Even in the beginning he was already miles ahead. It’s very evident that Miles knew and lived by that old axiom if it’s named, then it’s outmoded. Miles Dewey Davis was born May 25, 1926 in Alton, Illinois and grew up in East St. Louis. Miles collected records and for his 13th birthday was given his first trumpet. Miles family was very fortunate and what you would call apart of the upper class during the Roaring 20 s and the great depression. Miles father Dr. Miles Dewey Davis has 3 degrees in his field of dentistry. Miles said in his biography he didn t feel the affects of the depression.
By age 16, Miles was playing professionally and received his first real taste of what playing jazz was like when Billy Eckstine’s band was traveling through and needed to replace a sick horn player. At that time, the band employed Diz and Bird and for two weeks Miles soaked it up.
Undoubtedly, the fire had been ignited. After high school, Miles was off to study music and enrolled in Juilliard in September 1944. “I spent my first week in NY and my first month’s allowance looking for Charlie Parker……I roomed with Bird for a year and followed him around down to 52nd street. Every night I’d write down chords, on matchbook covers. Next day, I’d play these chords, all day in the practice rooms at Juilliard, instead of going to classes.” Practicing his ass off every day and feeding his mind every night Miles’ sound was taking shape.
“I used to play under Bird all the time. When Bird would play a melody; I’d play just under him and let him lead the note. The only thing that I’d add would be a larger sound. I used to quit every night. I’d say ‘What do you need me for?’” As a sideman, Miles recorded his first recording in New York with singer “Rubberleggs” Williams and later recorded “Now s The Time” & “Ko-Ko” in Parker’s quintet.
Steeped in the Bebop tradition and taught under the auspice of Bird and others, Miles was now ready to lead. After a few solo records, Miles transformed jazz into its next phase with his BIRTH OF THE COOL sessions, which were recorded 1949-50. These sessions took Bebop, with it’s fast running styled chords, which changed on every beat, to a more modal concept and chords that changed every other measure, like in the tune “Dig”.
Stylistically, the cool sound evolved when Lee Konitz joined the band, as suggested by Gerry Mulligan who wanted a lighter sound. As an experiment, Miles formed a nine piece band, with Mulligan, Evans and Lewis as arrangers and incorporating Gunther Schuller on French Horn. Miles himself would frequently use the flugelhorn and muted trumpet. “I think what they really meant was a soft sound…. Not penetrating too much. To play soft you have to relax…you don’t delay the beat, but you might play a quarter triplet against four beats, and that sounds delayed…. I always wanted to play with a light sound, because I could think better when I played that way.” This sound seemed natural to Miles’ tone. Instantly identifiable, Miles’ tone had rich middle register overtones and as described by Jackie McLean is
“Crisp and/or cooing, crooning, muted or mewling, fierce as though shredding complacency or tender as a man treading on eggshells.” Always with purpose in it’s action, Miles’ sensitive use of pauses and a underplayed approach added that right balance, which worked especially well later, when contrasted with a John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley solo.
By 1948 he was the band leader of two bands at the Royal Roost – one was a nine piece ensemble that made a series of recordings that were called Birth of the Cool. Soon after, at pianist Gil Evans’ apartment, Davis and four other musicians began a new type of bebop that would become known as Cool Jazz. Their small group used a trumpet, trombone, tuba, alto, bari, piano, bass, and drums. Even with this new style of music he soon fell into obscurity. He appeared with Tadd Dameran at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949 and with Zoot Sims and Milk Jackson in the early 1950’s. He reemerged at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival and began the Miles Davis Quintet. This included John Coltrane on tenor, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
Such tunes as “Stella by Starlight” and “Round About Midnight” seem to be defined by Miles’ tone. Very contradictory to Miles’ temperament, this sound was so gentle and simple it rang of a secret side of Miles. Cultivating this cool sound on MILES AHEAD (1957) Miles, in collaboration with Gil Evans, expanded the idea with the use of a 19 piece orchestra. Miles and Gil forged new territory of orchestral coolness to round out the ’50s with PORGY & BESS (1958) and SKETCHES OF SPAIN (1960), which brought jazz to a crossroads and bridged the gap between Bird/Diz and bebop to the more melodic, modal jazz, found in KIND OF BLUE (1959).
“I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords and a return to an emphasis on melodic, rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are.”
During the ’60s, with such sidemen and composers as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, Miles progressively made use of this melodic inventiveness with Shorter’s winding, snakelike compositions and Herbie’s use of increasing tension with half-step modulations. Miles departed his swing genre with NEFERTITI (1967) to bridge still another gap of connecting jazz to rock with fusion.
“After a while, what was happening around New York became sickening, because everybody was playing the cliches that people had played five years before, and they thought that made them ‘mod-ren’ musicians. I really couldn’t stand to hear most of those guys.” The breakthrough to fusion and rock employed the use of electrically amplified and studio manipulated records, and this gave Miles new toys: like delay and echo devices.
In records like A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON (1970 The liner notes were written by Miles himself) and BITCHES BREW (1969), Miles’ idea of sound increasingly comprised the use of extended searching vamps with primitive rhythms and abstract melodies. Chick Corea described the sets as “one improvisation from beginning to end with a few cues from Miles to change the tempo or the key. Every tune we played was in this incredible abstract form; the meat of the rendition was a free improvisation.”
Like a good trip gone bad, Miles retired in 1975 with health and drug problems. Returning to the scene with the 1980-’81 record THE MAN WITH THE HORN, Miles was back on top and inventing sounds hip enough for the year 2000. Miles showed that his tone and technique were back. “If I can play a low F sharp, loud and clear, then I know my tone is there. I had to work real hard to get that tone back when I came back; it took me two years to get it right. Now that it’s back, I’m gonna keep it.”
Throughout the ’80s, Miles searched for new avenues of expression and found such giants as Prince and John Scofield and also uncovered the beauty of such pop tunes as Cindi Laupers’ “Time After Time.” Miles returned to his roots with his final performances of recreations of his Gil Evans works conducted by Quincy Jones and at a reunion concert in Paris with many former sidemen including Jerry Mulligan, who approached Miles about doing “Rebirth of The Cool.” Unfortunately, its rebirth had to be without Miles who died September 28, 1991. Davis was married 3 times and had three sons, a daughter, and grandchildren. Miles never rested, always pushing the envelope of art to its limits and always forging ahead with burning desire.