Jazz Central Station
by Bret Primack
The Prince of Darkness. The Picasso of invisible art. Trumpeter, composer,
innovator, painter, bon vivant, leader of memorable groups, a man who was
obsessed with change. Miles Davis was all this and more. While controversy,
never a stranger, constantly enveloped him, Miles left us a series of musical
images guaranteed to survive the ages.
Miles Dewey Davis was born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois but his family
soon moved to East St. Louis, Missouri. Miles' dentist father, a substantial
landowner, gave him a trumpet on his 13th birthday and by the time he was 15,
young Miles was playing trumpet in Eddie Randall's "Blue Devils." An early
influence was Clark Terry, who befriended the young trumpeter in St. Louis. In
July of 1944, Miles sat in with the visiting Billy Eckstine's Big Band, a bebop
incubator and during the gig, met his idols, Eckstine band members Charlie
Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. By the fall, Miles had moved to New York to study
at Julliard and before long, was working in the small clubs of 52nd Street with
Bird and Coleman Hawkins.
In 1945, Miles made his first recording with the Herbie Fields Band and soon
left Julliard to get "real" musical training when he joined Charlie Parker's group
at the Three Deuces club. That November, he recorded with Parker for the
Savoy label. He toured with Benny Carter and Eckstine and by `48, he led two
bands at the Royal Roost: a group with Parker, trombonist Kai Winding and tenor man Allen Eager; the other a nine piece ensemble that soon became internationally known through a series of recordings that were later dubbed Birth of the Cool.
The idea for the nonet was culled from discussions that took place in pianist/arranger Gil Evans' tiny apartment with a clique of musicians that included Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, John Lewis and Max Roach. The group employed an instrumentation never before heard in Jazz, including a French horn as well as trumpet, trombone, tuba, alto and baritone saxes, piano, bass and
drums. With Miles as leader and focal point, the group and its skillful scoring, along with Miles' understated horn, became symbols for the transition from the intensity of Bebop into a new era -- Cool Jazz.
Despite the recognition the group received from those "in the know," commercial success was elusive and the experiments soon ceased. Miles worked with small groups for the next six years, appearing at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949 with Tadd Dameron, as well as touring for a spell in the early 50s with Zoot Sims and Milt Jackson. Miles was also plagued by personal problems during the period, yet he still recorded several memorable sessions for Prestige and Blue Note.
At the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Miles' reemerged, offering an instantly recognizable sound and style that was to become his trademark--his fragile but never emasculated horn traced a pensive musical storyline that was both moving and coherent . His crisp, concise solos were often unforgettable using space and time hand in hand with speed and flash. Miles had arrived.
Ready to conquer the musical world, Miles formed his first major Quintet which included tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, recording classic albums like Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', Steamin' and 'Round about Midnight.
In 1957, Miles 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 and they joined forces again in 1958, working on a unique version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Two years later their third orchestral-jazz masterpiece, Sketches of Spain, was released, once again to
Coltrane left the Quintet for a spell to work out his personal problems and then spent several crucial months playing and recording with Thelonious Monk, further developing his singular voice. When he returned, his playing further ignited the excitement that the Davis group managed to generate.
In 1958, Bill Evans took over the piano chair and Jimmy Cobb replaced Philly Joe, while alto sax legend-to-be Cannonball Adderley rounded out the horn section. In 1959, they recorded, Kind of Blue which introduced modal jazz to the masses, with its improvisations based on a series of scales rather than chord sequences, a technique that generated more thought and creativity along melodic lines. Evans was soon replaced by Wynton Kelly. Cannonball struck out on his own and Coltrane left the group in 1960 after a particularly momentous tour of Europe.
Miles next creative peak started with a reorganized Quintet in `63, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, seventeen year old Tony Williams on drums, and George Coleman on tenor. They released a fine studio effort, Seven Steps to Heaven, in addition to a few live LPs, but Coleman was soon replaced by Wayne Shorter and the Quintet really began to jell.
It was this second classic quintet that bridged the gap between hard bop and free jazz, playing totally unique inside/outside music. Although at the time the quintet was overshadowed by the avant-garde players and the work of John Coltrane during the period, the music made by this Quintet would eventually become quite influential on the young musicians of the 80s, particularly on Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Accordingly, this incarnation of the Quintet, together from `64 to late `68 broke ground with some of the most fluid and revolutionary Jazz of the era. Experimenting with new musical forms, the band played written themes but no prearranged harmonies that allowed the music a new sense of freedom.
In 1965, they recorded ESP, an abstract jazz album where the solos have no set chorus length and this same format was also used on three other trailblazing albums: Miles Smiles, The Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Shorter and Hancock blossomed as composers during the period and the material they created for the group quickly became part of the Jazz repertoire.
As the sixties picked up steam, Miles and his men were at the forefront of the next major change in Jazz, the utilization of electric instruments and rock rhythms. During the sessions for Miles In The Sky, in 1968, Herbie Hancock arrived at the Columbia Records studio and found a Fender Rhodes electric piano waiting for him, courtesy of Miles. The next year, Miles hooked up
Herbie's replacement, Chick Corea. English bassist Dave Holland replaced Carter in the group and musicians like John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Jack DeJohnette were brought in to fuel the fire on the landmark LPs In A Silent Way, and Bitches Brew, a recording that turned the heads of even the most ardent rock fans.
The impact of electronics and the tidal wave of change in all music brought about by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone served as the catalyst for a new Miles Davis sound, something fresh and exciting that was soon called fusion and has since spun off a thousand permutations. The Davis group, which during this period included such musicians as Keith Jarrett, Dave Liebman,
Sonny Fortune and Airto Moriera, opted for longer pieces without composed structures. Miles used rock as the rhythmic foundation, employed Indian and Asian instrumentation along with standard Jazz pieces, and went electric, yet his trumpet solos remained as definitive and clear as in earlier, acoustic periods.
But although he successfully toured rock venues and played to larger audiences, Miles retired in 1975 claiming "I just can't hear the music anymore." Illness and personal problems contributed to his seclusion. In his autobiography, Miles, Davis wrote, "From 1975 until early 1980, I didn't pick up my horn; for over four years, didn't pick it up once. I would walk by and look at it, then think about trying to play."
Miles reemerged with a new group in 1980, playing and recording steadily until his death in 1991. Much to the dismay of Jazz purists, his last recordings moved more into funk and R&B yet his playing remained strong and interesting, especially his use of the middle and lower registers. His final groups included such musicians as saxmen Kenny Garrett and Bob Berg, and bassist Marcus Miller, who wrote and arranged Miles' last two studio albums, Tutu and Amandla. With death fast approaching, Miles joined Quincy Jones at the 1991 Montreux Festival for an updated revival of his Birth of the Cool arrangements, and at the same time, played several triumphant reunion concerts with Hancock, Shorter and Zawinul as well. Even if he had Wallace Roney and Kenny Garrett take some of the solos during the Montreux concert, Davis was in stronger-than-expected form playing the old classics. Two months later he passed away at the age of 65.
Throughout his near half century career, many musicians greatly benefitted from their association with Davis including: Gerry Mulligan (virtually unknown when he played with Miles' Birth of the Cool Nonet), Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Wynton Kelly, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Steve Grossman, Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Al Foster, Sonny Fortune, Bill Evans (the saxophonist), Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern and John Scofield. This partial list forms a who's who of modern Jazz. Simply put, Miles' impact on Jazz was staggering.
In his liner notes to Miles classic 1969 recording Bitches Brew, the respected Jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason wrote: "Sometimes we are lucky enough to have one of these people like Miles, like Dylan, like Duke, like Lenny [Bruce], here in the same world at the same time we are and we can live this thing and feel it and love it and be moved by it and it is a wonderful and rare experience and we should be grateful for it."