With this non-exhaustive retrospective, we will dig into the extraordinary life of Miles Davis, in which the central theme was given by his restless determination to break boundaries and live life on his own terms.
Instead of sitting down and collect, Miles broke with convention, over and over again, both in music and in life, shapeshifting to a new form every time he thought his work had fallen in a new statement.
That’s what made him a star and an innovator in music; along a meandering path, we will retrace his evolution, from bebop to “cool jazz,” from orchestral music, to jazz fusion, from rock ‘n’ roll, up to hip-hop.
Music has always been a blessing and a curse for Miles Davis, wings and chains, for his entire life.
On the one hand, it was an inspirational muse, for which he always felt driven to play it. On the other hand, it was a nagging obsession, perpetually present in his thoughts, prevaricating towards almost everything.
He goes to bed and falls asleep with that thought fixed in his head. He wakes up, and it looms before anything else. Music never leaves him.
Born in Alton, Illinois, a little river town upon the Mississippi River, his father, a prosperous dental surgeon, moved the family to 1701 Kansas Avenue in East St. Louis.
We are in the late 1930s. St. Louis and East St. Louis are two country towns, full of country people. Mostly white people from the surroundings. Really country people, and racist to the bone.
So, Miles grows up in a wealthy situation. His family owns a farm and raise cattle and hogs. They were the cream of the crop in the city, making him the second richest guy in the state of Illinois.
Nevertheless, the Davis family is one of the “wrong” skin color, living in a time when racial segregation still blights the lives of African-Americans. Certainly, the father’s wealth cannot protect Miles from the segregation and racism, which at that time are deeply rooted in a place like Esat St. Louis.
Miles’ parents were like cats and dogs. They have been at each other’s throats since he was a little kid.
Among the various quarrels, Miles will recount when his mother picked up things and threw them at his father. He got so mad at her that he punched her and knocked out a couple of her teeth.
Even the gift Miles receives on his 13th birthday will cause a big argument between the two. While his mother wants a violin for him, his father will overrule her buying a new trumpet.
It is easy to figure out how that anger and that kind of attitude toward women could have affected his mind as a young boy. He absorbed all of that.
Although he may not yet know how, Miles will be affected by this burden for a long time.
Miles was considered a genius, but he was also regarded as weird. His habit was to go into the woods, listen to animals or birdsong, and play what he heard with his trumpet.
Here start the professional career of Miles Davis. His very first engagement comes as a member of the trumpet section in Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils. Young and small, Miles can barely fill the suit he had to wear for the gigs.
But, while the other guys of the band are busy with their daily jobs, teenager Davis quickly becomes the musical director for this popular dance band.
These are the war years. Years that bring on new fads and tastes. Among these, the strangest flavor around is the excitement generated by a novelty defined as “musical noise.” It’s jazz.
It is worth highlighting how jazz wasn’t considered eligible to be included in “the real” music category. Jazz was not considered a true and proper one by the whites.
In a waste of clichés, in addition to being described as no better codifiable noise which nevertheless had some aspects of musicality, jazz was held responsible for everything, from bad weather to the dissolution of morality.
On the other side, a common thought among black artists was that going to school, one would end up playing like a white and that by studying the theory, one would lose musical intuition.
In July 1944, Billy Eckstine visits St. Louis with his orchestra that included Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. A legendary bebop big band.
A laboratory where there was the forefront and the future of modern jazz.
Trumpeter Buddy Anderson is too sick to perform, so Davis is invited to join. He will play with the band for two weeks at Club Riviera.
Miles see these very elegantly-dressed characters. He is drawn by the dignity, the nobility, and the swagger that came with that. And he wants to step into this hotbed, of music, research, and development.
Here comes the first real pivot point for Davis.
Here, starts the magic.
Billy Eckstine & His Orchestra // Rhythm In A Riff
A FAST-RISING FEVER – William Clarence Billy Eckstine (1914-1993) and his orchestra.
one of the icons of that swing era that will give life to bebop music
Despite the black thought, in September 1944 Miles enrolled at the Institute of Musical Arts, later known as the Juilliard School, because he wanted to learn music.
He went to the library and borrow scores of the great composers, aspiring to catch their secrets, to see what was happening in all the music. He knows there’s something else going on, but it’s not happening at Juilliard.
Therefore, at the age of 18, Miles decided he had to be in New York City, on 52nd Street, to live and breathe in that forge where the action was.
52nd Street was a jazz club mecca. There were jazz clubs on both sides of the street. Each of these little places had a speaker outside where you could hear what was playing on inside. You could stand outside and hear the music until the club’s doorman would chase you away.
Miles is there, in the eye of the storm, going to Juilliard in the daytime and spending the night on 52nd Street. He lives that moment, overwhelmed by the intoxicating drag given by jazz music. He plucks and tastes every grape, and absorbs like a sponge every drop of this nectar.
He is kidnapped, amazed, and entranced by bebop, a jazz style that gives the connotations to the music born at that time, in that city, in that street.
Bebop was black music made by black musicians who wanted to get away from the white Minstrel Show. No smiling, laughing, or dancing on the stage. No entertaining man. Rather, they wanted to be artists like Stravinsky … they wanted to be pure artists.
We could compare bebop musicians to rocket scientists, and bebop music to the Manhattan Project, as something developed by some sound physicists blowing their brains out to push this music as far as they could.
He spent his first week and all his money in New York looking for Charlie Parker e Dizzy Gillespie, but didn’t find them. Then, one night, Davis heard a voice from behind, asking why he was looking for him. Miles turned around and there … was Bird.
A GAME CHANGER – Miles Davis always had his own way of doing things
Within months Miles is running with Bird. He joins his quintet and participates in several recording sessions as part of Parker’s group.
Every night, he’d get on the stage with Bird. Bird would play the head of the tune and just leave him playing along by himself. Miles threw up every night because he was so stressed out and humiliated. Those veterans could have belittled him any night.
Miles has to find his strength. So he comes up with a personal style, which truly reflects who he is. The straight tone, the lyricism … the Davis of the first era was born.
Miles meets the pianist and arranger Gil Evans, and a formidable creative understanding is born between the two. Davis liked the way Gil wrote the music, and he liked the way Miles played. They heard the sound in the same way.
The first ripe fruit of this luxuriant prodigy arrives by the end of the ’40s, as they are working on a project together. A nonet that would create a kind of melding of modern classical ideas with jazz. They will record a dozen tracks in total, which will be released as singles, and subsequently compiled on that piece of art known as “Birth of the Cool.”
If you have listened to “Birth of the Cool,” and if you have not already, you really should, there will be at least one track that has left you perplexed. Let’s be honest. There is more than one.
Here is the point. ‘Birth of the Cool’ was written and recorded between ’48 and ’50, and released by Capitol Records in 1957, and after more than sixty years, it still appears to many as something alien — little, or maybe completely, incomprehensible.
Miles and Gil intended to create a listening music or concert music if you prefer, which deliberately had nothing to do with 52nd Street drive and funk. More properly, they sought a way to create new colors through the broadening of the jazz palette.
So here we have another pivot point for Miles. It is the rise of Davis’ experiential streak. Clearly, he is aware that he has to go to places it has not gone before to move the music forward.
But, if these places are no more those you find along 52nd Street, where is he going to look for new inspiration? Soon said, in the heart of liberated Europe: Paris!
Miles arrived in Paris in 1949. It was his first trip out of the country. He loved Paris. He loved the way he was treated. He loved the refreshing smell that was galvanizing Paris. And he loved the Parisiennes.
One in particular found her way into Miles’ heart: Juliette Gréco. A young, left bank bohemian beauty and aspiring actress, Juliette was very important to Davis, both the man and the artist.
In addition to being the first to “distract” him from his obsession with music, Juliette introduces Miles into a circle of other artists: intellectuals, philosophers … great minds of that time. He meets Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, just to name a couple. He’s treated as an equal by some of the most creative giants of the day.
For Miles, Paris is an incredible and inspiring opening up, full of possibility and potential, turning a beacon of hope into something tangible: to be fully oneself beyond the boundaries of race. The spark that will fuel Davis’ ascension has been turned on.
Every African-American artist who has spent time overseas talks about the profound disappointment they feel coming back to the US. Having experienced something different, they see their country as they knew it, but in an even starker light.
Miles stayed in Paris only for a couple of weeks. But there he learned that not all white people were the same. Some were prejudiced, some weren’t. For him, the homecoming is a difficult time. Irene remained in Paris, and blighted by the crap of racism that is still entrenched in his country, he goes adrift.
He lost his sense of discipline and control of his life. Before he knew it, he had become addicted to heroin.
The war is over. After four years of Nazi rule, Paris is unchained, and the heart of European civilization is beating free and strong again.
Appealed as The City of Light, Paris was different from the rest of the world. In Europe, especially in France, there was a wind of renewal. And Paris was the heart of what we can portray as a new Renaissance, and the cradle of the arts, for painters, photographers, writers, poets, dancers, musicians, singers… even for the black ones.
The post-war euphoria defines the birth of a new era that needs a new sound. And that sound was Jazz.
Miles was sinking down a spiral leading him into hell. As he will recount in his memoirs, he was shooting heroin all the time, day and night. That was all he lived for, not the music anymore.
This is no secret among those who share the scene with him. Many expect Miles to not survive, let alone he returns to being a successful musician.
Then, one night, while Miles was performing at a club in New York, his father came from East St. Louis, took him off the stage, and brought him back home.
On the way home, Miles feels like a little boy going with his daddy. He tells him he will give up dope and that all he needs is a little rest. Nevertheless, before he knew it, he found himself still enslaved by his infernal vise, shooting up again, and borrowing money from his father to support his habit.
Almost unrecognizable, you could have stumbled upon him at night, dangling stoned somewhere, wearing clothes that made him look like he was homeless.
Even if he still managed to perform locally, the drug had taken him out of the mainstream. Miles realized he had gone off the deep end. Drugs took him away from his great love: music.
So after a few months spent on the father’s farm, he finally comes out clean, ready to return to the scene through the gates of Prestige, Newport, and Columbia Records.
Time was at the turn of 40’s and 50’s and Bob Weinstock, a white man who had started a new jazz label called Prestige, was looking for Davis to make a record.
Having already hit the bottom, Miles figured there was nowhere for him to go but up. He is in full swing, determined to get back on top, and after signing the Prestige contract, he also takes his part at the Newport festival.
Newport was like an audition. Listening in the audience were executives from Columbia Records, which at that time was considered the Tiffany of labels. Davis used that opportunity to return to the rescue.
Once on stage, he put the bell of his horn right inside the microphone … and right there, he changed his career and the whole world of jazz. The beauty of that song and Miles’ trumpet sound made bebop a music that could be accepted by everybody.
Rather than blowing impressive technicalities, maybe hiding behind a complicated melody, Miles brought a ballad that could be the perfect soundtrack for making love. It was a bold act stylistically speaking, and shrewd emotionally, because he opened up to the public, showing off his sensitivity and vulnerability, despite being a man.
His musical message is a disarming missive full of romanticism, but it’s a romanticism that is distant from the mellow one of the old classics.
The sound, so unique from the first note, is disarming for the naturalness with which it engages and melts you, delivering a sense of genuine pleasure and beauty.
He gives all of himself and goes straight to the heart, to the guts, to the point of making you want to feel what he is feeling while playing.
Miles had a way of playing that featured discursive musical phrasing. Real arguments in which he devoted the utmost care in decanting them, note after note, making sure that every syllable of his speech reached the listener in all its entirety, even without the use of spoken words.
He was able to alternate suspensive pauses and sustained notes in an incredibly organic way, with mordents and glissandi, which he sometimes dirty just like in a colloquial speech, where pronunciation, inflection, and personal transport affect how the sounds come out.
The curved brass tube of his horn was, in effect, an extensive prosthesis of his instrumental speech. And what came out was a message that demanded attention, asking and expecting to be listened to with the utmost care, attention, and devotion.
Thus, with the Prestige album and Newport performance, Davis created a real listening experience, which left anyone astonished, enraptured by the charm of a music that even presented many of today’s music’s founding elements.
So Newport marked Davis’ great return. And the results were not long in coming. George Avakian, the jazz producer for Columbia Records, wanted to sign Miles into an exclusive contract. Miles cannot miss that opportunity. Clearly, he wants to go with Columbia. But first, he has to get free of the Prestige contract.
He then brought his new quintet, with John Coltrane as the tenor saxophone player, into the Rudy Van Gelder’s studios. Calling tune after tune, in a couple of days, Miles recorded enough music to free himself from his obligation to the Prestige.
During the recording sessions, Miles practically gave the musicians carte blanche. He was thinking of getting rid of his obligations to the Prestige as soon as possible, but in reality, he created jewels of spontaneous jazz music. One of the greatest feats in the history of jazz.
Ascended to the Olympus of innovators, when Davis returned to Paris, he was approached by Louis Malle. A young director at the beginning of his career, Malle, was committed to developing a different cinema.
Malle wanted to change the way of making films, for example, by using real people in a real setting and approached Davis by asking him if he would be willing to create a jazz soundtrack for his new movie, “Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud” (Elevator To The Gallows).
The making of a soundtrack would have involved a composer, a director (often the same person), usually at least one soloist, and about thirty other people: strings, percussion, brass, etc.
Then there would be the recording sessions, calibrated in sequence on the specific duration of each single scene. Miles did none of this.
He didn’t write any music. He simply played and recorded the entire soundtrack directly along with the screening of the movie, improvising and creating the sound in reaction to the film’s scenes.
That soundtrack made the movie famous, as the many people who had heard the record first, now wanted to see the film.
This imprinting of spontaneity was a stroke of genius, because even if the music is by Miles, the suffering and the struggle that are conveyed are those of the film. Soon those who were working on the project with Miles realized that they were doing something extraordinary.
Miles pioneered a new approach to improvisation. And as much as it may appear as something already completed as it is, it’s only the embryo of what he will further develop in the following years.
Something that will find its first organic fulfillment in ‘Kind of Blue’.
Davis recording the “Elevator To The Gallows” soundtrack & short interview with Louis Malle
“Elevator To The Gallows” official trailer
Building on the success of the experimentation developed in the creation of the “Elevator To The Gallows” soundtrack, Miles returned to the recording studio for a new project: “Kind of Blue.”
With the specific intention of extending and expanding what he had done as a soloist. He didn’t write out the music for “Kind of Blue,” but he just came in with some little notes and sketches because he wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing.
He knew that great musicians would be able to manage and juggle the situation and that they would play beyond what they thought they could do.
Globally recognized as a masterpiece, “Kind of Blue” is a sacred text for music, not only for jazz or improvisation. This album really signified a different way of thinking about music, drawing a different pattern of playing it, and tracing a new path to approach it.
Decades go by, but there are always those who report how this album always says something new with every listen, even after hundreds of times. Impossible to disagree.
To prove this album’s depth, just take the intro of the opening track “So What.” What about Paul Chambers’ bassline and Jimmy Cobb’s cymbal crash, which seems to resonate endlessly? It’s something that immediately takes you to a new world … and it’s just the beginning.
Not to mention the tenor sax played by a young John Coltrane. Many consider his performance the real undisputed gem of the whole album. What is certain is that for Coltrane, “Kind of Blue” was the door and the key to finding his identity. While few people hear the potential in the young John Coltrane, Miles brought him along and provided Coltrane the space to become the artist whom we would later love and revere.
“Kind of Blue” was an instant hit, making Davis a popular and mainstream star. The Columbia deal brought Miles music into the American mainstream like never before, elevating him into the maestros music land.
In the height of the black man’s era, Davis was the living proof of who had redeemed his social status. Like a kind of mythological cross between a hero and a black Superman, so fashionable, he was seen as the embodiment of coolness.
He was cool, hip, angry, sophisticated, ultra-clean, and masculine. He was all this and more … He was playing his horn nonstop, and he had a great group that made sparks when performing.
So, in addition to getting recognition based on a rebel image, people also began to talk about the mystique of Miles Davis. At that point, Davis’s skin color became an asset as part of the social and artistic arsenal of an archetype: tremendously desirable by anyone, regardless of skin color, and indeed different from anything shown on television or in movies of that time.
The first part of this long journey through Miles Davis’ life ends here. We will be back next month with the second part. In the meantime, if you liked this piece, show us some love, leave a comment and follow us on our social networks.