Friday, September 28, 2012

Remembering Jazz Great – Miles Davis

One of the great legends of Jazz died on this day, September 28, 1991, twenty-one years ago.  Considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century, Miles Davis altered the direction of jazz several times with the introduction of bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz-fusion.

Davis House in Alton, Illinois
Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois.  His father, Miles Henry Davis, was a dentist.  His mother, Cleota Mae Henry Davis, was an accomplished blues pianist, a fact she kept hidden from her son.

Miles grew up in East St. Louis.  At the age of thirteen, his father gave him a trumpet and arranged lessons with local musician, Elwood Buchanan.  By the time Miles was 16, he was a member of the music society and was playing professionally.  He was offered a chance to play with the Tiny Bradshaw Band and tour around the country, but his mother insisted that he finish high school.  He graduated in 1944 and moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Within a year, he had dropped out and was playing professionally in the 52nd Street clubs in New York.

Charlie Parker & Miles Davis
Charlie Parker Album
In 1946, Davis recorded his first album with his group, the Miles Davis Sextet.  That same year he was hired to replace Dizzy Gillespie in the Charlie Parker Quintet.  He stayed with Parker for two years, until the situation became too tense. Parker was suffering from mental and physical problems due to his drug addiction, and the group began slowly falling apart.

Davis spent the rest of 1948 and 1949 developing the sounds of Cool Jazz.  His approach to this new style was to create music that sounded like the human voice through specifically arranged compositions that stressed melodic improvisations.  In 1956, Capitol Records released Birth of the Cool which was a compilation of several recording sessions from January 1949 to April 1950 by Davis’s nine-member group. This is the album that ushered in the Cool Jazz era.

Miles Davis
By 1950, Davis was experiencing problems in his personal life, and felt unappreciated by the media critics for his breakout music style.  Thus began his first major drug addiction to heroin, which would affect the rest of his life.  In 1953, his addiction began to seriously affect his ability to perform.  Although he tried several times to kick his habit, he didn’t succeed until 1954, when he went back home to his parent’s in St. Louis.

Miles Davis Backstage
But, regardless of his problems, Davis was still able to create yet another form of Jazz during this period – Hard Bop.  Hard Bop jazz was the result of slowing down the tempo, as compared to bebop music, and approaching more of a bluesy feel.  Many times performers would begin with a popular tune and improv into hard bop.

From 1955 to 1958, Davis formed his first popular quintet.  During these years, the group released five acclaimed albums; Round Midnight, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin’ with the Mile Davis Quintet, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.  It appeared that Davis had his groove back.  But by 1958, the quintet disbanded and Miles began experimenting with modal music.

Kind of Blue  Awards
Kind of Blue was released in 1959 and brought the modal jazz sound to the mainstream.  This album is considered to be one of the all-time greatest jazz recordings.  Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time, having sold over 4-million copies, according to the Record Industry Association of America. And, in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 409 – 0 to pass a resolution honoring this album as a national treasure.

Miles also helped make orchestral jazz acceptable when he and three of his former sextet members recorded a jazzy version of Porgy and Bess in 1958, and again, with Sketches of Spain in 1961. 

Miles Playing Fussion
In 1964, Davis put together his ‘second great quintet.’  Their sound became known as free bop because they improvised in a less conventional manner. Miles was now on his way to introducing Fusion Jazz.

By 1968, electric instruments were a part of Davis’s sound.  With this change, he introduced the world to jazz/rock fusion with In a Silent Way, released in 1968, and Bitches Brew in 1969. 

Miles and his Trumpet
But in July 1975, citing health issues from hip surgery, sickle-cell anemia, and depression, along with drug and alcohol addictions, Miles Davis retired from the music scene.  He stayed out of the public eye for six years. During that period, he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.

By 1981, Miles had returned to the jazz scene.  In 1985, he released, You're Under Arrest, an album that included his jazz interpretations of current pop songs. During the 80’s, he collaborated on four movie soundtracks, Street Smart, Siesta, Hot Spot, and Dingo.   

Betty Marby Davis
Cicely Tyson & Miles Davis
Miles was married three times, first to Frances Davis from 1958 – 1968.  He was then married to Betty Mabry for a short time from 1968 to 1969.  And in 1981, he married Cicely Tyson. He credited Tyson with helping him kick his drug and alcohol dependencies, and for getting him back on the stage. They divorced in 1988.

Miles Davis
In 1990, Miles Davis received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  Through his music, he influenced hundreds of artists and helped many rise to prominence in the industry.  Miles summed up his attitude toward life best when he said, “You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians." 

Miles Davis
Miles Davis Grave
Miles Davis died in L.A.  on September 28, 1991 of a stroke and respiratory failure.  He was 65 years old. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

~ Joy


  1. Excellent biography! I have always wanted to know more about him. Guess it's time to start studying his music...!

    1. Thanks! I'll warn you now, Miles can still cast a musical spell... : )

  2. I found myself becoming anxious for want of Davis' grave photo, but of course it was right where it should be. Despite my anticipation, I learned a great deal from this well written sketch of Miles Davis.

    1. Thanks for hanging in there Mark! I used to write news and documentaries, so I always go chronologically.... ; )

  3. Great article on Miles of my favorite jazz men of all times. He produced some of his greatest sounds when he played with John Coltrane and company!