On May 26th, 1926, Miles Davis was born. He would revolutionize jazz several times over as a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. As he famously said, “I have to change, it’s like a curse.” Miles’ personality and musical ideas loom large over the 20th century, as does the cutting, contemplative voice of his lightly muted trumpet, somewhere between a whisper and a scream. You can enjoy just about all his recorded work, including many landmark albums, with your library card on the library’s streaming music partners, Freegal and hoopla.
Born in Alton, Illinois, and raised in St. Louis in a relatively well-to-do family, Miles Dewey Davis III was always a quiet enigma. For his brooding temperament, he would later be nicknamed the Prince of Darkness. He resisted the perception of jazzmen as untutored wildmen, and despised what he saw as the onstage antics of an entertainer like Louis Armstrong. He himself did not seek applause and would sometimes play with his back to the audience. Slight and terse, usually in a well-cut suit, Miles demanded respect, on and off the stage—and with his boxer’s training, would handle louts with his fists when it came to that. His awareness of American racism was heightened after a 1949 trip to Paris where he found people of color treated much better; he said it “changed the way I look at things forever.” He briefly attended Juilliard but dropped out to learn from the real players in the clubs on 52nd Street.
The great bebop innovator Charlie Parker hired Miles as a sideman early on, an odd pairing of a young player still honing a quieter style and the world’s top saxophonist, who could work with any trumpet player he liked. Parker evidently saw something nascent in Miles, though Miles could hardly keep up with the band’s breakneck soloing. Influenced by the proto-cool arrangements of Gil Evans for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, Miles went on to assemble a group of young players dissatisfied with the hectic direction of bebop into the Miles Davis Nonet, including Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Lee Konitz. Their 1948 sessions were repackaged a decade later into an LP given the inspired title The Birth of the Cool by a Capitol staffer. The music was unlike the usual big-band approach, in which different sections would take turns soloing; the Nonet was polyphonous and flowing. Miles said he wanted it to sound like a choir.
All through the 40s and 50s Miles was maturing musically, always keeping his round tone and using a Harmon mute. Laid low by a few years of heroin addiction, he spent his time developing a more spacious style with innovative harmonies. He cleaned up and made an impressive comeback at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, in a combo with Thelonious Monk, which raised his profile and got him signed to Columbia. Albums with Sonny Rollins and Red Garland followed, alternating with ambitious symphonic collaborations with Gil Evans, who matched Miles’ thoughtful playing with unfurling orchestral settings that channeled one song into the next, including Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain.
In 1959, he was ready for the next step. He assembled a brilliant sextet that offset his own subdued style with the fierier horns of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, featuring the sensitive rhythm section of Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, and perhaps most importantly, pianist Bill Evans, around whose impressionistic, classically-minded playing Miles conceived Kind of Blue. Both Evans and Miles were versed in George Russell’s Lydian theory of chromatic tonal organization, which broke away from traditional chording and major-minor keys to seek an alternate method of unifying of chords and scales, leading to what would become modal jazz.
The sextet convened at Columbia’s 30th St. studios on May 2, 1959, with no rehearsal and without being given much idea by Miles what they would be playing. He handed out sketches of the melody lines and scales for each piece, gave a few brief instructions, and rolled tape; the album was recorded in two days. A distillation of all that Miles had been working up to, it sounds so natural and luminous that the recurring myth that it was all recorded in a single long take is forgivable. On a superficial level, as Ted Gioia points out in his History of Jazz, a piece like “So What” sounds like a traditional 32-bar AABA song form. But crucially, all the A sections are improvisations based on a seven-note D Dorian scale, while the B sections shift to an E-flat Dorian scale. Each soloist works through a series of five scales, proceeding or lingering at his own pace. As Gioia notes, “this approach gave the players unprecedented freedom but also demanded a degree of austerity unknown in bebop...[it] bespoke an almost childlike fascination with the building blocks of music...a minimalist response to the maximalist tendencies of postwar jazz.” One of the defining albums of the 20th century, Miles felt that Kind of Blue happened at the right time, down to the right hour, and he moved on without looking back.
Miles took modal jazz forward into the 60s on albums like E.S.P. and Miles in the Sky, bringing in sidemen Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and new talents like drummer Tony Williams. He called his new approach “time no changes”, largely departing from chord sequences into open, intuitive exploration. In the late 60s he became interested in the music of James Brown, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, and started incorporating rock elements into the albums of his ‘electric’ period, kicking it off with the two side-long improvisations of In a Silent Way. His commercial juggernaut was the 1970 double-album Bitches Brew, with John McLaughlin on electric guitar and Joe Zawinul on electric piano alongside a host of like-minded collaborators who convened in the studio to unleash sprawling, feverish vamps and polyrhythms, which Miles himself would sporadically join. Though widely understood to be the basis for the ‘jazz fusion’ movement, it sounds little like the sprightlier noodling of bands like Weather Report and Spyro Gyra that would follow. Bitches Brew is ominous and ungainly, full of unreleased tension and monolithic harmonies. Electric Miles albums got progressively funkier, moodier and stonier, like On the Corner and the underrated Big Fun.
As the 70s went on, Miles got weirder and more uncommunicative, known for his oversized shades, sparkly outfits, and raspy, hustler’s croak. Cocaine use and health problems mounted, and he spent several years on hiatus, by his own account holed up in his New York apartment with the curtains drawn, in a haze of drugs and hookers. In the 80s he made a gradual comeback. His playing and embouchure were pretty much ruined, but he recorded a few well-received studio albums, played on Artists Against Apartheid, guest-starred on a few TV shows, and wrote an insightful if scabrous autobiography. Hard living still haunted him, and in 1991 he died in a Santa Monica hospital from a combination of stroke and pneumonia.
Miles Davis had an incalculable influence on the jazz of his time and the music of decades to follow, including rock, electronic and ambient music. His sound is instantly recognizable and subtly inimitable, a kind of Zen meditation in which breath and tone color matter as much as his pared-down note choices, tranquil and floating but threatening huge reserves of defiance. Play yourself a Miles album today.