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WICN Artist of the Month, May ’24: Miles Davis

Written by on May 1, 2024

Miles Davis stands, to many jazz scholars, jazz historians, and critics, as arguably the most influential jazz musician and composer in the post-World War II modern period. Jazz as a genre is a mélange of subcategories developed over 100-plus years of evolution, with a variety of essential musical contributors. However, some singular artists effect cataclysmic change, and Miles is one of them.

From his early beginnings sharing the nightclub stage with the pioneers of Bebop, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, to jazz orchestral collaborations with the brilliant arranger and composer Gil Evans, to the genre-changing influence of his seminal masterpiece, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), Davis would be at the forefront of all major changes in jazz for the duration of his career, spanning over 40 years.

Born in 1926 and raised in East St. Louis, Il., by 15 Davis was already playing trumpet in the Lincoln High School marching band. His music instructor, Elwood Buchanan, who would have a lasting impression on Davis, advised him not to sound like big band leader Harry James, playing a vibrato-style most popular then, but to instead find his own voice. Legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, who would later join the Count Basie and Duke Ellington big bands, mentored Davis during his teenage years; they would remain lifelong friends. As stated in a New Yorker article about Terry’s influence and horn style, Davis would seek to emulate it as an early impact on him stylistically. “He [Clark Terry] pioneered a kind of ‘doodle-tonguing’ articulation, which allowed notes to spill out of his horn without ever sounding rushed or frantic. His tone was a wonder of flexibility and range, a warmer, more liquid timbre.”

The next opportunity to play on stage professionally, having just come to the notice of Terry, was to join trumpeter Eddie Randle’s Rhumboogie Orchestra—also known as the Blue Devils—which Davis called “one of the most important steps in my career.” As a jazz orchestra band playing nearly every night at one of the city’s most popular dance halls, Davis would be exposed to the reputation of a nightlife that never slept, entertainment-wise. St. Louis’ musical roots grew out of ragtime, blues, and band music, and its jazz clubs “thrived even during the Depression because of the Pendergast political machine that made it a 24-hour town.” Davis eventually became Randle’s musical director, setting up rehearsals and recruiting musicians, gaining the respect of many notable jazz players on the local scene, and national as well.

Most importantly, in July 1944, a life-changing musical introduction was to occur early in Davis’ professional career. By reputation and absent a trumpeter, he was introduced to Billy Eckstine’s orchestra, which came through St. Louis on tour that summer. At 18, Davis had just graduated from high school and with family support was to attend Juilliard in New York City that coming fall. Stepping on the stage with a 2-week gig with Eckstine’s band, two much older horn players would immediately stand out to Davis, with their frantic, intense firing of notes: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Standing beside the two architects of this radical jazz direction, Davis was completely absorbed by their note-change intensity and reinvention of melodies.

Moving to New York City in the autumn of ‘44, intending to start a demanding musical curriculum at Juilliard, (including musical theory, piano instruction, and dictation), Davis’ musical ear was already being distracted, seeking out Parker and Gillespie downtown at the hotbed of emerging bebop on 52nd Street. After class, he stalked all the nightclubs looking for these two revolutionary horn players, and had an open invitation to take the stage. “Dizzy and Bird had told me to look them up if I ever came to the Big Apple. I knew I had learned all I could from playing around St. Louis, knew it was time to move on.”

Eventually reconnecting, he was soon playing with them regularly every week. Davis recalls the musical learning experience: “I got more schooling down there [52nd Street, New York City] than I had in my whole musical life. You can get a direction like that when you see the right people. You automatically know that’s for you.” With fortunate timing on his side, Parker would invite Davis to be the regular trumpeter in his band after Gillespie left abruptly for his own band formation.

By 1945, surrounded by cutting-edge jazz innovators, Davis would also meet the house piano player, Thelonious Monk, at Minton’s Playhouse jazz club in Harlem. Davis would study Monk’s unorthodox technique and particularly the unique phrasing and “spaces” in his solos: “Monk was the leading architect of modern jazz, employing the piano he was establishing much of the music’s harmonic sophistication. He and Miles were friends, jam partners, and Miles recorded many of Monk’s tunes.”

Additionally, Davis’ relationship with Parker during this period was not only one of mentee to mentor, but also a bonding personal friendship, with Parker moving into Davis’ apartment for part of ‘45. During this same period, in a studio off of Times Square, Davis would be recorded on three of Parker’s most famous compositions, Billie’s Bounce, Thrivin’ on A Riff, and Now’s The Time.


By the spring of 1947, Davis had already dropped out of Juilliard and was playing regularly as the lead trumpeter in Parker’s band, which was being recorded by Savoy Records. Parker’s lineup included a Who’s Who of stellar talent: Charlie Parker on alto sax, Miles Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums.

Also called in to be a sideman for established period singers including Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams, Billy Eckstine, Ann Baker, and Sarah Vaughan, Davis was receiving further exposure and recognition for his trumpet ability and improvisational solos. In Downbeat’s 1947 Critic’s Poll, he tied with Gillespie as the top-rated trumpeter. Importantly, independent recording opportunities with Savoy Records soon materialized, and Davis would release his first significant hit, Donna Lee. Though technically recorded by Charlie Parker’s All-Stars, Davis would establish his rendition as the bebop standard that many other bands recorded. All characteristics of this genre was exemplified in his version of the composition, “Davis’ first recorded composition was based on chord changes to the song Indiana by James Hanley, this A-flat major composition features extremely rapid successions of four-note groups over each change with rising and falling arpeggios.”

In January of ’49, Davis began a vital orchestral project, meeting and collaborating with the brilliant arranger and composer Gil Evans. They were to create together a genre-busting release called “Birth of the Cool”, a reaction directly against Bebop’s “wild excesses.” Davis and Evans invited young jazz musicians, later to become stars of jazz themselves, to have a “conversation” in musical contribution, adding to the next direction for jazz, out of bebop’s orbit. Rehearsals began with a nine-piece band featuring baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and arrangements by Gil Evans. This series of landmark orchestral recordings gave inspirational ideas to Davis’ concepts in modal sound, which he would later develop into a new jazz genre. Davis, Evans, and these select musicians were searching to meld Parker and Gillespie’s bebop fast beat and chord changes, “Its reserved, emotional affect was its most recognized aspect: a laid-back reprieve from the unfettered frenetic energy of bebop.” Davis expressed in an interview, “We wanted that sound but . . . as small as possible,  I looked at the group like it was a choir . . . I wanted the instruments to sound like human voices.”

In May 1949, a 22-year-old Davis traveled to Paris as part of a quintet that included the pianist Tadd Dameron, having been invited to play at the first Paris International Jazz Festival since WWII ended. In the U.S., Davis was already establishing himself as a peer amongst the top-tier jazz musicians centered in New York City, but segregation and racism remained an everyday confrontation, insult and barrier, “a rising star in the jazz world, but while he was highly respected among his peers, in mainstream America he was seen as a second-class citizen.” In contrast, he was amazed and overwhelmed by his reception in France. “This was my first trip out of the country,” recalled Davis in his autobiography. “It changed the way I looked at things forever…I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; and that some weren’t prejudiced. “Davis had found to his surprise that jazz, in Paris, was treated equally during this post-war blossoming intellectualism in all the arts. He would meet Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other major figures in art, writing, poetry, theater, and, of course, music.

His return to the U.S. would begin the very darkest period in his life, personally and professionally. Unable to shake the stark realities of everyday prejudice and racism on the street, Davis also found it a depressive period for jazz, with clubs closing and opportunities for regular gigs desperately hard to find. Coupled with having left a love affair in Paris with French actress and singer Juliette Gréco, and experiencing a desperation to find work, his whole world had changed, from rising star to unemployed. He turned to heroin, with a habit that would consume him for almost four years of his life. (Eventually, in 1953, to end the cycle of dependence and destitution, he returned home by his father’s demand, and by his own account, locked himself in a room in his family home, and quit the addiction, “cold turkey.”).

In January of ’51, still fighting addiction and undertaking criminal activities on the street to support his heroin habit, Davis managed to find a critical recording contract with Prestige Records, owned by Bob Weinstock, who had been drawn to the Birth of the Cool orchestral recordings. Despite the personal torment outside of his musical focus, Davis’ compositions and modal beginnings came together in experimentation with an assortment of exceptional studio musicians including pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and a relatively unknown tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane (replacing Sonny Rollins). Davis would expand upon his horn technique, inventing a sound that was independent and of own his creation during these Prestige recordings. “They reveal him developing a signature trumpet sound that gave as much importance to the notes themselves, as to the space between them. With the help of a mute, his solos took on a pinched, strained quality—exuding inner emotion and vulnerability.” The quintet’s 1956 debut release, Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin’ (1957), Relaxin’ (1958), Workin’ (1959), and Steamin’ (1961) are significant contributing milestones to the Davis’ songbook.

In the summer of 1955, finally free of drug addiction, and seeking to rebuild a reputation for being dependable, and in particular, being on schedule for bookings, he approached George Wein, founder and director of the Newport Jazz Festival. He pressed Wein to give him a slot on stage at this premiere jazz venue. Davis’ appearance that summer evening, on the main stage with a sextet including pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, was a complete surprise to the audience and jazz press, as Wein would later admit, “because he [Wein] had only just regained faith in the trumpeter’s reliability and put him on the bill at the last minute.”

Playing for little more than 20 minutes and delivering a now-famous solo over Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, his sublime tone and textured soft notes brought an ovation and a recording contract from Columbia Records’ executive producer George Avakian. Wein reflected on this moment in the documentary Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool ( director Stanley Nelson, 2020), “Miles put the bell of his horn right into the microphone and changed the whole world of jazz right there – and changed his career right there, because of the beauty of that song ( ‘Round Midnight) and the beauty of Miles’ horn.”

With a signed contract with Columbia Records, Davis had set in motion the core of musicians that he would take from his Prestige recordings, having fulfilled that obligation, and form the First Great Quintet, with Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone (soon replaced by John Coltrane), Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Phill Joe Jones on drums. With Coltrane now in the permanent spot as tenor saxophonist, Davis added Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, expanding to a sextet. With immediate expectations, Columbia’s executive Avakian had already booked a commitment for Davis to make a debut performance under his new record label at the trendy jazz venue Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York City.

For the first time in Davis’ career as a bandleader, now under contract with the most prestigious record label, he’d found the musical freedom he sought to express and develop his modal jazz innovation. A stream of groundbreaking albums followed, including in ‘57 Miles Ahead (with Birth of the Cool composer and arranger Gil Evans), the vivaciously mode-based Milestones, with John Coltrane, and its legendary 1959 successor, Kind of Blue. Gil Evans summed up the dynamic impact of modal jazz, “He (Davis) changed the tone of the instrument for the first time since Louis Armstrong – but the timbre of Davis was different – as he put all the players together he liked, and then down a funnel and came out with the sound he wanted.”

During this same period of intensive performing, Davis was feeling completely exhausted, looking for another outlet for his muse, and had even talked about retiring from the music scene. Instead, he reconnected with Gil Evans for a five-album collaboration that produced additional brilliant orchestral arrangements with classical musical influences. Crammed into these sessions were The Maids of Cardiz (1957) by Leo Delibes, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1959), and Sketches of Spain (1960). Davis would perform with an orchestra conducted by Evans at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, in May of 1961 (sales were donated to charity).


Releasing his seminal masterpiece, Kind of Blue in ’59, with band members from his first quintet and resulting sextet, an immortal historic jazz lineup had been formed: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist “Cannonball” Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. As evaluated by Davis biographer Ian Carr, “One of the most supremely lyrical albums of all time – mostly based on 1 or 2 scales.” Allowing his extraordinary lineup of talent to improvise against an outline of melody, he intentionally gave them an open palette. Davis remarked, “I didn’t write music for Kind of Blue but brought in sketches because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing.” The recording reached an enormous crossover audience, with generational listeners, and remains the single largest-selling album in jazz history.

Miles Davis would seek out a relatively unknown Herbie Hancock, by reputation, to join his Second Great Quintet, which ran from 1963 to 1968, becoming Hancock’s self-proclaimed “greatest mentor” – and “a rulebreaker who chose wisely.” This musical period with Davis’ quartet, consisting of Ron Carter on bass and a 17-year-old Tony Williams on drums, and later Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, would continue to pursue a “free jazz” form, referred to by Davis as “time-no changes.” In Hancock’s own words, he had found a mentor who wanted the creative process to be spontaneous but staying within boundaries, “not surrendering entirely to experimentation. Using an approach to allow for all five musicians to contribute simultaneously, not always soloing separately.” Hancock explains the performance process Davis developed: “one musician would start, and other musicians would add notes, building – a response to real feelings–part of the story and raw energy we built.” The core of the quintet’s evolution can be traced through five stellar studio albums: E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, and Miles in the Sky.

Referred to as Miles Davis’ “electric period,” he would leave behind acoustic instruments altogether, enamored with the capabilities of the electric guitar and electronic keyboards particularly. He was to open a new direction in musical exploration. Bitches’ Brew (1970) would launch the jazz fusion genre and the careers of future bandleaders of this rock/jazz hybrid. Many of his sidemen would later front bands to further explore this musical direction. Electric guitarist John McLaughlin (The Mahavishnu Orchestra), keyboardist Chick Corea (Return to Forever) and Herbie Hancock (Headhunters and other band formations), soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter and electric piano keyboardist Joe Zawinul (co-founders of Weather Report), and drummer Lenny White (Return to Forever), were the bold, youthful leaders of this new frontier in jazz. Bitches Brew was a controversial breakthrough in musical arrangement that officered synthesized, spacey horn overlays by Davis and unleashed an intense instrumentation from a highly experimental group of younger musicians, seeking to play at the edge of their instrument. Selling over 100,000 copies initially, unheard of for a jazz record, it attracted another, younger generation to this next musical stage for Davis. In 1976, it was certified gold for selling over 500,000 records. By 2003, it had sold one million copies. (Recording Industry Association of America. Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved May 7, 2017.)

With financial and high-profile recognition, a celebrity lifestyle brought Davis back to late-night partying, binges, and accompanying addiction to cocaine and heavy use of alcohol. It would consume him and this period, from 1975 to 1980, produced uneven and infrequent musical compositions and collaborations. Virtuoso jazz drummer, bandleader, and close friend, Tony Williams, spoke of this period and its impact on Davis’ musical production, recalling that “by noon (on average) Davis would be sick from the previous night’s intake.” (“Blowing Up a Storm” The Independent, April 1, 2005.). By Davis’ own account, as recalled in his autobiography, “Sex and drugs took the place music had occupied in my life.”

At the beginning of the ‘80s, Davis would reappear with his first recording back with Columbia since a forced hiatus for his physical and emotional health. The Man with the Horn (1981) received poor reviews but was successful commercially, and provided a vehicle for him to tour again, and also introduce new sideman and talent including percussionist Mino Cinelu, guitarist John Scofield, and bassist Darryl Jones. Touring in Europe, he was enthusiastically received, and his performances brought strong reviews. He would also receive the Leonie Sonning Music Prize, Denmark’s highest musical honor for an international musician and composer.

Davis would continue to seek out and connect with younger performers in contemporary pop, funk, and rock, collaborating or reinterpreting their hit songs. His emotional refrain and modal touch on his trumpet for Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and Michael Jackson’s Human Nature were audience favorites and again attracted a new age of listeners. He also participated in the 1985 protest song, Sun City, as a member of Artists United Against Apartheid.


In 1986, his collaboration with multi-genre bassist, composer, and arranger Marcus Miller produced Tutu, and followed with a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumentalist, Soloist in ’87.

In what became his final performance, in July of 1991, Davis returned to performing material from previous recordings at the Montreux Jazz Festival in France, with a band and orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones (various (2012). Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History. Voyageur Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-4262-6). Some of his veteran sidemen organized a show in his honor in Paris two days later, billed as “Miles and Friends,” including John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul. In Paris he was awarded a knighthood, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and the French Minister of Culture called him “the Picasso of Jazz.”

Davis, deteriorating from poor health after a lifetime of demands on the stage and studio and burning the candle at both ends in his personal life, would die on September 26, 1991.

Davis was integral to modern jazz and its developments and transitions, from his early beginnings with the pioneers of bebop through his own revisions against bebop. He would stretch experimentation without giving his sidemen structure in his quintets. Then, again, Davis would recruit the youthful and brilliant talent of another generation to form jazz fusion. Finally, not afraid to address pop songs and their popularity, Davis would reinterpret them through his horn. Though widely acclaimed as a musical genius, in his own words, he could not escape his calling: “Music is a sort of curse with me. I’ve always felt driven to play it. It’s the first thing in my life. I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. It comes before everything.” (Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis, pub. Simon & Schuster, 1990)

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