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One of the most important figures in the history of jazz music, Miles Davis was a trumpeter, composer and bandleader whose work over the course of a five-decade career helped to usher the genre from the be-bop era into bold new areas of improvisation, structure and fusion with other musical forms. He rose to prominence during the late 1940s, collaborating with his mentor, Charlie Parker, before striking out on his own with a series of players, including such legendary figures as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, who backed his development of the "cool jazz" and hard bop movements. The late 1950s and 1960s was unquestionably his most accomplished period, encompassing not only his experiments with the free-flowing modal jazz sound on the seminal Kind of Blue (1959), but also sonic journeys into music formed by the collision of soul, classical, rock and funk on Bitches Brew (1970) and other adventurous albums. A period of decline in the late 1970s led to a slow career revival in the 1980s, after which he assumed the mantle of elder statesman while continuing to push the boundaries of jazz with programmed music and elements of hip-hop. His death in 1991 signaled the end of one of the most creative...
One of the most important figures in the history of jazz music, Miles Davis was a trumpeter, composer and bandleader whose work over the course of a five-decade career helped to usher the genre from the be-bop era into bold new areas of improvisation, structure and fusion with other musical forms. He rose to prominence during the late 1940s, collaborating with his mentor, Charlie Parker, before striking out on his own with a series of players, including such legendary figures as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, who backed his development of the "cool jazz" and hard bop movements. The late 1950s and 1960s was unquestionably his most accomplished period, encompassing not only his experiments with the free-flowing modal jazz sound on the seminal Kind of Blue (1959), but also sonic journeys into music formed by the collision of soul, classical, rock and funk on Bitches Brew (1970) and other adventurous albums. A period of decline in the late 1970s led to a slow career revival in the 1980s, after which he assumed the mantle of elder statesman while continuing to push the boundaries of jazz with programmed music and elements of hip-hop. His death in 1991 signaled the end of one of the most creative careers in modern music, but the influence of his work on several generations of performers in nearly all genres remained potent, indelible and unquestionable.
Born May 26, 1926 in Alton, IL, Miles Dewey Davis was the son of a prosperous African-American family led by dental surgeon Dr. Miles Henry Davis, and his wife, Cleota, who initially wanted her son to follow in her footsteps and learn to play the piano. But Davis took up trumpet in his early teens, and took lessons from trumpeter Elwood Buchanan, who encouraged his students to play without the vibrato sound that was the predominant style of the period. This clean, clear, melodic approach would serve as Davis' signature tone throughout his career. By his mid-teens, Davis was playing with local groups like Eddie Randle's Blue Devils. In 1944, he was allowed to sit in with singer Billy Eckstine's big band, which counted trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker among their number. Both musicians would figure prominently in Davis' subsequent professional career, most notably as proponents of the be-bop style that Davis would adopt and later reject in favor of his own "cool" sound. After graduating from high school, Davis moved to New York City to study at the Julliard School of Music. There, he fell in with a cadre of musicians performing nightly at Harlem clubs, including Parker and other luminaries like Thelonious Monk and J.J. Johnson.
Davis soon dropped out of Julliard to pursue a full-time career as a musician, joining Parker's quintet in 1945 while also making his first recorded efforts as a sideman for Benny Carter and Herbie Fields. His tenure with Parker was marked by further development of his relaxed, melodic style, as well as growing conflict with Parker over the bandleader's erratic behavior under the influence of heroin. By 1949, tensions between the two men led to Davis' departure from the group and brief stints with bassist Charles Mingus and a return to Billy Eckstine's band. While freelancing as a sideman, Davis met Canadian composer-arranger Gil Evans, who would become one of his most significant collaborators. The pair would soon join forces on an unusual nonet that featured a French horn and tuba in its brass section. The group, which at various times between 1948 and 1949 featured a racially mixed lineup that included drummer Max Roach, saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, pianist John Lewis and trombonist Kai Winding, made its debut at the Royal Roost club in New York City, where its relaxed approach, anchored by arrangements by Evans, Lewis and Mulligan, stood in direct contrast to the hard-charging be-bop sound. Despite a contract with Capitol Records which would yield the album Birth of the Cool (1957) almost a decade later, the nonet was considered a failed experiment, though many of its members would retain its sound for their own recordings, most notably Mulligan, who was widely hailed as helping to foment the "cool jazz" style on the West Coast. The accreditation rankled Davis, who by 1949 was playing in Paris with Tadd Dameron. Upon his return to the United States, he lapsed into a profound depression that spawned a serious addiction to heroin.
In the midst of this personal turmoil, Davis signed with Prestige Records, with which he recorded some of his most significant albums of the decade. The Prestige recordings, which began with the 1951 10" record Blue Period and concluded in 1961 with a quartet of LPs culled from two days of lengthy recording sessions, were marked by Davis' use of the Harmon mute, which, when held close to the microphone, brought an introspective quality to his elegant, spacious style of performing. The Prestige recordings were also the end of his association with cool jazz and be-bop and his adherence to hard bop, an approach to jazz that favored slower tempos, more prominent beats and elements from rhythm-and-blues and gospel. By the midpoint of the decade, Davis had beaten his addiction and regained his footing in the music world. With a powerful new quintet comprised largely of newcomers, including saxophonist John Coltrane, Red Garland on piano, and teenager Philly Joe Jones on drums, he wowed audiences at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, which in turn led to a contract with Columbia Records. The quintet would record his final four albums for Prestige, which soon minted the players as rising stars in the jazz scene.
However, the group was soon disbanded due to internal problems, and Davis lit out for France, where he recorded the Grammy-nominated, improvised soundtrack for Louis Malle's thriller "Ascenseur pour l'echafaud" ("Elevator to the Gallows") (1958). Upon his return to the States, Davis reassembled the quintet, to which he added saxophonist Cannonball Adderley for the 1958 LP Milestones. The album saw Davis strike out even further into unknown musical territory through his exploration of modal jazz, which allowed players greater freedom by building solos around scales or tones rather than chord progressions. This groundbreaking effort was followed by a period of exceptional creativity, with Davis employing a bigger band for Miles Ahead (1958), which found him experimenting with classical music within a suite context constructed by arranger Gil Evans; Porgy and Bess (1959), which expanded upon pieces from the George Gershwin opera; and Sketches of Spain (1959), which featured compositions by contemporary Spanish composers. Between these recordings, he brought together various permutations of the sextet for the Grammy-winning Kind of Blue (1959) LP. The landmark album found Davis and his group fully embracing the modal approach, which allowed for unprecedented freedom and creativity in their playing. Critical and listener response was universal in its acclaim, pronouncing the record as Davis' masterpiece and one of the greatest jazz releases of the century. It would go on to become the best-selling jazz album in history, with over four million units sold.
Despite having attained the respect of press and jazz fans alike, Davis struggled with both personal and creative issues during this fecund period. He was a temperamental bandleader who frequently battled with members of his band and other musicians, and suffered humiliation at the hands of the New York police in 1959 when detectives beat him after he escorted a white female patron to the Birdland nightclub. An operation to remove polyps from his larynx also left him with a whispery rasp of a voice which did much to promote his persona as "the prince of darkness," an unapproachable genius who spurned the attention of his public. Despite these and other setbacks, Davis continued to produce masterful musical works during the early 1960s, including Someday My Prince Will Come (1961), which featured his final collaboration with Coltrane, and the superior live albums Miles Davis in Person (Friday & Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco) (1962) and At Carnegie Hall, all of which gave Davis his first appearances on the pop album chart. In 1963, Davis began recording with a new band, featuring a slew of younger players including pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter, who would back Davis on the hit albums Quiet Nights (1963), Miles Davis in Europe (1963) and My Funny Valentine (1964).
This lineup would eventually become would Davis' second "great quintet," with Hancock, Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who also served as the group's primary composer on such albums as Miles Smiles (1966) and Sorcerer (1967). The end of the 1960s saw Davis embracing electrical instruments as a means of assimilating the growing influence of funk and rock acts like James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, who replaced the outgoing Hancock, contributed to a jazz-rock style that began with 1969's In a Silent Way and reached its greatest apotheosis with the Grammy-winning Bitches Brew (1970), a double LP that attained gold sales status and significantly advanced the jazz fusion movement. Though the record proved polarizing for jazz aficionados, many of whom rejected his move away from traditional sounds, Bitches Brew helped to introduce Davis to a younger crowd that followed the improvisational, jam-heavy rock sounds of the Grateful Dead and Santana. Davis soon began performing with such acts at rock clubs like the Fillmore in San Francisco, where his live shows unfolded in continuous sets, with each number flowing into the next.
By the early 1970s, Davis had fully adopted a funk-driven sound for such albums as A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971) and On the Corner, though response to these and subsequent efforts was not as ecstatic as the praise afforded to Bitches Brew. But health issues, including osteoarthritis, anemia and depression, as well as debilitating drug and alcohol addictions, muted Davis' muse, robbing him of the abundant creativity that had flowed through his work in the '60s. After releasing a trio of live albums in 1974 and 1975, he retreated from the public eye for close to a half-decade, nearly succumbing to his addictions before regaining his health with the help of actress Cicely Tyson, who became his wife in 1981. Davis returned to recording that year with The Man with the Horn, though response was largely negative. But he regained his audience with live performances, which in turn led to several well-regarded LPs, including the Grammy-winning concert album We Want Miles (1982) and a string of studio albums that saw him embracing a soul-jazz hybrid that drew influence from such artists as Prince and the New Wave movement - which was something of an irony, given that both counted Davis' '70s-era work as primary influences upon them.
Davis parted ways with Columbia over the delayed release of a 1984 recording, Aura, which did not reach listeners for another five years. He soon signed with Warner Bros., where he scored a critical hit with Tutu (1986), his first effort to include programmed synthesizers and drum loops. A string of soundtrack efforts, including Street Smart (1987), Siesta (1987) and The Hot Spot (1991), preceded his receipt of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990 and an appearance at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival with Quincy Jones' orchestra that found Davis revisiting material from his early '60s collaborations with Gil Evans for the first time in decades. The performance allowed both Davis and his fanbase to come full circle on his extraordinary career. On Sept. 28, 1991, Davis died from the effects of a stroke as well as pneumonia and respiratory failure. His final studio album, the hip-hop influenced Doo-Bop and a concert CD culled from the performance with Jones called Miles & Quincy Live at Montreaux, were released in 1992 and 1993, respectively, with the latter album earning a Grammy that same year.
By Paul Gaita
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