Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991) was an American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. Widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Miles Davis was, together with his musical groups, at the forefront of several major developments in jazz music, including bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion.
In 2006, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which recognized him as "one of the key figures in the history of jazz". In 2008, his 1959 album Kind of Blue received its fourth platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), for shipments of at least four million copies in the United States. On December 15, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution recognizing and commemorating the album Kind of Blue on its 50th anniversary, "honoring the masterpiece and reaffirming jazz as a national treasure".
Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, to an affluent African American family in Alton, Illinois. His father, Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., was a dentist. In 1927 the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois. They also owned a substantial ranch in the Delta region of Arkansas near the city of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Davis's father and grandfather were from. It was in both East St. Louis, Illinois and near Pine Bluff, Arkansas that young Davis developed his earliest appreciation for music listening to the gospel music of the black church.
Davis' mother, Cleota Mae Davis (née Henry), wanted her son to learn the piano; she was a capable blues pianist but kept this fact hidden from her son. His musical studies began at 13, when his father gave him a trumpet and arranged lessons with local musician Elwood Buchanan. Davis later suggested that his father's instrument choice was made largely to irk his wife, who disliked the trumpet's sound. Against the fashion of the time, Buchanan stressed the importance of playing without vibrato; he was reported to have slapped Davis' knuckles every time he started using heavy vibrato. Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career. He once remarked on its importance to him, saying, "I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle. If I can’t get that sound I can’t play anything." Clark Terry was another important early influence.
By age 16, Davis was a member of the music society and, when not at school, playing professionally first at the local Elks Club. At 17, he spent a year playing in Eddie Randle's band, the Blue Devils. During this time, Sonny Stitt tried to persuade him to join the Tiny Bradshaw band, then passing through town, but Davis' mother insisted that he finish his final year of high school. He graduated from East St. Louis Lincoln High School in 1944.
In 1944, the Billy Eckstine band visited East St. Louis. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were members of the band, and Davis was brought in on third trumpet for a couple of weeks because the regular player, Buddy Anderson, was out sick. Even after this experience, once Eckstine's band left town, Davis' parents were still keen for him to continue formal academic studies.
In the fall of 1944, following graduation from high school, Davis moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Upon arriving in New York, he spent most of his first weeks in town trying to get in contact with Charlie Parker, despite being advised against doing so by several people he met during his quest, including saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
Davis dropped out of Juilliard after asking permission from his father. In his autobiography, Davis criticized the Juilliard classes for centering too much on the classical European and "white" repertoire. However, he also acknowledged that, in addition to greatly improving his trumpet playing technique, Juilliard helped give him a grounding in music theory that would prove valuable in later years.
Davis began playing professionally, performing in several 52nd Street clubs with Coleman Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. In 1945, he entered a recording studio for the first time, as a member of Herbie Fields's group. This was the first of many recordings Davis contributed to in this period, mostly as a sideman. He finally got the chance to record as a leader in 1946, with an occasional group called the Miles Davis Sextet plus Earl Coleman and Ann Hathaway—one of the rare occasions when Davis, by then a member of the groundbreaking Charlie Parker Quintet, can be heard accompanying singers. In these early years, recording sessions where Davis was the leader were the exception rather than the rule; his next date as leader would not come until 1947.
Around 1945, Dizzy Gillespie parted ways with Parker, and Davis was hired as Gillespie's replacement in his quintet, which also featured Max Roach on drums, Al Haig (replaced later by Sir Charles Thompson and Duke Jordan) on piano, and Curley Russell (later replaced by Tommy Potter and Leonard Gaskin) on bass.
With Parker's quintet, Davis went into the studio several times, already showing hints of the style he would become known for. On an oft-quoted take of Parker's signature song, "Now's the Time", Davis takes a melodic solo, whose unbop-like quality anticipates the "cool jazz" period that followed. The Parker quintet also toured widely. During a stop in Los Angeles, Parker had a nervous breakdown that landed him in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital for several months, and Davis found himself stranded. He roomed and collaborated for some time with bassist Charles Mingus, before getting a job on Billy Eckstine's California tour, which eventually brought him back to New York. In 1948, Parker returned to New York, and Davis rejoined his group.
Miles Davis on piano with Howard McGhee (trumpet), Joe Albany (pianist, standing) and Brick Fleagle (guitarist, smoking), September 1947
For Davis, his departure from Parker's group marked the beginning of a period when he worked mainly as a freelancer and sideman in some of the most important combos on the New York jazz scene.
In 1948 Davis grew close to the Canadian composer and arranger Gil Evans. Evans' basement apartment had become the meeting place for several young musicians and composers such as Davis, Roach, pianist John Lewis, and baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan who were unhappy with the increasingly virtuoso instrumental techniques that dominated the bebop scene. Evans had been the arranger for the Claude Thornhill orchestra, and it was the sound of this group, as well as Duke Ellington's example, that suggested the creation of an unusual line-up: a nonet including a French horn and a tuba (this accounts for the "tuba band" moniker that became associated with the combo).
Davis took an active role in the project, so much so that it soon became "his project". The objective was to achieve a sound similar to the human voice, through carefully arranged compositions and by emphasizing a relaxed, melodic approach to the improvisations.
The nonet debuted in the summer of 1948, with a two-week engagement at the Royal Roost. The sign announcing the performance gave a surprising prominence to the role of the arrangers: "Miles Davis Nonet. Arrangements by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan." It was, in fact, so unusual that Davis had to persuade the Roost's manager, Ralph Watkins, to word the sign this way. He prevailed only with the help of Monte Kay, the club's artistic director.
The nonet was active until the end of 1949, along the way undergoing several changes in personnel: Roach and Davis were constantly featured, along with Mulligan, tuba player Bill Barber, and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who had been preferred to Sonny Stitt (whose playing was considered too bop-oriented). Over the months, John Lewis alternated with Al Haig on piano, Mike Zwerin with Kai Winding on trombone (Johnson was touring at the time), Junior Collins with Sandy Siegelstein and Gunther Schuller on French horn, and Al McKibbon with Joe Shulman on bass. Singer Kenny Hagood was added for one track during the recording.
The presence of white musicians in the group angered some black jazz players, many of whom were unemployed at the time, but Davis rebuffed their criticisms.
A contract with Capitol Records granted the nonet several recording sessions between January 1949 and April 1950. The material they recorded was released in 1956 on an album whose title, Birth of the Cool, gave its name to the "cool jazz" movement that developed at the same time and partly shared the musical direction begun by Davis' group.
For his part, Davis was fully aware of the importance of the project, which he pursued to the point of turning down a job with Duke Ellington's orchestra.
The importance of the nonet experience would become clear to critics and the larger public only in later years, but, at least commercially, the nonet was not a success. The liner notes of the first recordings of the Davis Quintet for Columbia Records call it one of the most spectacular failures of the jazz club scene. This was bitterly noted by Davis, who claimed the invention of the cool style and resented the success that was later enjoyed—in large part because of the media's attention—by white "cool jazz" musicians (Mulligan and Dave Brubeck in particular).
This experience also marked the beginning of the lifelong friendship between Davis and Gil Evans, an alliance that would bear important results in the years to follow.
By 1979, Davis had rekindled his relationship with actress Cicely Tyson, with whom he overcame his cocaine addiction and regained his enthusiasm for music. As he had not played trumpet for the better part of three years, regaining his famed embouchure proved particularly arduous. While recording The Man with the Horn at a leisurely pace throughout 1980–1981, Davis played mostly wahwah with a younger, larger band.
By late 1982, Davis's band included French percussionist Mino Cinelu and guitarist John Scofield, with whom he worked closely on the album Star People. In mid-1983, while working on the tracks for Decoy, an album mixing soul music and electronica that was released in 1984, Davis brought in producer, composer and keyboardist Robert Irving III, who had earlier collaborated with him on The Man with the Horn. With a seven-piece band, including Scofield, Evans, keyboardist and music director Irving, drummer Al Foster and bassist Darryl Jones (later of the Rolling Stones), Davis played a series of European gigs to positive receptions. While in Europe, he took part in the recording of Aura, an orchestral tribute to Davis composed by Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.
You're Under Arrest, Davis' next album, was released in 1985 and included another brief stylistic detour. Included on the album were his interpretations of Cyndi Lauper's ballad "Time After Time", and Michael Jackson's pop hit "Human Nature". Davis considered releasing an entire album of pop songs and recorded dozens of them, but the idea was scrapped. Davis noted that many of today's accepted jazz standards were in fact pop songs from Broadway theater, and that he was simply updating the "standards" repertoire with new material. 1985 also saw Davis guest-star on the TV show Miami Vice as pimp and minor criminal Ivory Jones in the episode titled "Junk Love" (first aired November 8, 1985).
You're Under Arrest was Davis' final album for Columbia. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis publicly dismissed Davis' more recent fusion recordings as not being "'true' jazz," comments Davis initially shrugged off, calling Marsalis "a nice young man, only confused." This changed after Marsalis appeared, unannounced, onstage in the midst of Davis' performance at the inaugural Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 1986. Marsalis whispered into Davis' ear that "someone" had told him to do so. Davis responded by ordering him off the stage.
Davis collaborated with a number of figures from the British post-punk and new wave movements during this period, including Scritti Politti. At the invitation of producer Bill Laswell, Davis recorded some trumpet parts during sessions for Public Image Ltd.'s Album, according to Public Image's John Lydon in the liner notes of their Plastic Box box set. In Lydon's words, however, "strangely enough, we didn't use [his contributions]." According to Lydon in the Plastic Box notes, Davis favorably compared Lydon's singing voice to his trumpet sound during these sessions.
Having first taken part in the Artists United Against Apartheid recording, Davis signed with Warner Brothers records and reunited with Marcus Miller. The resulting record, Tutu (1986), was his first to use modern studio tools—programmed synthesizers, samples and drum loops—to create an entirely new setting for his playing. The album was described as the modern counterpart of Sketches of Spain and won a Grammy in 1987. He was featured on the instrumental Toto track Don't Stop Me Now from their Fahrenheit album (1986).
The westernmost part of 77th Street in New York City has been named "Miles Davis Way". He once lived on the block.
In 1988 he had a small part as a street musician in the film Scrooged, starring Bill Murray. In 1989, Davis was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Harry Reasoner. Davis received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
In early 1991, he appeared in the Rolf de Heer film Dingo as a jazz musician. In the film's opening sequence, Davis and his band unexpectedly land on a remote airstrip in the Australian outback and proceed to perform for the surprised locals. The performance was one of Davis's last on film and one of the first released after his death in September.
During the last years of Miles Davis's life, there were rumors that he had AIDS, something that he and his manager Peter Shukat vehemently denied. According to Quincy Troupe by that time Davis was taking azidothymidine (AZT), a type of antiretroviral drug used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Davis died on September 28, 1991, from the combined effects of a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 65. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.
Miles Davis is regarded as one of the most innovative, influential and respected figures in the history of music. He has been described as “one of the great innovators in jazz”. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll noted "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s, and no other jazz musician has had so profound an effect on rock. Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style—in attitude and fashion—as well as music". His album Kind of Blue is the best-selling album in the history of jazz music. On November 5, 2009, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan sponsored a measure in the United States House of Representatives to recognize and commemorate the album on its 50th anniversary. The measure also affirms jazz as a national treasure and "encourages the United States government to preserve and advance the art form of jazz music." It passed, unanimously, with a vote of 409–0 on December 15, 2009.
As an innovative bandleader and composer, Miles Davis has influenced many notable musicians and bands from diverse genres. Many well-known musicians rose to prominence as members of Davis's ensembles, including saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett; trombonist J. J. Johnson; pianists Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Kei Akagi; guitarists John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, John Scofield and Mike Stern; bassists Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Marcus Miller and Darryl Jones; and drummers Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, and Al Foster. Miles' influence on the people who played with him has been described by music writer and author Christopher Smith as follows:
Miles Davis' artistic interest was in the creation and manipulation of ritual space, in which gestures could be endowed with symbolic power sufficient to form a functional communicative, and hence musical, vocabulary. Miles' performance tradition emphasized orality and the transmission of information and artistic insight from individual to individual. His position in that tradition, and his personality, talents, and artistic interests, impelled him to pursue a uniquely individual solution to the problems and the experiential possibilities of improvised performance.
In 1986, the New England Conservatory awarded Miles Davis an Honorary Doctorate for his extraordinary contributions to music. Since 1960 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has honored him with eight Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and three Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. In 2010, Moldejazz premiered a play called Driving Miles, which focused on a landmark concert Davis performed in Molde, Norway, in 1984.