Miles Davis

One of the most significant figures in jazz music, Miles Davis (1926–91) continuously re-invented his stylistic approach throughout his five-decade career, marking new epochs in the genre every few years; charting new musical directions and introducing other legendary figures at a rate that is unmatched by his contemporaries.

The Illinois-raised trumpeter began his career at a young age, filling in with Billy Eckstine’s big band while still in high school before heading East to attend the prestigious Juilliard School. In New York, Miles renewed acquaintances with the bebop pioneers he had met in Eckstine’s ranks, and by the end of 1945 he had assumed the trumpet chair in Charlie Parker’s quintet – a position he would hold for much of the next three years.

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Miles’ first venture as a bandleader was in the late 40s, with an innovative nonet he created with arranger Gil Evans. Employing the use of such unusual instruments as the French horn and tuba – neither of which were generally heard in jazz compositions – Davis and Evans created a subtle yet harmonically provocative palette – famously referred to as the “birth of the cool.” Conversely, the smaller-sized groups that the Miles led for the next several years had an assertive, rhythmic edge and included extended improvisations that revitalized the blues vernacular. Though this era included personal struggles for Miles, it also was a prolific period for the horn player. Between 1951 and 1956, he would release 14 albums under Prestige Records, including such classic titles as Dig, Blue Haze, Walkin’, Bags’ Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. Working with such greats as Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, Davis was leading sessions that were laying the foundation for another stylistic variation, known as hard bop.

1955 was a pivotal year for Miles. His profile grew significantly after a triumphant set at the Newport Jazz Festival, which lead to a lucrative new recording contract and the formation of the first great Miles Davis Quintet ̶ consisting of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and a relatively unknown saxophonist named John Coltrane. This unit became the dominant small jazz band of the late ’50s, recording such legendary albums as Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet as well as Cookin’, Workin’, Relaxin’, and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. During this era, the horn player also reconnected with Gil Evans for another big band recording, once again returning to a cool jazz sound for album Miles Ahead. Davis would continue to collaborate with Evans through the early ’60s, exploring classical orchestration and complex arrangements, resulting in a total of five LPs, including one of his most critically and commercially successful titles, 1960’s Sketches of Spain. However, it was a 1959 album with his sextet that became Miles Davis’ landmark work: Kind of Blue. This modal jazz masterpiece continues to be the best-selling jazz title in history and is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time. Highly influential, Kind of Blue made Miles Davis into a household name.

The early sixties found shifting personnel within the Miles Davis Quintet, leading to a lineup that is, to this day, regarded by many as the greatest ensemble in jazz history. Featuring the near-telepathic playing of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, the quintet delivered such envelope-pushing, timeless albums as Miles Smiles and Nefertiti. By the end of the decade, and into the ’70s, Miles found himself at the forefront of yet another new movement in jazz – fusion. Influenced by the funky sounds of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, as well as the amplified rock bands of the era, Miles mixed it all with his restlessly innovative jazz improvisations, creating a whole new musical blend, as heard on the likes of Bitches Brew and Get Up with It. At once popular and controversial, Miles’ fusion explorations brought legions of new fans to his music. Throughout the next two decades of his life, the horn player would continue to embrace and incorporate popular styles of music into his work – even putting his own spin on radio’s biggest hits and collaborating with hip-hop producers. Enjoying his well-deserved status as one of jazz’s most charismatic and innovative figures, Miles actively toured and recorded up until his passing in 1991, marking the final coda of one of the most extraordinary careers in music.


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