June 1989 , Volume: 1
by Calen D. Stone
Full name, Miles Dewey Davis III; born May 25, 1926, in Alton, Ill.; son of Miles Davis II (a dental surgeon); married c. 1943 (divorced); married Frances Taylor (a dancer), in the early 1960s (divorced); married c. 1967 (divorced); married Cicely Tyson (an actress), 1981; children: two sons. Education: Attended Juilliard School of Music.
Began studying trumpet at the age of thirteen, and started playing with local bands in St. Louis, Mo., at the age of fifteen; after graduating from high school, moved to New York City and played at various clubs while attending Juilliard School of Music; began recording, 1945; played with a number of well-known
bandleaders in New York and California, including Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, and Benny Carter; bandleader, beginning 1948. Composer; has also written scores for a number of feature films.
Awards: Has won numerous awards from jazz magazine readers polls.
Office -- c/o Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA
"The way you change and help music is by tryin' to invent new ways to play, if you're gonna ad lib and be what they call a jazz musician," Miles Davis told down beat. Using that criterion, Davis is perhaps the consummate jazz artist of all time. During a career that began in the late forties and is still going strong, he
has been the spearhead of at least five different stages in music: hard bop, cool jazz, orchestral jazz, modal improvising, and fusion.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 25, 1926; his family moved to East St Louis a year later. Davis's father, Miles II, was a dental surgeon who raised his family in a middle class atmosphere that stressed the importance of money. After receiving a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday, Davis began taking lessons from a local teacher named Buchanan. It was at this early stage that Davis acquired his trademark sound characterized by the lack of vibrato. In just two years he had joined the musicians union and was working in a St Louis band led by Eddie Randall called the Blue Devils.
Like his mentor at the time, Clark Terry, Davis began using a Heim mouthpiece, which produces a higher quality tone but is much more difficult to play. His sound was gaining recognition in jazz circles, and before he was out of high school Davis was earning
His mother, recognizing her son's musical talent, yet fully aware of the difficult life of a jazzman, agreed to let him go to New York, but only if he would attend the Juilliard School of Music to study the classics. Davis was already a husband and a father by now (having been married at age 17), and after graduation, he and his wife and child left for the East Coast. Davis began juggling his time between strict lessons at Juilliard and free-style jam sessions in the nightclubs of 52nd Street. At Minton's Playhouse in Harlem he met Freddy Webster, a trumpeter who would have an enormous impact on the youngster. "I used to
love what he did to a note," Davis said in Esquire. "He didn't play a lot of notes; he didn't waste any. I used to try to get his sound. ... Freddie was my best friend. I wanted to play like him."
Davis felt that he already knew what was being taught at Juilliard and decided to drop out and concentrate solely on jazz. On May 4, 1945, he played on his first recording session with sax man Herbie Fields, and years later he would tell down beat that "I was too nervous to play, and I only performed in the ensembles -- no solos." His inexperience must not have shown through too often, because by the end of the year he had joined Charlie Parker's group playing at the Three Deuces club. And, at the tender age of 19, Davis appeared alongside Bird, Diz, and Maz Roach on one of the first bebop recordings (November 26, 1945). Although the material was well-received by the critics, Davis's performance did not go over as well and he was slammed by a reviewer in down beat.
New York's jazz clubs were drying up at the time, so Parker and Gillespie headed to California to try out their new sound while Davis went back to East St. Louis. He hooked up with Benny Carter whose band was also going to the West Coast to work. Once there, Davis was asked by Parker to replace Dizzy
who was fed up with the lack of response their music was getting. On March 28, 1946, the group recorded in Hollywood, and the results won Davis the down beat award for New Star on Trumpet that year. Shortly after, he began to work with Charles Mingus and then replaced Fats Navarro in Billy Eckstine's band, working his way back east.
In 1947, Parker and Davis formed a quintet in New York that lasted 18 months. It was a period that saw Parker playing at his best with Davis acting as musical director of the group. On May 8, Davis made his debut as a composer when the quintet recorded for the Savoy label. He was also starting to develop
his own sound instead of playing the usual licks that Dizzy had made famous. In August they recorded four more tunes of which Ian Carr said, "The solos too -- and for the first time, Miles shares the honours on equal terms with Parker -- echo the smooth fluency of the themes. Miles is poised and assured, tending to understate and imply melodic ideas."
Also in 1947, Davis befriended Gil Evans, a composer who was 14 years his senior. Evans would look over Davis's work and help him to write less cluttered tunes. The two formed a partnership that would last for nearly four decades. By late 1948, Davis quit Parker and started to lead his own nine-piece group at the Royal Roost club. He began trimming down his sound, making it lighter and saying more with fewer notes. Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who was undergoing a similar process, stated, "Miles dominated the band completely; the whole nature of the interpretation was his." Although the group was not a big hit,
they did leave behind some broadcast recordings that mark the beginnings of Miles's ability to influence those who play with him.
He signed his first recording contract with Capitol (for twelve sides at 78 rpm; about three minutes each) and brought the band into the studio to tape. The selections were all later released in 1957 as The Birth of Cool and became the foundation for the West Coast Jazz School. Davis headed to Europe to play the
Paris Jazz Festival where he was a huge success. But it was a different story back in the States; when he returned he found no jobs available. Like many musicians of the time, Davis turned to heroin and became an addict for the next four years.
He joined Eckstine's band again, and while on tour he was arrested on suspicion of being a heroin addict. The charges were later dropped, but the bad publicity caused him to move to Chicago to do session work to pay for his habit. While other trumpet players who were indebted to Davis were gaining noteriety, he was going nowhere and decided to quit heroin cold turkey. By 1954 he was leading his own group again and recording some of the best performances in jazz history. He would also begin to use the amplified sound of the metallic harmon mute with its stem removed, which according to Ian Carr, "sounded so right and was so immediately attractive, that it spawned imitators everywhere." The song "Oleo" is a prime example of this tone.
After trying various groups through 1955, Davis finally settled on what has come to be known as "the rhythm section": Philly Joe Jones -- drums, Paul Chambers -- bass, and Red Garland -- piano. The group also included John Coltrane on tenor sax. Their first album, The New Miles Davis Quintet, was just the beginning of a prolific period in which they would record enough material for over five albums in one year alone. Columbia Records offered Davis $4,000 to join their label, but he still owed Prestige four more albums. They worked out a compromise that allowed Davis to record for both labels: (Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' for Prestige and Round About Midnight for Columbia were all released in 1956.)
After the recordings, Davis went to Europe to work. When he came back to New York, he and Gil Evans collaborated on the seminal LP Miles Ahead. With orchestral arrangements by Evans and Davis on flugelhorn, the album met with rave reviews by the critics. Davis and Evans joined forces again in 1958,
working on their version of Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess, called "a major contribution to twentieth-century music" by Ian Carr. "It is outstanding in the way that a sustained dialogue is created between a great improvising soloist and a great orchestrator." Two years later their third orchestral-jazz masterpiece,
Sketches of Spain, would be released.
During this same period, Davis's combo was recording also. For awhile Coltrane was joined on sax by Sonny Rollins. Coltrane quit soon after to kick his heroin habit, working with Thelonious Monk in the meantime, developing a style of his own with the pianist. Back working with Davis, he was able to put
his new theories to use. "Miles' music gave me plenty of freedom," Coltrane told down beat. "It's a beautiful approach." The addition of Cannonball Adderely on second sax helped to create two superb albums for the sextet, Milestones and Kind of Blue.
The early sixties saw still more changes for Davis. He was remarried, this time to dancer Frances Taylor. Columbia assigned musician and producer Teo Macero to be his A&R (artist and repertoire) man, a relationship that would have some extreme highs and lows. Davis was once again in trouble with the
law, this time for fighting with the police. In addition, his group was going through many personnel changes, missing gigs and having to cancel ones they couldn't make. The 1963 lineup included Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Herbie Hancock on keyboards, and George Coleman on sax. They released a fine studio effort, Seven Steps to Heaven, in addition to a few live LPs. At the same time, Columbia released Quiet Nights, which consisted of previous material by Davis and Evans. Unhappy with the selections, Davis was so mad at Macero that the two did not talk for over two years.
In 1965 Davis recorded ESP, an abstract jazz album where the solos have no set chorus length. This same format was also used on three other albums: Miles Smiles, The Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Davis wrote none of the tunes for the last two, utilizing instead concepts developed by his sidemen. He began leaving the
tape machines rolling whenever they were in the studio, later splicing ideas together to form the songs. Davis would later tell down beat, "Listening to what they do and feeding it back to them is how any good bandleader should lead his musicians."
By late 1968 Davis had a new wife and more musicians to work with. Dave Holland was brought in on bass, and Chick Corea was added on keyboards. Davis is credited with writing all the tunes, but Filles de Kilimanjaro has the stamp of Gil Evans on it. It would be the last album the two would work on together. It would also mark the period known as jazz-rock. "Yes, Miles is the daddy of the whole thing," Chick Corea told Rolling Stone. "He structured the music mostly by predicting the way interrelationships between musicians develop. He would write out little or nothing, but he would put the musicians together and nudge them with comments in such a way that he would in effect be structuring the music. Whatever the individuals came up with from his directions was OK."
Musicians like John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Jack DeJohnette were brought in to fuel the fire on these landmark LPs: In A Silent Way, "which left the listener feeling suspended in space," wrote Mikal Gilmore; Jack Johnson, "mood music for a vacation on the moon," according to Robert Christgau; and
Bitches Brew, the one that made rock and rollers take a listen to jazz. The impact of electronics and musicians who were mastering them (like Jimi Hendrix) forced Davis to reevaluate his music and to come up with something fresh and exciting, thus fusion.
The early 1970s started off badly for Davis. He was in trouble with the law again, both his sons were hooked on dope, he broke both his legs in a car accident, and he fought against a number of health problems (pneumonia, arthritis, bad hip joint, leg infection, and bursitis). He has since remarried, this
time to actress Cicely Tyson. More importantly, he continues to tour and record (with occasional pauses for health reasons) with over 40 albums to his credit. While his latest records may not offer anything as dramatically different as the jazz world has come to expect from him, as recently as 1985-86 he has won
the down beat readers' and critics' polls for best electric jazz group. "Miles is a leader in jazz because he has definite confidence in what he likes and he is not afraid of what he likes," said Gil Evans. "He goes his own way."
~~ Calen D. Stone