Miles Davis is one of the key figures in the history of jazz, and his place in vanguard of that pantheon is secure. His induction as a performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a subtler and less obvious matter. Davis never played rock or rhythm & blues, though he experimented with funk grooves on 1972’s On the Corner and in some of his later bands. However, his work intrigued a sizable segment of rock’s more ambitious fans in a way that no other serious jazz figure had ever done – and not retroactively but while he was alive and making some of his most challenging music. In particular, the boldly experimental soundscapes of Davis’ 1969 album Bitches Brew spoke to the sensibilities of rock fans who’d been digesting the Grateful Dead’s expansive improvisations. Davis’ was acutely attuned to his environment and he once remarked, “We play what the day recommends.”
Davis’ exposure to the rock audience owes much to concert promoter Bill Graham, who booked Davis at his Fillmore auditoriums. Graham figured that his open-eared audiences would make the connection between venturesome San Francisco jam bands (like the Dead, Quicksilver and Santana) and Davis’ free-flowing ensemble. This exposure allowed Davis to cross over without compromise, and he actually recorded albums – Miles Davis at Fillmore and Black Beauty – at Graham’s Fillmore East and Fillmore West, respectively.
It is important to note that Miles Davis did not make jazz-rock – a briefly popular hybrid in the late Sixties and early Seventies, whose chief proponents were Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. Davis played jazz, period. But his forward-thinking sensibility, insatiably curious muse and eagerness to move music into uncharted realms made him a contemporary musician, irrespective of genre. The bond he established with rock’s more inquisitive listeners at that time carried through to his death in 1991. Moreover, his career-long example of pushing the boundaries has influenced many of rock’s leading lights, particularly those who eschewed the status quo for musical explorations on rock’s more experimental tip. He possessed one of the most gifted and curious minds in music history, and compromise was not in his blood.
As a French jazz magazine wrote of him in 1960: “The behavior of Miles Davis is not that of an ordinary star. It is that of a man who has decided to live without hypocrisy.”
Born in the St. Louis suburb of Alton, Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III was the son of a successful dental surgeon. His mother played piano and violin, and Miles received tutoring on the trumpet. In 1942, he joined Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils, with whom he played throughout high school. Davis first heard modern jazz at 18 when Billy Eckstine’s ensemble, which included saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, came to town for a two-week residency. Davis wound up replacing a trumpet player in the band who had taken ill. He accompanied Eckstine back to New York, where he studied classical music at Juilliard by day and played jazz clubs at night. Davis joined Parker’s quintet in 1945 and made his recording debut as a bandleader two years later.
Jazz writer Nat Hentoff identified the fundamental elements of Davis’ style: “spareness, evocative use of space, intense lyricism, and deep fire underneath it all.” The innovations he brought to jazz in the second half of the 20th century were profound in their scope and consequences. With The Birth of the Cool, a series of sessions cut with a nine-piece band in 1949 and 1950, Davis tempered bop’s heat with a more supple, serene lyricism. As Robert Palmer wrote many years later, “[The Birth of the Cool] initiated a still-evolving exchange between of ideas between jazz and European classical music.”
Davis changed courses in the mid-Fifties with Walkin’, a bluesier, more muscular effort (recorded during a stint with Prestige Records) that ushered in the hard-bop era. He’d formed a legendary quintet that included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and a young saxophonist named John Coltrane. They went on to record other milestones, such as Round About Midnight, which inaugurated Davis’ 30-year association with Columbia Records. Davis followed this with the ambitious Miles Ahead (1957), credited to “Miles Davis + 19.” This big-band session renewed Davis’ fruitful partnership with arranger Gil Evans (who’d also worked on The Birth of the Cool). Theirs has been called “the most important relationship ever forged between a jazz soloist and an arranger.”
The innovations came fast and furious as the Fifties segued into the Sixties. Working with a sextet that included pianist Bill Evans and saxophonists Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Davis recorded the understated masterpiece Kind of Blue in the spring of 1959. The musicians soloed in uncluttered settings typified by “melodic rather than harmonic variation,” in Davis’ words. The album included the classic originals “All Blues,” “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches.” Sketches of Spain, a large-scale orchestral project, appeared a year later. It was the apex in a series of expressive collaborations between Davis and arranger/composer Gil Evans. Both albums highlighted Davis’ painterly approach to horn-playing. Unsurprisingly, painting would later become another mode of self-expression for Davis.
During the Sixties, Davis led a stellar quintet that included tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drumming prodigy Tony Williams (who was only 17 when he first performed with Davis). Their many notable works included E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1967), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969). Davis would then move in a more electric direction, occasioning the same sort of controversy in the jazz world that Bob Dylan’s embrace of amplified instruments had generated in the folk world at mid-decade. His first step in this direction was the atmospheric In a Silent Way (1969), which saw him joined by guitarist John McLaughlin, and keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. This album pointed the way to Davis’ groundbreaking Bitches Brew, one of the most challenging and innovative musical works ever made.
Enamored of the rock styles of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, Davis had expressed a desire to form “the world’s baddest rock band.” He didn’t literally do that, but he did bring a fiery, rock-inspired sensibility to Bitches Brew (1969), A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1971) and Live-Evil (1971). During this highly productive period he employed musicians who would go on to become household names in the Seventies: Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (who cofounded Weather Report); Chick Corea (who’d make waves with Return to Forever); Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin (who’d form Mahavishnu Orchestra); Harvey Brooks (from the rock group Electric Flag); Lenny White (who’d join Larry Coryell’s fusion band, the Eleventh House); Ron Carter and Airto Moreira (key figures on the CTI label’s new-wave jazz roster); and others. Davis wasn’t so much leading a band as conducting an extended seminar on new directions for jazz, and its impact would be felt for decades.
Davis’ infatuation with rock and funk peaked with 1972’s On the Corner. He drew from numerous influences, including Sly Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic, James Brown, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and British composer/arranger Paul Buckmaster. Thereafter, he kept two or three electric guitarists in his band, and the music turned even more spectral and extreme. Such albums as Agharta, Pangaea and Dark Magus made for difficult listening. They subsequently influenced movements on rock’s fringe like no wave, industrial, electronica, punk-funk and grunge. Those albums also reflected Davis’ turmoil during one of the darker periods in his life. He actually dropped out of the music scene from 1975 to 1981. Davis resurfaced in 1981 with The Man With the Horn. It was followed by the double live album We Want Miles and Star People, which was Davis’ most blues-minded recording in many years. He closed out his 30-year run on Columbia Records with the albums Decoy (1984) and You’re Under Arrest (1985). The latter included Davis’ interpretations of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
Davis’ comeback continued with a move to Warner Bros. in the mid-Eighties, where he continued to push the envelope with such albums as Tutu (1986) and Music From Siesta (1987). In 1989, Davis published a frank, uncensored memoir entitled Miles: The Autobiography, which made numerous best-seller lists. Davis’ final studio project, Doo Bop, found him collaborating with Brooklyn rapper Easy Mo Bee on a synthesis of hip-hop, doo-wop and be-bop. Unsurprisingly, he was still forging new connections and avenues of expression until the very end of his life.
Davis succumbed to a combination of pneumonia, stroke and respiratory failure at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, in 1991. In the flood of tributes that followed, Vernon Reid (of Living Colour) perhaps stated it best: “Miles shares with a handful of artists of this century the ineffable mystery of creation at its highest level.”
In Davis’ own words, “The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to invent new ways to play.” For nearly 50 years, Miles Davis did just that.