Easton Davy on Miles Davis
Quote: “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later”
Miles Davis in a nutshell
There is probably no other jazz musician that is more documented then Miles Davis. What to say about the man that lasted a career of five decades? Or about a sound that one recognizes by hearing the first note? The trumpeter was one of a kind. A pioneer. A storyteller. A game-changer. He was loved for his playing and (also feared) for his strong personality. Miles Davis breathes 50 years of jazz history and many times he took part of changing history with his innovative collectives and recognizable lyrical, melodical and introvert sound.
The phenomenal trumpeter took part on and created so many amazing, groundbreaking records, including the critical acclaimed Kind of Blue (1959), which is still seen as the most successful jazz record of all time.
Miles Davis was born in 1926 in Alton, Illinois as the son of a dental surgeon and a schoolteacher. Growing up in St. Louis, he started playing trumpet when he was ten years old. His father bought his first trumpet for his 13th birthday. Within just a few years the name Miles Davis became familiar in the local jazz scene. The year 1944 was very crucial for the trumpeter. At 18 years old he becomes a father of daughter Cheryl Ann. In that same year Davis gets the opportunity to perform for two weeks with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey as a substitute for Buddy Anderson. He persuades his father to him attend at Julliard in New York, so he could take part of the new bebop scene, along with his heroes.
In October 1945 Davis joins the Charlie Parker Combo and the Benny Carter Big Band and leaves school to play fulltime in clubs. Though Davis is loyal to his friend Parker, he also performed other groups, like Billy Eckstine’s Band (1945-1946) and released his first record as a leader in 1947 with Parker on tenor sax.
Despite Davis playing and recording with his heroes Parker and Gillespie, after 1948 he realized that the complex forms and lightning-fast notes of bebop would never be his own. He could never match their virtuosic solos. So, the trumpeter decided to play fewer notes and focus rather on melody and sound, to create a sound that was more his own.
Nonet & record deals
In between the years 1948–1957 many crucial things happened for Davis. Such as the development of his nonet that consisted of an unusual horn section and a collaboration with composer Gil Evans. He also suffered from a drug addiction from 1949 to the early 1950s that destroyed his marriage. This also hurt is ability to play and relationship and recording with the Prestige Label.
In 1955 Davis got sober and back on track and was signed to the prestigious Colombia Label. Due to this record deal he was able to create a steady line-up, featuring John Coltrane <<LINK>> among others. His debut for the label, Round Midnight, was released in October 1955.
Meanwhile, Davis also made a record deal with Capitol. So, in a short period of time, many albums were released. Such as Birth of the Cool (1957), which showed the more natural side of Davis. This was the cool jazz style from the West Coast, including Lee Konitz, Kenny Clarke, and Gerry Mulligan among others.
Kind of Blue
The collaborations with Gil Evans <<LINK>> were very crucial for Davis’ development and thinking of jazz. Influenced by musicologist George Russell, Davis increasingly focused on modal playing, improvising in scales instead of chords. This is first apparent on the record Milestones (1958) and again later in that same year on Somethin’ Else. It was the harbinger of more experimental work of the sextet that resulted in the legendary album Kind of Blue (1959), which also included Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane <<LINK>>. Evans and Davis formed an excellent team until 1962 with several new releases and awards, including a Grammy.
Of course, there was also the ‘other’ Evans, pianist Bill Evans, who had a crucial role for the sound and the atmosphere of Kind of Blue. Miles Davis says in his autobiography, “Bill Evans sounded like his notes were crystal, like sparkling water dropping from a clear waterfall.”
Davis made himself wrote history and made himself immortal with the classic record which is beautiful for its simplicity and the songs that are not interchangeable but rather form a unity. For many people this was a very accessible record compared to bebop, hardbop, and the upcoming free jazz.
Still the line-up did not last long due to members having many other interests and interest in solo-careers. When Coltrane and Adderley left the group Miles was unable to get the right line-up together to present his music convincingly, at one point he was even completely without his own band.
After several experiments with different musicians, Davis ends up in 1968 with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. This quintet became a sensation, with a mixture of rock/funk and jazz influences: jazz-rock was born. Jimi Hendrix impressed Davis and influenced his work. Miles’ rhythms were changed into circular heavy grooves and the sound was much more electronic. The record A Silent Way Sessions (1968) was a prelude for the iconic Bitches Brew (1970).
Before Bitches Brew was released, many things happened within the group. Due to Miles’ personal and health issues, the quintet felt apart. There was, except for Wayne Shorter, a completely different line-up. Among the new faces were Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Lenny White, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin. On Bitches Brew Miles only played originals instead of standards, Zawinul and Shorter also wrote some of original works. The integration of electronic keys, Hammond and Wurlitzer organs and the special effects on the horns were combined with the looping of heavy grooves. This caused a new impulse and had a significant impact on jazz and rock as well.
After Bitches Brew, Davis continued to look for new sound possibilities. He later applied effects pedals, for example, and his live performances became more and more exuberant. Fans of his earlier work dropped out en masse, but he also gained many new followers who enjoyed the new sound.
On the Corner
Another highlight of his oeuvre is On the Corner which was released in 1972. The emphasis in the work is mainly on funk rhythms, with which the trumpeter once again managed to reach his predominantly black audience. Davis also integrated musical structures of the German composer Karl Heinz Stockhausen into his minimal and electronic music. However, the album only received recognition later, after the success of Herbie Hancock's partly comparable Headhunters.
In the late 70s, Davis was again heavily addicted to cocaine, and it took him three years to regain sobriety. During the early 80s he collaborated with many young and upcoming artists, such as Marcus Miller, Daryl Jones, Bill Evans, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and Robert Irvin III. These young musicians fed him with inspiration. Several great records followed, like Under Arrest (1985) and Tutu (1986) although Davis had the feeling that the American press and purists did not understand his artistic vision.
During his whole career it is obvious that Miles Davis was ahead of his time in many ways. He was the epitome of adventurous jazz that traditionally reinvents itself by allowing in new sounds, rhythms, and atmospheres. Miles Davis was a master at reinvention, although he was not always appreciated for it. He died on September 28, 1991, aged only 65.