Miles Davis



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        Miles Davis was one of the greatest visionaries and most important figures in jazz history.  He was born in a well-to-do family in East St. Louis.  He became a local phenom and toured locally with Billy Eckstine's band while he was in high school.  He moved to New York under the guise of attending the Julliard School of Music.  However, his real intentions were to hook up with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  He quickly climbed up the ranks while learning from Bird and Diz and became the trumpet player for Charlie Parker's group for nearly 3 years.  His first attempt at leading a group came in 1949 and was the first of many occurrences in which he would take jazz in a new direction.  Along with arranger Gil Evans, he created a nonet (9 members) that used non-traditional instruments in a jazz setting, such as French horn and Tuba.  He invented a more subtle, yet still challenging style that became known as "cool jazz."  This style influenced a large group of musicians who played primarily on the west coast and further explored this style.  The recordings of the nonet were packaged by Capitol records and released under the name The Birth of the Cool.   The group featured Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Max Roach, among others. This was one of the first instances in which Miles demonstrated a recurring move that angered some:  he brought in musicians regardless of race. He once said he'd give a guy with green skin and "polka-dotted breath" a job, as long as they could play sax as well as Lee Konitz.  After spending 4 years fighting a heroin addiction, he conquered it, inspired by the discipline of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

        After a triumphant performance of Thelonious Monk's classic 'Round Midnight at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Miles became a hot commodity.  He put together a permanent quintet that featured John Coltrane, Red Garland, "Philly Joe" Jones, and Paul Chambers.  Miles had a gift for hearing the music in his head, and putting together a band of incredible musicians whose contrasting styles could result in meeting the end result he was looking for.  He later added a 6th member, Cannonball Adderly and replaced Jones and Garland with Jimmy Cobb and Bill Evans.  In the late 50s, his groups popularized modal jazz and changed the direction of jazz again.  He made 2 more classics with the Sextet during this time, Milestones and Kind of Blue.  After this time, most of his group left to form their own groups.  This was a constant during Miles' career--he brought in the best up-and-coming musicians and after playing in his band and getting established, they formed their own groups.  Among the bandleaders to have come from Miles band include:  John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Red Garland, "Philly" Jo Jones, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, (Shorter and Zawinul would go on to form the fusion group Weather Report) Keith Jarrett, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, John McGlaughlin, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern, and Bob Berg.

         During this time, Miles and Gil Evans collaborated again and made another unique record, Sketches of Spain, in which Miles plays Spanish Flamenco music backed by an orchestra.  His tone is so beautiful and clear, it almost sounds like his trumpet is singing.  After experimenting with different groups for 3 years, Miles, who was in his late 30s (old by jazz standards), fused his group with young players in order to bring in fresh ideas.  In 1963, he put together his 2nd legendary quintet:  Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and 16 year old drumming protege Tony Williams.  For 5 years, this group pushed the limits of freedom and made some fiery jazz!  In 1968, Miles brought in Joe Zawinul as a 2nd keyboardist and around this time, started experimenting with electric instruments.  He made the classic In a Silent Way and a year later, he added British guitarist John McGloughlin and replaced Tony Williams (who left to form his own band) with Jack DeJohnette, and he took jazz in yet a whole new direction with the record Bitches Brew, in which he fused Rock Music with jazz and went heavily into electric music.  This record fired the first shot in the fusion revolution which took jazz to a whole new level of popularity.

        In the early 1970s, Miles kept experimenting with the electric instruments and fusing more funk into his music.  In 1976, a combination of bad health, cocaine use, and lack of inspiration caused Miles to go into a 5-year retirement.  He conquered his cocaine habit, received new inspiration and returned in 1981 and made a series of records that I haven't heard.  He did keep pushing music, as he was not one to rest on his laurels and play his old music.  He started experimenting more with synthesizers and using studio techniques in his recordings.  He won a series of Grammy Awards during this decade and continued turning out sidemen, such as Garrett, Stern, and Berg, listed above.   Miles Davis died in 1991.

            While he didn't play as high and as fast as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles made his mark by using spacing (silent spaces) in his solos.  He used a more relaxed style and played in a lower register and played with a beautiful tone.  This established his style, and later on, he was "able to hear" the music in the higher register and played faster and higher.  Few trumpet players could match the quality of his tone and no one has changed jazz as many times or spawned as many jazz leaders as Miles Davis.

        If you are interested in purchasing Miles Davis' music, here are some tips:    Unless you like funk, you might beware of Miles' later music.  His music from the 1940s and 50s is really safe to start with and up to the middle 60s is still pretty safe.  Some examples is the Miles Davis Quintet recordins, such as Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Workin' with... and Walkin' with...  Also, Milestones is excellent.  Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue are both classics in anybody's book.   I think Kind of Blue is the best jazz recording I ever heard.  Some good 1960s recordings are Miles Smiles and Nefertiti.   If you like Spanish flaminco music, then you MUST check out Sketches of Spain.   When you get into the late 1960s recordings, such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, his band really gets "out there" and starts playing 20 minute songs with electric guitars, electric keyboards, and wah wah peddles for the trumpet.  It's still very good music, but if you are new to jazz and want that "classic" jazz sound, I wouldn't recommend starting here.  In the 1970s, Miles incorporates more rock and funk and continues through the 1980s, incorporating elements of hip hop into his music.  Don't let this turn you off of all of Miles' music.  If so, you are depriving yourself. 

To learn more about Miles Davis, check out these sites:

Miles Davis - The official site.
Tune Up! - A fan's site dedicated to Miles Davis
Milestones - Another fan's site.  Each section is cleverly titled after a Miles album.

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