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Davis, Miles (Miles Dewey III)

  Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

Trumpeter Miles Davis was a symbol to many, and not just for his music. For some, he was a symbol for hipness. For others, a symbol of Blackness. A symbol for pushing boundaries. Perhaps no other figure in jazz conjures up such the vivid image he does, from the simple utterance of his name. Always controversial, his legacy as a relentless musical experimenter lives on.

Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926 to Miles II, a dentist, and Cleota Davis. Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, across the river and state line from St. Louis, Missouri.

His childhood was typical of the era's few upper-middle-class black families, and Miles took private music lessons from a young age. In 1935, he received a cornet from a friend of his a father, and began studying with Elwood Buchanan at the Crispus Attucks School in East St. Louis in 1937 or 1938.

Davis received his first trumpet as a gift from his father on his thirteenth birthday, and began taking lessons from Joseph Gustat, principal chair in St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Gustat focused on tone and technique and, as a result, Miles learned solid fundamentals on the trumpet. He initially modeled himself after the mellow trumpet playing of Bobby Hackett and Harold "Shorty" Baker rather than Louis Armstrong, who dominated the era's tastes.

St. Louis was a stopping point for bands running between the North and South, and Miles took advantage of the rich music scene the city had to offer. He was befriended by trumpeter Clark Terry, who introduced him to the city's many and highly competitive jam sessions. By 1943, Miles was playing in a local band called the Blue Devils, led by Eddie Randle. The band played dances, floor shows and other gigs around the St. Louis area making between $85 and $125 a week, good money at the time, especially for a sixteen-year-old.

                Miles Davis, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

For one week in July 1944, Davis sat in with the Billy Eckstine Band at the Riviera Club in St. Louis, as a substitute for Buddy Anderson. Among the band's members were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn and Art Blakey. This opportunity to meet and play with some of the founders of bebop was a life-changing event for the young trumpet player.

Davis moved to New York City in September 1944, ostensibly to attend Juilliard, where he studied with William Vacchiano, the principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic. He however spent most of his time in the nightclubs of Manhattan, listening to bebop and developing important relationships with other musicians. He reunited with Parker and Gillespie, who both took an interest in the young trumpeter.

He decided to leave Juilliard after less than a year to purse a career as a jazz musician. "There was certain things you had to do," Miles later wrote about Juilliard, "or a certain way you had to play to get in there, to be with them. And I didn't come all the way from St. Louis just to be with a white orchestra."

Davis made his first commercial recordings in April 1945 with tenor saxophonist Herbie Fields. The session also featured Parker and Gillespie. Nervous about his first recording date, Miles did not play well and some of the musicians at the session complained about his age, lack of experience and poor performance.

Now devoted solely to jazz, he joined New York's Local 802 of the Musicians Union in September and began playing professionally around. Still a teenager, Miles joined Parker’s new quintet in October. Musicians and critics alike questioned Parker’s choice of Miles over some of the era's leading trumpet players, like Fats Navarro, who had superior technique and more experience.

Davis played on Parker's first recording session as a leader in November 1945. He soloed on ”Billie's Bounce” and ”Now's The Time,” but was unable to play at the blazing tempo Parker chose for ”Ko Ko,” and was replaced by Gillespie While their relationship was often contentious, Miles took part in some of Parker’s greatest recordings, including "Moose the Mooche," "Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," “A Night in Tunisia,” and “Bird Gets the Worm.”

                      Miles Davis, photo by Herb Snitzer

In August 1947, Davis recorded as a leader for the first time, for Savoy. Featuring a group that included Parker on tenor, John Lewis on piano and Max Roach on drums, the group recorded the tracks that included two Davis originals, "Half Nelson" and ”Milestones.” Sometime at end of that year, arranger and composer Gil Evans approached Davis about writing a big band arrangement of his composition "Donna Lee" for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. While different in many ways, the two quickly developed a strong bond, and Miles spent large amounts of time at Evans’s apartment on West 55th Street with other jazz musicians.

Evans, along with John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and Davis, became interested in forming a larger bebop ensemble that focused on arranging. They eventually settled on a group of nine members, with six instrumentalists along with a three-piece rhythm section. The group opened at the Royal Roost in September 1948, after which they were offered a small record deal with Capitol. Their two sessions in January and April of 1949 were eventually released on a 10-inch LP entitled Birth of the Cool. The recording sold poorly at the time, but had a great impact on musicians. This album is credited as paving the way for cool jazz, which became popular in the early 1950s.

Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Miles became addicted to heroin around 1946. He was arrested in September 1950 along with Art Blakey for the possession of narcotics while traveling through the Los Angeles airport. Despite this traumatic experience, heroin addiction shaped his life for several years. Even after a family intervention and several trips to his father's farm in Illinois to quit cold turkey, his reliance on narcotics continued. "You feel like you could die and if somebody could guarantee that you would die in two seconds, you would take it," Miles reflected later. "You would take the gift of death over this torture of life." Contrary to his autobiography, Miles remained in the grip of addiction until late in 1954.

In 1951, he records his first dates for Prestige along with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. His next recording featured jazz notables such as J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and Jackie McLean. On April 29, 1954, Davis recorded ”Walkin'” and "Blue 'n Boogie,",featuring Horace Silver, Percy Heath, J.J. Johnson and Kenny Clark. A departure from the concept ofBirth of the Cool, this session contributed to the emergence of the style known as hard bop.

Recording for Prestige and then for Blue Note in the fifties, Miles began playing with a stemless Harmon mute. The buzzy sound of the mute, especially on ballads, became part of his trademark sound.

At a jam session at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1955, Miles performed the Thelonious Monk composition"'Round Midnight.” While still under contract with Prestige, Miles signed a lucrative record deal with Columbia after this performance. He recorded for both labels, putting together his first stable group in years. With a rhythm section that included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Miles originally wanted saxophonists Sonny Rollins to complete the group. When Rollins turned out to be unavailable, Miles hires a then-unknown tenor saxophonist, John Coltrane, on the recommendation of Philly Joe.

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In October of 1955, Miles underwent an operation on his larynx for the removal of polyps after which his voice is permanently damaged when he speaks too soon after the surgery. His now-raspy voice becomes an unmistakable part of his public persona.

Miles and his quintet go into the studio for the first time for Columbia in October 1955, recording some of the material on 'Round About Midnight. When it was released in 1957, the record sold better than all of the Prestige records combined. Miles fulfilled his contract obligations to Prestige with two marathon-like recording sessions in May and October 1956, recording 24 different tracks. These would be released over the next two years under the album titles Workin', Steamin', Relaxin', and Cookin'. Among the standouts from these sessions are "Oleo" from Relaxin,' and "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from Steamin."

As Davis's record sales began to climb, Columbia began to market him as a mainstream figure. Producer George Avakian brought in Gil Evans to discuss a new project that would involve a 19-piece orchestra. Their efforts produced the 12-inch LP Miles Ahead, which sold between 75,000 to 100,000 copies—a large number for a jazz record. Miles and Evans went on to collaborate on several similar projects including Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and the less successful Quiet Nights.

In April 1959, Davis and his sextet record the first session for the album Kind of Blue, which featured John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly.

With help from Bill Evans and George Russell, Miles had begun composing songs that featured improvising over a single chord, rather than over the complex harmonic patterns found in typical jazz standards. The group had already experimented with this type of composition on the tune "Miles" (now known as "Milestones") from the February 1958 album Milestones, but Kind of Blue wildly popularized the practice. Modal jazz, as it is now called, became a defining feature of 1960s jazz and Kind of Blue became Columbia's best selling jazz record of all time.

In August of 1959, A New York City policeman assaulted Davis while he was standing in front of Birdland. Davis fought back, then was charged with disorderly conduct for assaulting on officer. The flurry of news headlines this incident generated made Miles a symbol among urban African-Americans of their growing discontent about police brutality.

Miles was eventually acquitted and the police department was charged with a wrongful arrest, but Davis was left with angry feelings about the encounter. “That incident changed me forever,” he wrote, “made me much more bitter and cynical than I might have been."

Davis discovered he was afflicted with sickle-cell anemia in March or April of 1961, and became largely inactive due to health reasons in the next few years. By 1963, he started looking for new direction and a different working band. After a number of personnel changes, he settled on 17-year old drummer Tony Williams, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

The quintet recorded their first studio album, E.S.P., in January 1965. Like other groups during this time, Miles and his quintet began relaxing older conventions of jazz, often melding each song into one another with no break for applause. "Man it was something how the shit changed from night to night after a while," Miles wrote in his autobiography. "Even we didn't know where it was all going to. But we did know it was going somewhere else and that it was probably going to be hip, and that was enough to keep everyone excited while it lasted."

During the next few years, the quintet records a series of influential albums including Miles Smiles in October of 1966, Sorcerer in May of 1967, and Nefertiti in June of 1967. "When people were hearing us," said Hancock, "they were hearing the avant-garde on the one hand, and they were hearing the history of jazz that led up [to] it on the other hand....We were sort of walking a tightrope with the kind of experimenting we were doing in music ... we used to call it 'controlled freedom.'"

After witnessing audience reactions to groups like Jimmy Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, Miles began reaching for a new and younger crowd. He also began to shift the personnel in his bands from concert to concert and session to session, in a process of relentless experimentation.

The music became increasingly complex and often verged on chaos. He had already experimented with electric instruments on Miles In the Sky and Filles de Killimanjaro, both recorded in 1968. His biggest breakthrough came in February of 1969, with In a Silent Way . The brilliance of the album was in its integration of acoustic instruments, electric instruments and post-production work with the raw recordings, through electric manipulation and tape splicing.

Achieving mainstream success, In a Silent Way entered the Billboard charts at number 134 soon after its release. However, the response of critics was largely negative. Many fans of his earlier style did not understand the new direction Miles had decided to pursue. "The editing, annotating and packaging are horrendous," wrote Martin Williams for the New York Times. "Through faulty tape splicing, a portion of the music even gets inadvertently repeated at one point!"

Miles, already a figure of controversy, was now challenging the very meaning of the word jazz. Not everyone, however, reacted negatively to the new Miles Davis. The music was "neither jazz nor rock,” wrote Lester Bangs for Rolling Stone. “I believe there is a new music in the air, a total art which knows no boundaries or categories, a new school run by geniuses indifferent to fashion."

                      Miles Davis, photo by Herb Snitzer

Following the success of In a Silent Way, Miles further combined ideas of free jazz and jazz-rock when he went into the studio in August of 1969 to record Bitches Brew. The session featured his working quintet of Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Wayne Shorter with the addition of Harvey Brooks on bass, Lenny White on drums, Don Alias and Jumma Santos playing percussion, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, and Joe Zawinul and Larry Young on electric piano. The total instrumentation was similar to the double quartet used by both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in some of their music.

Again, critical response from jazz writers was mostly negative and there were many complaints about the unfocused nature of the record. Bitches Brew, however, sold 300,000 copies in 1970 alone by 1976 it eclipsed the 500,000 copies-sold mark in the US. This success led to a feature in Rolling Stone in December. Miles did his first gig at a rock arena in March 1970, opening for the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young at the Fillmore East in New York.

Davis returned to the studio in April 1970 to record the sound track to a documentary about boxer Jack Johnson. Miles had always had always been fascinated by boxing and this project was very personal to him. With strong tones of Black Nationalism, Miles wrote the liner notes to the album version of the music: "Johnson portrayed freedom, it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him champion."

For many, Miles himself was a similar figure. "For some of us coming from the African-centric tip,” wrote Greg Tate, “Miles Davis is the black aesthetic. He doesn't just represent it, he defines it. . . . Miles is the model and the measure of how black your shit really is."

Beginning in 1970, Columbia began releasing live recordings of his concerts as double disc albums. This including Live-Evil (1970), Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (1970), Black Beauty: Miles at Fillmore West (1970), Miles Davis in Concert (1972), Dark Magus (1974), Agharta (1975) and Pangaea (1975).

His health began to decline due to his continued drug abuse and unwillingness to change his lifestyle. While on tour in South America in 1974, he suffered a heart attack and retired from performing and playing music altogether.

In June 1981, he performed at the Kix in Boston, his first live show since 1975. The recording of the concert became a double album, We Want Miles, which won a Grammy Award in 1983. Slowing gaining momentum after performing as part of the Kool Jazz Festival at Avery Fisher Hall in NY (July 1981), Miles began touring again, traveling around the US and to Japan.

In part to escape from the pain of his continued health problems, Miles began drawing and painting on a regular basis. His artwork became an important part of his life and was featured on the cover of his album Star People (1982), as well as in art galleries in Los Angles and Munich.

In December 1984, Davis received the Leonie Sonning Music Award, a highly distinguished music prize given by the Danish government. Previous winners included Igor Stravinski, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Rubinstein; Miles became the first non-classical winner of the prize. As part of the award ceremonies, Davis performed—and later recorded—an extended work by Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg. Entitled Aura, the album won two Grammy Awards in 1990.

Miles grew frustrated with Columbia during the early 1980s and decided to leave the label, signing with Warner Brother in 1985. In February 1986, he began recording Tutu for Warner Brother with help from bassist Marcus Miller. It is during this time that Miles began to collaborate with pop star Prince and appearing at big media events like the Amnesty International Concert in New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena.

After years of health problems, Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991 at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. At his funeral, many remembered Miles for what he symbolized both on and off the stage. "He was our music man," said Rev. Jessie Jackson, "leaning back, blowing out of his horn, out of his soul, all the beauty and pain and sadness and determination and wishful longing of our own lives. He would growl his independence and ours out of his horn. And sometimes by turning his back as he played a solitary song, he would let us hear him talking to God."

Contributor: Darren Mueller