A jazz trumpeter, composer, and small-band leader, Miles Davis (1926-1991) was in the jazz vanguard for more than two decades. His legend continued to grow even after poor health and diminished creativity removed him from jazz prominence.
Miles Dewey Davis 3rd was born into a well-to-do Alton, Illinois, family on May 25, 1926. His father was a dentist, his mother a woman of leisure: there were two other children, an older sister and a younger brother. In 1928 the family moved to East St. Louis. At the age of 10 Miles began playing trumpet; while still in high school he met and was coached by his earliest idol, the great St. Louis trumpeter Clark Terry.
After fathering two children by a woman friend, Miles in 1944 moved to New York City. He worked for just two weeks in the talent-packed Billy Eckstine Band, then enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music, by day studying classical music and by night interning in jazz's newest idiom, bebop, with the leaders of the movement, notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, and Max Roach.
Miles' 1947-1948 stint in a quintet led by bebop genius Charlie Parker gained him a modicum of early fame; a fine trumpeter in the bebop idiom, he nevertheless began to move conceptually away from its orthodoxy. He felt a need to divest his music of bebop's excesses and eccentricities and to restore jazz's more melodic and orchestrated elements. The result was the seminal LP recording Birth of the Cool (1949), played by a medium-sized group, a nonet, featuring, in addition to Miles, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and pianist Al Haig. A highly celebrated record date, it gave "birth" to the so-called "cool," or West Coast, jazz school, which was more cerebral, more heavily orchestrated, and generally more disciplined (especially in its shorter solos) than traditional bebop, and it gave Miles a musical identity distinct from Parker and the other beboppers.
In the early 1950s Miles became a heroin addict, and his career came to a near halt for three years, but his ultimately successful fight against the drug habit in 1954 led to his greatest period, the mid-to-late 1950s. During that six-year span he made a series of small group recordings regarded as jazz classics. In 1954, with tenor saxophone titan Sonny Rollins, he made memorable recordings of three Rollins originals—"Airegin," "Doxy," and "Oleo"—as well as two brilliant versions of the Tin Pan Alley standard "But Not for Me." Additionally, in the 1954-1955 period Miles recorded with a number of other jazz giants—tenorist Lucky Thompson, vibist Milt Jackson, and pianist Thelonious Monk.
In 1955 Miles formed his most celebrated group, a remarkably talented quintet (later, a sextet, with the addition of alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley) that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Until Coltrane's defection in the 1960s, Miles' band was the single most visible and dominant group in all of jazz. The early 1960s saw a succession of personnel shifts until the band stabilized in 1964 around an excellent new rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams, as well as a new tenor saxophonist, Wayne Shorter. Miles continued to be the greatest attraction (and biggest moneymaker) in all of jazz, but his new band couldn't match the impossibly high standards of its predecessor. Late in the decade his music took a radically new direction. In two 1968 albums, Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles experimented with rock rhythms and non-traditional instrumentation. For the last two decades of Miles' career his music was increasingly rhythm-and-drone and Miles himself became more of a jazz curiosity than a musician to be taken seriously.
A good part of Davis' fame owed less to his considerable musicianship than to his strange persona. He was notorious in performance for turning his back on audiences, for addressing them inaudibly or not at all, for expressing racial hostility toward whites, for dressing nattily early in his career and outlandishly later, and for projecting (especially in a series of motorcycle ads on television) a voice hoarse to a point of strangulation—all of which contributed to his charismatic mystique. Davis also had many health problems and more than his share of brushes with officialdom (widespread racism and his own racial militancy made the latter inevitable).
Miles was, in reality, a paradox. Himself the victim of a policeman's clubbing (reportedly, racially-inspired), he had the fairness and courage in the late 1950s to defy Black jazzmen's expectations by filling a piano vacancy with a white player, Bill Evans, but then, by all accounts, often racially taunted him. A physical fitness enthusiast (with his own private gym), he nevertheless ingested vast quantities of drugs (sometimes, but not always, for arthritic pain). Forbiddingly gruff and solitary, he was also capable of acts of generosity toward down-at-heels musicians, both African American and white.
Davis was married three times—to dancer Frances Taylor, singer Betty Mabry, and actress Cicely Tyson; all ended in divorce. He had, in all, three sons, a daughter, and seven grandchildren. He died on September 28, 1991, of pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke.
Davis, in addition to the classic small group recordings of the 1954-1960 period, recorded memorable orchestral works with arranger and long-time friend Gil Evans, most notably Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Davis' extended works include scores for Louis Malle's film Elevator to the Gallows (1957) and for the full-length documentary Jack Johnson (1970). Among Davis' best-known shorter compositions are the early "Tune Up," "Milestones," "Miles Ahead," "Blue Haze," and "Four"; from 1958 on his best tunes, such as "So What" and "All Blues," are based on modal scales rather than chords. Early and late, both the compositions and the trumpet playing are trademarked by Davis' hauntingly "blue" sound.
Further Reading on Miles Davis
Miles: An Autobiography (1989), written with Quincy Troupe, is inadvertently self-revealing—opinionated, irreverent, egotistical, obscene, abusive, and wrong-headed (e.g., he is almost totally dismissive of his finest work and aggressively defensive of his worst). More balanced is Ian Carr's Miles Davis (1982). The two most rewarding articles are both negative assessments—Whitney Balliett's "Miles" in the New Yorker (December 4, 1989) and Stanley Crouch's "Play the Right Thing" in The New Republic (February 12, 1990), which labels Miles as "the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz" (for having abandoned his early artistry in favor of jazz-rock fusion). A 1993 biography, Miles Davis: The Man in the Green Shirt, by Richard Williams is little more than a coffeetable book.