On May 26th, 1926, one of the most iconic musicians of all time came into the world: Miles Davis. Born to black middle-class parents, Davis would grow from boyhood into an adult through some of the nation’s hardest times, and his music would help an exhausted post-war country regain its hope. Miles Davis’s innovations caused seismic shifts in the music world, as trends like Bebop, Cool, Hard Bop, Blue, and Fusion sprung from his need to seek something beyond what he heard around him. Davis regularly went beyond his own boundaries, fearlessly looking for the next wave. Sadly, a closer look at his life reveals he was likely searching for anything he could control in the midst of a runaway life.
Davis wasn’t one for bending his notes, keeping vibrato to a minimum for most of his career. His playing was so captivating because it was so honest. You were seeing directly into him. The rawness, the energy masterfully restrained into short, staccato flights of fancy held the jazz community’s attention for decades.
Miles Davis started playing live during World War II, when he was still in high school. Though he would himself inspire many devoted fans, he idolized Charlie Parker, and in the fall of 1944, he finally managed a jam session with him and the some of the founding fathers of the Bebop movement. The uptempo attitude, sunny sky songs caused a national stir, and many stars were minted. Not one to rest on helping create an entire wave of musical style, he soon went on to help bring around the birth of cool jazz. The cool jazz sound was an experiment to make the music a voice its own, with an emphasis on the organic and flowing rhythms, even in the solos.
Davis went abroad in the early ’50s. While he had faced institutional racism in America, he found himself a well regarded genius and was treated accordingly in France. He had a love affair with the country itself, which ended tragically when he returned to New York and fell into a heroin addiction. The legend goes that he locked himself away for protracted periods, going through a painful and prolonged withdrawal. It’s either amazing or tragic that he continued to perform through all of this. Losing his voice after the strain of an operation, he gained a raspy tone, that coupled with his haunting playing created an other-worldly air about him. In his musical journeys around the world, he fell in love with modal forms of song structure, basing lengthy music passages around long sustained notes and tones, and expanded his free flow solos into entirely improvised pieces, taking the entire band along for the ride.
Miles Davis was a rare player in all accounts. A musician’s musician who also also held the public’s attention. Though the critical acclaim he felt he deserved was lauded on contemporaries, the players who took the stage with him is a parade of names etched into the walls of jazz History. The aforementioned Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bill Evans, Bennie Maupin, John McLaughlin to name just a few. He was as proficient at recruiting existing greats as discovering diamonds in the rough. His playing didn’t just elevate those around them, it inspired them to play beyond themselves.
In 1959, Miles Davis released the highest selling jazz album of all time, Kind Of Blue, with pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley filling out his band. Employing his adapted modal techniques, the compositions were roughly outlined, and each player given a range of tone and scale that they were free to solo within. His choice in musicians was an inspired one, as each lived up to the trust placed in them. The five songs that comprised the two sides of the album, “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “Blue In Green”, “All Blues”, and “Flamenco Sketches” were something of a culmination of all that Davis had dabbled in up to this point, and the freshness of the sound, the adeptness of the instrumentalists and the plain honesty of the voice caused the album to transcend considerations of race, taste and social standing. It was art, and it was for everyone. In 2009, Congress made possibly the most unneeded, though completely deserved, declaration, proclaiming the album a national treasure.
As the 60s led to an explosion of psychedelia and funk in a response to a national unrest over continuing racial tensions and the long running war in Vietnam, Davis found his attention wandering yet again. He formed a blended band of acoustic and instruments, and led a funk oriented group that produced challenging, dense funk with compositions overflowing with jamming tangents and free form soul. He played rock festivals and found a ready made audience, eager for something to stretch the boundaries that had defined bands like Parliament–Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone. His work of this period became known as “Space Music”, a label he did not fight. He, as always, used his music to express his emotion, and again, like always, left a feeling of fury and abandon echoing in the minds of his listeners long after the last notes were played.
As the seventies wore on, he honed his fusion of rock and jazz, releasing albums like Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea, which broke loose from the confines of the studio. With compositions both rock and jazz, the trio served as almost a musical Rosetta Stone, a secret code to an all new language that Davis was conceiving on the fly. Challenged audiences were divided, with some instantly swept away in the sonic maelstrom, while others found the aggressive variances of tone and breakneck pace shifts occasionally bordering on atonal to be more than they could handle. Though his music was breaking bonds, his mind was being slowly locked down, as he faced a deteriorating mental state and a devolution into near hermitage when not onstage.
His work in the eighties took a turn for the more superficial, as his own years of ravaged living had taken their toll. His newer material did not satisfy new audiences, though, a true iconoclast to the end, he refused repeated, reportedly huge offers to re-embrace his older catalog. He remained true to his belief that, as an artist, he should always be exploring, even if his steps led him down a path no one was willing to follow him on.
Miles Davis’s relevance superseded genre. He wrote a songbook that stands up to anyone who ever lived, and played his instrument with an eloquence rare beyond value. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and for his influence of the very language of improvisational music, it was an honor well deserved. The list of musicians who would readily tell you how much of an influence Miles’ sound has had on them is likely longer than the amount of words in every column and blurb posted on this site today.
The sad tales of addiction and the mental difficulties he went through in fighting them are oft and far better told than I could muster here. He was a world wide phenomenon. He was an ambassador of sound, telling tales of anger and anguish, hope and joy with a voice so unique that there was no mistaking it. While it would be overstating that any fan of improvisational music further explored by bands like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and Phish should delve into the works of Miles Davis, it is surely true that the music they love was influenced by the work of the man.
To celebrate this great man’s life, sit back and let the music of the following video, “Around The Midnight,” wash over you. You’ll be glad you did.
“Around The Midnight”