. Johnson (Mike Zwerin played trombone at the Royal Roost, later kicked himself for going back to college instead of on to the studio), Max Roach or Kenny Clarke on drums, others: modern jazz moved beyond bop and the composer/arranger came to the foreground. The 78s failed but when the sessions were issued almost complete '57 the LP was dubbed Birth Of The Cool. Many other records were on Blue Note or Prestige; Miles Davis And The Lighthouse All-Stars '53 from the famous West Coast club with Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Max Roach and others was finally issued '85.

Heroin was cramping Davis's career, but he kicked it early '54 and his first personal masterpieces 'Blue'n'Boogie' and 'Walkin' ' were made on Prestige in April with Clarke, Johnson, Lucky Thompson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath: Thompson had brought music to the date but it didn't work and the tunes were Miles's 'heads'. He recorded Christmas Eve with Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet rhythm section; The Musings of Miles June '55 was a quartet with Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Oscar Pettiford; he recorded in July with a quintet including Charles Mingus, in August with a sextet incling Jackie McLean; Miles in November had Garland, Jones, Paul Chambers and John Coltrane, and the Miles Davis Quintet was born: Workin', Steamin', Cookin' and Relaxin' '56 were among the most enduring and influential classics of the decade, including Davis originals 'Tune Up', 'Blues By Five', gorgeous interpretations of standards 'If I Were A Bell', 'In Your Own Sweet Way', 'I Could Write A Book'; plus Carter's 'When Lights Are Low', Sonny Rollins's 'Oleo', Monk's 'Well, You Needn't'; more. He often used the distinctive timbre of the Harmon cup mute; his intimate lyricism was unsurpassed in feeling, alternately unrestrained and full of foreboding. He was criticized for playing so many standards, and because Coltrane played so much and Jones played so 'loud'; Prestige label-boss Bob Weinstock decribed the group as the Louis Armstrong Hot Five of the modern era.

Miles had left the bosom of a middle-class family, experienced the hell of narcotics addiction; now he was not only an exceptional soloist but a composer and a confident leader, his personal strength asserting itself: Gil Evans was among the first to point out that Miles is not afraid of what he likes. His style was ideal for the classic show tunes; he was a Bach of jazz summing it all up, but never became 'old- fashioned'. His appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival '55 (after relative obscurity caused by the drugs) with an all-star group including Monk was a hit; he played with an all-star group in Paris '56 and signed with Columbia Records, a relationship that lasted 30 years, with Teo Macero producing most of his albums (Prestige could not give him the money or the promotion that he deserved, and even allowed him to record for Columbia before his required four LPs for Prestige were delivered, as long as the Columbia work was not issued first). The quintet album Round Midnight '56 was made for Columbia in October, and Miles recorded the title track again for Prestige in November, not then released: this version of the tune was arranged by Gil Evans, followed by a series of collaborations with Evans, who now became better known as the leading composer/arranger he had been for some years. Miles Ahead '57 was also the first time Davis's horn was heard in what was obviously a setting for it, a propensity that would increase markedly in later years. He played flugelhorn on Miles Ahead, its mellow glow fitting Evans's music perfectly; Shorty Rogers had played flugelhorn on recording sessions late '55, but now Miles's example caused a lot of people to experiment with it (the superb Art Farmer played it exclusively for many years); but Davis never again used it on an entire album. Also in '57, while on the West Coast, Garland, Chambers and Jones made Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section for Contemporary, one of Pepper's best-known albums: the Davis quintet was so popular in jazz that everybody knew who 'the rhythm section' were.

Davis was clean of drugs, but all the other members of the quintet were junkies at the time, and Coltrane's habit was affecting his playing; Davis fired him and broadcast with replacement Sonny Rollins. He recorded film soundtrack Ascenseur pour l'echafaud in Paris with a quintet including Kenny Clarke '57 and guested on Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else '58 on Blue Note; Coltrane cleaned up for good and came back for Milestones the same year on Columbia, with Adderley on alto making a sextet. Garland was replaced by Bill Evans, Jones by Jimmy Cobb; tracks recorded by the new lineup were later issued in various editions as 1958 Miles. Michel Legrand's Legrand Jazz '58 included Davis, Chambers, Coltrane, Phil Woods, six others; the sextet recorded at Newport; then the second LP with Gil Evans was Porgy And Bess, their versions of songs from Gershwin's opera.

Years earlier Miles had remarked to George Russell that he wanted to be able to choose from a much wider range of notes than that available in the jazz orthodoxy of the late '40s, still based on the chord changes of the best popular songs; this led to Russell's book on a modal theory of composition, and now to Kind Of Blue '59: the sextet included Coltrane, Adderley, Chambers, Cobb, and Bill Evans, with Wynton Kelly instead of Evans on one track, taped five originals which were not songs in the usual sense, but modal riffs, wisps on which to exercise emotional expression without the structural limitation of the Broadway classic: thus composition itself became more fully a part of the jazz musician's palette. (Davis got composer credit, but Evans had written 'Blue In Green'; however Evans pointed out that Davis had sent him in that direction, showing him a G minor and A augmented and saying 'What would you do with that?' 'I didn't really know,' Evans said, 'but I went home and wrote ''Blue In Green''.' Some say Evans also did 'Flamenco Sketches'.) Davis had reduced Western music to its barest essentials; Russell and others had been doing this without commercial success, but Kind Of Blue became one of the most influential recordings of all time. 

In mid-'59 he was beaten by a cop outside Birdland in NYC, charged with disorderly conduct and assault; the first charge was thrown out, the second dropped out by a judge who said, 'It would be a travesty of justice to adjudge the victim of an illegal arrest guilty of the crime of assaulting the one who made the arrest.' But Davis dropped his lawsuit against the city, not wanting to become a target for every cop looking for trouble. Sketches Of Spain '59-60 was Gil Evans's treatments of music by Joaquin Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla and three Evans tunes; ragged and droning ensembles as a setting for Miles's 'calling': iconoclastic beauty, jazz-tinged mood music or a striving towards a world ethnic music. Someday My Prince Will Come '61 included Cobb, Chambers, Kelly, Coltrane and/or Hank Mobley. Coltrane left finally to pursue his own path to fame; with Mobley and Kelly the quintet recorded two-disc In Person At The Blackhawk in San Francisco and At Carnegie Hall (with Evans's orchestra on some tracks) '61; Quiet Nights '62-3 with Gil Evans; Seven Steps To Heaven including Ron Carter, George Coleman on most tracks, Victor Feldman and Curtis Counce's drummer Frank Butler on some tracks, replaced by Herbie Hancock and the very young Tony Williams halfway through. Knowing he would have to replace Coltrane, Davis broadcast in Sweden '60 with Sonny Stitt; now Coletrane was replaced by Sam Rivers, then Wayne Shorter, who since said that the reason he was hired was because he could play like Coltrane. Live work done in France, Berlin, Tokyo, San Francisco (the Hungry i), NYC '62--5 was issued.

Two nights in December '65 at Chicago's Plugged Nickel were recorded (seven sets) but none of it issued until '76; the new quintet with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams (who recorded '77 as VSOP with Freddie Hubbard) was playing an increasingly intense style, recording new material in the studio but still playing standards in public; if the Plugged Nickel stuff had been released at the time it would have been influential, and certainly would have been good for Shorter's career. Hancock also said that Davis seemed to be amalgamating all the influence of jazz history. Albums Miles Smiles '66, Nefertiti '67, Miles In The Sky '68 were followed by Filles De Kilimanjaro '68, which announced an impending breakthrough in style: Carter was replaced by Dave Holland on some tracks; Carter, Hancock and Chick Corea played electric instruments. It's About That Time '69 on Jazz Door was made live at Montreux, a transitional set with Shorter, Corea, Holland and Jack DeJohnette. In A Silent Way '69 added Joe Zawinul on organ and electric piano, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, with Shorter playing soprano sax; a hypnotically beautiful album, it merely puzzled some jazz fans, but the two-disc Bitches Brew the same year put the fat in the fire: the cast included DeJohnette replacing Williams, plus Shorter, Zawinul, Corea, McLaughlin, Holland, possibly Billy Cobham, additional percussionists; its electronic jazz-rock fusion inspiring McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shorter and Zawinul's Weather Report, Corea's Return to Forever, DeJohnette's Special Edition and others. Many jazz critics threw up their hands but Davis had merely announced that, as he and Duke Ellington and others had been saying for years, the word 'jazz' didn't mean anything much any more. He adopted the wah-wah electronic trumpet device, eventually a portable microphone pinned to the horn enabling him to wander about the stage as he pleased. His albums had reached Billboard pop charts since '61, but Bitches Brew made the top 40, his biggest hit. Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, Steve Grossman on soprano sax, Airto, Keith Jarrett and many others passed through as he carried on: two-disc Miles Davis At The Fillmore '70 followed four nights at Bill Graham's rock palaces, where audiences were puzzled at first, finally cheered; Tribute To Jack Johnson was a film soundtrack, highly praised by critics as was two-disc Live-Evil, both '71; On The Corner '73 was followed by four two-disc sets '74-6: In Concert, Big Fun, Get Up With It (side one a tribute to Ellington), Agharta and Pangaea '76, all charting except Pangaea, which was not released outside Japan: the last two (on which he played some organ) should have been edited to one set. His sidemen in those years were sometimes self-indulgent, but Davis's playing was intensely, almost unbearably sad.

Then he retired. He was in poor health; he'd had a car crash in which both ankles had been broken, he suffered from bursitis and other problems which made it painful to lift the horn to his lips and he needed a hip-replacement operation; he took pills every day for pain. He was tired of critics misunderstanding what he was doing and of the media concentrating on his life-style; he had been shot at by gangsters trying to extort money from him and arrested on various petty charges: he said c.1970 'It's just the whole attitude of the police force ... It's not so much the way black people are treated any more. It's the way they treat all the young people that think the same way, so no matter what color you are, you get the same shit. That's what the black people have been trying to say for years...' In '72 he attacked the record industry Grammy awards because they often went to white people who had made careers from copying black music and proposed to set up his own Mammy awards. Now he rested.

Compilations released included Basic Miles '55-8, Water Babies '66-8 (previously unreleased quintet tracks on one side, tracks with electric instruments on the other); Directions '60-70. In Dennis Hopper's film The Hot Spot '80 he was paired with John Lee Hooker on the soundtrack, for some interesting pieces including 'Murder'. He resumed recording with rock-oriented The Man With The Horn '81, two-disc We Want Miles '82, Star People '83, Decoy '84, personnel variously including Bill Evans (no relation to other Evanses) and Bob Berg, saxes; Mike Stern, John Scofield and Robben Ford, guitars; Adam Holtzman, keyboards; Steve Thornton, percussion; Felton Crewes, Marcus Miller and Darryl Jones, bass guitars. We Want Miles again was very short measure; the whole thing could almost have fitted on one LP, and the solos of the younger men seemed rockishly self- indulgent. You're Under Arrest '85 used straight pop songs, a cover of Cyndi Lauper hit 'Time After Time' issued on a 12-inch single. Aura '85 was a ten-part suite with orchestra composed for him by Palle Mikkelborg, finally issued '89 on Columbia; disgusted at their reluctance to release it, he had left them after 30 years and switched to Warner Brothers, going all the way with Tutu '86 to disco-style clock-ticking backing his horn, synthesized mostly by Miller. It won a Grammy and is said to be excellent stuff of its kind, but old fans don't care; it is merely 'dance' music, sounding much the same whether it is slick or amateurish, and from then on Davis seemed to be a guest at his own concerts.

The video Miles In Paris showed him playing 'Tutu' with axe-hero antics from guitarist Foley McCreary, bland piano from Kei Akagi; Davis's designer sunglasses fell off during a solo, and when he'd retrieved them he wandered off as though he'd forgotten where he was, or didn't give a damn. He said from the beginning that he did not want to be seen as an entertainer, turning his back on the audience and disappearing offstage for long periods during performance, but of course he was always an entertainer, that category including the century's greatest musicians as well as the rest; he always sought audiences, in particular young black audiences who could not relate to the classic Broadway show- tune; and even at the end he never played a note that was not beautiful: through the loud, often pretentious rock he fronted in his last years his hesitant sound still pierced, suggesting stealth as well as vulnerability, and often a deep sadness. Music From Siesta '88 was mostly synthesized by Miller for a film score, but it was Miller's homage to Gil Evans and Davis's solos were haunting; this was followed by Amandla '88 (Zulu for 'power', including a tribute to bassist Jaco Pastorius), his last studio album was Doo-Bop '92; Live At Montreux '93 including Evans, Quincy Jones, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band etc; and Live Around The World '96 compiled '88-90 tracks with various funk/electronic groups, all on WB. Columbia issued 40 minutes more of the '61 Carnegie Hall concert, and there was still some left. The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions were issued '95 on ten LPs by Mosaic, seven CDs by Columbia; Miles Davis/Gil Evans: The Complete Studio Recordings '96 on eleven LPs by Mosaic, six CDs on Columbia, remixed and with previously unissued material: there are two different versions of Miles Ahead and a CD of snippets from the sessions, revealing Evans's working methods and Columbia's tortuous editing process. The complete studio sessions of the Plugged Nickel band, the complete Davis/Coltrane and the rest of Miles on Columbia followed. Panthalassa: The Music Of Miles Davies 1969-74 on Columbia had Bill Laswell's remixes shimmering like a heat haze.

Miles: The Autobiography '90 is full of mistakes, contradictions, bad language and put-on racism, much of this blamed on collaborator Quincy Troupe, though the tough-guy act Davis had practised in public was not unfamiliar. Ian Carr's Miles Davis: A Critical Biography '82 (updated '98) can be recommended; Jack Chambers's two-volume Milestones '85 is an exhaustive session-by-session account of the music; Richard Williams's The Man In The Green Shirt '93 is full of intelligent, sympathetic and well-written commentary; and a Miles Davis Reader came from the Smithsonian, edited by Bill Xirchner. Davis had run out of worlds to conquer and had been in pain most of his life; his death nevertheless came as a shock.