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Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
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Miles Davis

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Dewey, III; Prince of Darkness (1926-1991) Trumpeter and bandleader

Audio sample So What
Recorded March 2, 1959
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Miles Davis
Image courtesy of Lee Tanner
An original, lyrical soloist and a demanding group leader, Miles Davis was the most consistently innovative musician in jazz from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Davis grew up in East St. Louis, and took up trumpet at the age of 13; two years later he was already playing professionally. He moved to New York in September 1944, ostensibly to enter the Institute of Musical Art but actually to locate his idol, Charlie Parker. He joined Parker in live appearances and recording sessions (1945-8), at the same time playing in other groups and touring in the big bands led by Benny Carter and Billy Eckstine.

In 1948 he began to lead his own bop groups, and he participated in an experimental workshop centered on the arranger Gil Evans. Their collaborations with Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Johnny Carisi culminated in a series of nonet recordings for Capitol under Davis' name and later collected and reissued as Birth of the Cool. In 1949 Davis performed with Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, and with Tadd Dameron, until heroin addiction interrupted his public career intermittently from mid-1949 to 1953. Although he continued to record with famous bop musicians, including Parker, Rollins, Blakey, J. J. Johnson, Horace Silver, and members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, he worked in clubs infrequently and with inferior accompanists until 1954.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: Kind of Blue
NPR's Tom Moon looks at this groundbreaking 1959 album by Miles Davis. A benchmark of improvisation and modal jazz, the disc is a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.

In 1955 Davis appeared informally at the Newport Jazz Festival. His sensational improvisations there brought him widespread publicity and sufficient engagements to establish a quintet (1955-7) with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and John Coltrane, who in 1956 was joined and later replaced by Rollins. In May 1957 Davis made the first of several remarkable solo recordings on trumpet and flugelhorn against unusual jazz orchestrations by Gil Evans. In the autumn he organized a quintet, later joined by Cannonball Adderley, that proved short-lived; in the same year he wrote and recorded music in Paris for Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud.

Upon his return to the USA he re-formed his original quintet of 1955 with Adderley as a sixth member. For the next five years Davis drew the rhythm sections of his various sextets and quintets from a small pool of players: the pianists Garland, Bill Evans (1958-9), and Wynton Kelly, the drummers Jones and Jimmy Cobb, and bass player Chambers. Personnel changes increased in early 1963, and finally Davis engaged a new rhythm section as the nucleus of another quintet: Herbie Hancock (1963-8), Ron Carter (1963-8), and Tony Williams (1963-9). To replace Coltrane, who had left in 1960, Davis tried a succession of saxophonists, including Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Heath, Hank Mobley (1961), George Coleman (1963-4), and Sam Rivers; ultimately he settled on Wayne Shorter (1964-70).

Audio sample Spanish Key
Recorded August 21, 1969
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Because of his irascible temperament and his need for frequent periods of inactivity, these sidemen were by no means entirely faithful to Davis. Nevertheless, the groups of 1955-68 were more stable than his later ones of 1969-75. Often the instrumentation and style of his ever-changing recording ensembles (up to 14 players) diverged considerably from that of his working groups (generally sextets or septets). Influential new members joined him in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Cobham, Al Foster, and Airto Moreira. As with Davis's previous colleagues, the excellence of these sidemen bore eloquent witness to his stature among jazz musicians.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On the evolution of Miles Davis' style
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

For years Davis, who trained as a boxer, had always been physically equal to the exertions of playing jazz trumpet; however, in the mid-1970s serious ailments and the effects of an automobile accident obliged him to retire. He suffered for five years from pneumonia and other afflictions. But in 1980 he made new recordings, and in the summer of 1981 began to tour extensively with new quintets and sextets. Although he was incapacitated by a stroke in February 1982, he resumed an active career in the spring of that year. Only Foster remained with Davis, serving as a sideman to 1975 and again from 1980 to 1985. New young members of his groups have included Bill Evans (1980-84), Branford Marsalis (1984-5), Bob Berg (from 1985), John Scofield (1982-5), and the synthesizer player Robert (Bobby) Irving III (1980, from 1983). In the 1980s Davis was described as a "living legend," a title he detested because it went against his continuing inclination to be associated with new popular music and energetic youthful activities, but one that was nonetheless accurate, reflecting his position as the former partner of both Parker and Coltrane. He received an honorary Doctorate of Music from the New England Conservatory in 1986 in honor of his longstanding achievements.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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