MILES DAVIS

On September 28th 1991 one of the twentieth century's most famous musicians left this world. This musician, who was the subject of so much research, critical analysis and so many articles and biographies, and who was the focus for jazz musicians and enthusiasts around the world, was Miles Davis. He has been missed already for more than 13 years. His name is forever linked to the branch of jazz he created, called 'Cool'.
In west Illinois, a small town called Alton is only known to many as the birthplace, on 25th May 1926, of Miles Dewey Davis III, this world famous trumpet player and composer. Shortly after his birth his family moved to Saint Louis. By profession a dentist, his father opened his own private clinic and built up a successful business, enabling the family to live comfortably and his mother was able to devote all her attention to her family. As in most prosperous families of the time, there was a piano in the home and before he was even 9 years old, Davis was having private lessons at home. Generally there was great respect for music in the family; his father had a record collection which included classical and jazz music and the children were surrounded by music, they listened and learned to play and dance themselves. At school Miles joined the orchestra as a pianist. Some years later, after taking up the trumpet, he became leader of the trumpet section in the same orchestra. His playing attracted the attention of both his teachers and his father's friends who would gather in the family home to listen to this young talent. There was also interest from the professional musicians of the 'Blue Devils' ensemble, who sometimes invited him to play with them.

Miles Davis

Many different music groups came to play in Saint Louis, among them jazz groups and symphonic orchestras; naturally, Davis was a regular member of their audience. In 1944 the arrival in Saint-Louis of Billy Eckstine's orchestra proved to be a turning point in Miles Davis' life. Summoning all his courage, and packing his trumpet under his arm, Miles went to Eckstine and asked to play with the orchestra. In 1945, he graduated from school and worked on his parents to allow him to go to New York. They wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps and go to Medical University, so they resisted but finally compromised and agreed to let him go as long as he enrolled at the Juilliard School. He applied as soon as he arrived in New York.
Some researchers believe that the music school was not Davis' main purpose in going to New York; he really wanted to meet, and perhaps play with, his hero, Charlie 'Bird' Parker. He worked hard and persistently to achieve his ambition.
At last, he succeeded and the historic meeting took place even though Parker was one of the leading musicians, and founder of 'Bop', and Davis was a young unknown.
But all that is nothing compared to what was to come! The young trumpeter's dreams all came true. He joined Parker's band as a replacement for Dizzy Gillespie and played on some of the band's recordings. His youthful enthusiasm and energy were such that he found time to work with Benny Carter, Eckstine's orchestra and other musicians. Thus over a year and a half Davis picked up experience and techniques of improvisation and slowly gained recognition on the New York jazz stage.

Miles Davis

In 1948 Parker and Davis had some disagreements and Miles set out to form his own group. He met up and became friendly with the musicians of Claude Thornhill's avant-garde group. After long discussions and debates about music Davis decided to put theory into practice and took it upon himself to lead the group in their musical development. He rented space, gathered the musicians and organised rehearsals, becoming the real catalyst in the ensemble. Finally their work in rehearsals materialised into compositions which were the beginnings of a new musical direction. In September 1948 Davis signed a contract for the band's first engagement with Monte Kay, music director of the Royal Roost concert hall. The contract stipulated that the band played alternately with the Count Basie Orchestra and Davis selected the members of his band. This proved to be a historical moment: the group consisted of Miles Davis, trumpet; Ted Kelly, trombone; Junior Collins, French horn; Chris Barber, tuba; Lee Konitz, Alto saxophone; Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone; John Lewis, piano; Al Mc Kibbon, double bass and Max Roach, drums.
There were varied responses to the nine-man group. While there was a good reception from the critics and from leading musicians, including Count Basie himself and Duke Ellington, audiences and the management of the Royal Roost were unimpressed. Thus there were no concerts in 1948 and played only a few times in the following year in the "Clicqot Club".
In the early 50s Miles Davis enthusiastically formed small bands: quartets, quintets and sextets. Many talented musicians played their part in his groups; there were frequent changes of personnel. Perhaps a new recruit did not understand what was required of him; sooner or later (usually sooner) he was sacked and replaced and the process repeated. In these years Davis' style of music differed completely from the popular "bopper" music and this was his main contribution to jazz. Like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis reformed jazz for his generation, the only difference being that Parker stopped "Swing" in its tracks, while Davis put an end to "Bop". They did this in their own quiet ways, proving the adage that 'style is the man.'

Miles Davis

Another reason for the quick turnover of band personnel was Miles' irregular patterns of work at that time. He could tour and record for months on end but then disappear completely for unknown reasons. There were stories at the time that narcotics were one cause and he was known to have an alcohol problem. Naturally this kind of schedule upset other musicians who would leave him to look for more stable work.
He finally organised a stable group and
Miles Davis

recorded some albums with Prestige and Columbia.
Davis worked with Columbia in 1955 and there two magnificent musicians met: Miles Davis and John Coltrane, later to become another of the legendary figures of jazz. The meeting of these two great jazz imaginations opened a new page in the history of jazz. The performance of this new quintet at the 1955 Newport Festival brought them to the world's attention.
By the end of the 50s, Miles was performing in concert programmes across the USA. The music was demanding for the audience but their tours were invariably well-received; there was instant rapport as soon as he appeared on stage. He attracted people who were unfamiliar with jazz and his concerts always increased the audience for jazz. This popularity enabled him to organise tours to Europe, during one of which he was asked to write the music for the film "Road to the Scaffold" (1957) by the French film director, Louis Malle.
In the 60s Davis again tried to get back to the roots of his creativity; as before the personnel of his bands changed with the changing directions of his stylistic development.
This continued until the mid 60s before he came up with a stable group. He then played with young musicians who were familiar with the styles emerging among the jazz world's youth. Band membership was consistent until the end of the 60s and included some well-known musicians: the legendary drummer Tony Williams, jazz stalwart bassist Ron Carter, founder of jazz-rock, pianist Herbie Hancock and others. They were all musicians who had graduated from music schools and were educated. Later, famous tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter also joined the band. In the 70s all became famous in the areas of Funk, Fusion, Jazz-Rock and New Wave. These years saw a revolution in Davis' approach; the mid 60s saw an insistent Free Jazz style supplant the older Bebop style. This process caused a radical shift of the power base in the jazz world. This wasn't simply a change in the meaning of the music, but old forms were also replaced by new models. Davis was unprepared for these kinds of changes, he was in a different tradition from either Free Jazz or Jazz-Rock. But time demanded he choose, or miss the music caravan, leading to the end of his own musical creativity. After some thought he decided that Free Jazz was not for him (actually he was not familiar with the principles of Free Jazz and did not recognise any opportunity to use his ideas there). He decided to follow his own route which was, however, closer to Jazz-Rock. After recording some albums ("Nefertiti", "Filles de Kilimanjaro" etc) he tried out a new direction. He understood that in the 70s rock music incorporated a new philosophical system.

Miles Davis

Davis' first attempts to fuse mainstream and Jazz-Rock, using electronic instruments, were not successful. He felt that his reputation as a musical innovator was in danger and he needed to come up with something quickly. Working on advice from his manager, he produced the album, "In a Silent Way"; among the musicians on the album was guitarist John McLaughlin. Davis' lead trumpet does not feature heavily on the album, but even this compromise was not enough to guarantee commercial success. In the 70s he recorded a new album, "Bitches' Brew", mixing acoustic and electronic instruments to produce melodic jazz improvisations with very heavy drum backing. McLaughlin featured on this album, too and they achieved their aim. In the first year 500,000 discs were sold and Miles Davis became a star in the new direction of Jazz-Rock. From then on he began to produce rock music albums, in this way trying out the different effects possible in studios and then including them in his concerts. One of the mainstays of his group was Teo Marcero one of Columbia's leading sound producers and engineers.
Miles was moving swiftly. It wasn't enough to include in his groups the acoustic instruments and their electronic equivalents; he also brought in exotic instruments such as Indian sitar and tabla, percussion and drums from Africa and Brazil, Chinese cymbals. The music played by these groups was far from mainstream and avant-garde jazz, it gave more prominence to the rhythms of Afro-American dance; Funk and Rap type rhythms. Although it did not find favour among many jazz musicians, Miles was once again at a peak of popularity. He was popular not only for his musical success, but also for the notoriety of his extravagant stage appearances, especially his eye-catching wardrobes.

Miles Davis

Generally, the 50s and 60s were hard times for Davis after serious injuries from an automobile accident and also his problems with alcohol and drug addiction. At the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s he regularly toured Europe, participating in many jazz festivals and working with many of the top European musicians. In 1984 Danish Davis fan, trumpeter, flugelhorn-player and composer Palle Mikkelborg wrote a suite called, "Aura" and dedicated it to his hero. This work, which was for solo trumpet and orchestra, was funded by the Danish government as part of the prestigious Sonning Prize in recognition of Davis' contribution to music. In 1985 the suite was recorded by Miles Davis with the Danish Radio Orchestra; this was the final recording made by Davis for the Columbia label. After dedicating 30 years of his musical life to the label, this proved to be a fitting finale.
Columbia recorded the "Aura" album in Copenhagen in 1985, but it remained in their archives for four years before being released in September 1989. Apart from Miles and Mikkelborg, leading the Danish Radio Orchestra, the album also featured guitarist John McLaughlin, double-bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, bass guitarist Bo Stiv and pianist Tomas Clausen.
In the final years of his life, further albums were recorded with Michel Legrand's orchestra ("Dingo") and "Miles and Quincy Jones, Live at Montreux 1991".
At the end of the 80s Davis travelled to a number of countries that he hadn't been able to tour previously. During these travels he committed memories of his life to tape, talking about the people he had encountered and sharing his opinions of music, jazz and about the future of art in general. Later these memories formed the basis of his book, "Miles - The Autobiography". Sadly, the book was only published after his death.
He had one other interest: some years before his death he discovered his own talent for painting. He took pleasure in giving to friends and fans his oil paintings, water colours and ink drawings. After a series of illnesses and heart problems, he died in hospital in California, aged 65.
Davis gave so many gifts to jazz music, thus to world music culture. The contribution of this fiery and talented propagator and populariser of jazz is unsurpassed.