Nine-time Grammy Award winner Miles Davis was a major force in the jazz world, as both a trumpet player and a bandleader.
The son of a prosperous dental surgeon and a music teacher, Miles Davisstrong> was born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois. Miles grew up in a supportive middle-class household where he was introduced by his father to the trumpet at age 13. He quickly developed a talent for playing the trumpet under the private tutelage of Elwood Buchanan, a friend of his father who directed a music school.
Buchanan emphasized playing the trumpet without vibrato, which was contrary to the common style used by trumpeters such as Louis Armstrong, and which would come to influence and help develop the Miles Davis style.
Miles played professionally while in high school. At the age of 17, the famed Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker invited him to join them onstage when they found they were in need of a trumpet player to replace a sick bandmate. Soon after, in 1944, Miles left Illinois for New York, where he attended the Juilliard School of Music (known at that time as the Institute of Musical Art).
While attending school, Miles sought out Charlie Parker, and once he joined up with him, began to play at Harlem nightclubs. During the gigs, he met several musicians whom he would eventually play with and form the basis for bebop, a fast, improvisational style of jazz instrumental that defined the modern jazz era.
In 1945, Miles elected, with his father's permission, to drop out of Juilliard and become a full-time jazz musician. He was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet and made his first recording as a bandleader in 1946 with the Miles Davis Sextet.
Between 1945 and 1948, Davis and Parker recorded continuously. It was during this period that Davis worked on developing the improvisational style that defined his trumpet playing. In 1949, Davis formed a nine-piece band with uncommon additions, such as the French horn, trombone and tuba.
He released a series of singles that would later be considered a significant contribution to modern jazz. They were later released in an album entitled The Birth of Cool. In the early 1950s Davis became addicted to heroin, and while he was still able to record, it was a difficult period and his performances were haphazard.
He overcame his addiction in 1954, at which time his performance of “‘Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival earned him a recording contract with Columbia Records. There he also created a permanent band, comprised of John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Red Garland. Miles recorded several albums with his sextet during the 1950s, including ‘Porgy and Bess’ and culminating in 1959 with the album Kind of Blue.
Now considered one of the best jazz albums ever recorded, Kind of Blue has sold over 2 million copies, becoming the largest-selling jazz album of all time. Miles continued to be be successful into the 1960s. His band transformed over time, due to new band members and changes in style. The various members of his band went on to become some of the most influential musicians of the jazz fusion era.
These included Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever), and John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The development of jazz fusion was influenced by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, reflecting the ‘fusion’ of jazz and rock.
The album Bitches Brew, recorded a few weeks after the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, set the stage for the jazz fusion movement to follow. Bitches Brew was very popular and became a best-selling album. As a result, Davis was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, the first jazz artist to be so recognized.
For his traditional fans, this change of style was not welcome, but it exemplifies Davis’ ability to experiment and push the limits of his own music style. In 1975, Miles was once again drawn into drug abuse, becoming addicted to alcohol and cocaine. Miles took a five-year hiatus from his career.
In 1979, he met Cicely Tyson, an American actress, who helped him overcome his cocaine addiction and whom he married in 1981. From 1979 to 1981, Davis worked on recordings that culminated in the release of the album The Man with the Horn, an album that registered steady sales but was not critically well-received. Davis spent the 1980s continuing to experiment with different styles. He interpreted songs made popular by Michael Jackson (‘Human Nature’) and Cyndi Lauper (‘Time After Time’) on his album You're Under Arrest, released in 1985.
It was at this time that he developed a feud with fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Wynton publicly criticized Davis' work in jazz fusion as not being ‘true’ jazz. When Marsalis attempted to join Miles onstage without invitation at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 1986, Miles requested that he leave the stage, using strong language. This incident is credited with making the festival famous to this day.
In 1986, Miles again reinvented himself with the release of the album Tutu, which incorporated synthesizers, drum loops and samples. It was well-received, winning Davis another Grammy Award. This was followed by the release of Aura, an album created in 1985 in tribute to the ‘aura’ of Miles. Its release was delayed until 1989, but it too won a Grammy.
In 1990, Miles received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his body of work. In 1991, he played with Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The two performed a retrospective of Miles’ early work, some of which he had not played in public for over 20 years. It would be later that same year, on September 21, 1991, that Davis would succumb to pneumonia and respiratory failure and die at the age of 65.
Fittingly, the recording with Quincy Jones would win Miles his final Grammy, posthumously in 1993, a true tribute to his great body of work, which had a profound influence on jazz.
May 26, 1926
September 21, 1991
- As suggested by his father, Miles enrolled at Juilliard School in New York to acquire better knowledge in music theory. However, he soon lost interest in theoretical studies and started following his idol, Charlie Parker, who was the most prominent name in bebop.
- Miles was 13 years old when he started learning the trumpet.
- In the early 1950s, Davis turned into a heroin addict. His career suffered a major setback as reports of his addiction and wild temper spread across the industry. In 1954, Davis conquered his addiction and re-entered the music scene with greater determination.
- During the 1960s, Davis continued his journey of success. His quintets and sextets changed from time to time. While some major names left him, others, such as Wayne Shorter, took their place.
- Miles Davis won eight Grammy Awards. Most of these were for his solo jazz performances and some were for the instrumental performances by his band. He also won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
- Davis felt deeply about the racist policies against the African–American people in the US. He participated in an anti-apartheid music album to show his support for the cause.