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Born: May 26, 1926
Biography (via AllMusic): Throughout a professional career lasting 50 years, Miles Davis played the trumpet in a lyrical, introspective, and melodic style, often employing a stemless Harmon mute to make his sound more personal and intimate. But if his approach to his instrument was constant, his approach to jazz was dazzlingly protean. To examine his career is to examine the history of jazz from the mid-'40s to the early '90s, since he was in the thick of almost every important innovation and stylistic development in the music during that period, and he often led the way in those changes, both with his own performances and recordings and by choosing sidemen and collaborators who forged new directions. It can even be argued that jazz stopped evolving when Davis wasn't there to push it forward.
Davis was the son of a dental surgeon, Dr. Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., and a music teacher, Cleota Mae (Henry) Davis, and grew up in the black middle class of East St. Louis after the family moved there shortly after his birth. He became interested in music during his childhood and by the age of 12 began taking trumpet lessons. While still in high school, he started to get jobs playing in local bars and at 16 was playing gigs out of town on weekends. At 17, he joined Eddie Randle's Blue Devils, a territory band based in St. Louis. He enjoyed a personal apotheosis in 1944, just after graduating from high school, when he saw and was allowed to sit in with Billy Eckstine's big band, which was playing in St. Louis. The band featured trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, the architects of the emerging bebop style of jazz, which was characterized by fast, inventive soloing and dynamic rhythm variations.
It is striking that Davis fell so completely under Gillespie and Parker's spell, since his own slower and less flashy style never really compared to theirs. But bebop was the new sound of the day, and the young trumpeter was bound to follow it. He did so by leaving the Midwest to attend the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (renamed Juilliard) in September 1944. Shortly after his arrival in Manhattan, he was playing in clubs with Parker, and by 1945 he had abandoned his academic studies for a full-time career as a jazz musician, initially joining Benny Carter's band and making his first recordings as a sideman. He played with Eckstine in 1946-1947 and was a member of Parker's group in 1947-1948, making his recording debut as a leader on a 1947 session that featured Parker, pianist John Lewis, bassist Nelson Boyd, and drummer Max Roach. This was an isolated date, however, and Davis spent most of his time playing and recording behind Parker.
But in the summer of 1948, he organized a nine-piece band with an unusual horn section. In addition to himself, it featured an alto saxophone, a baritone saxophone, a trombone, a French horn, and a tuba. This nonet, employing arrangements by Gil Evans and others, played for two weeks at the Royal Roost in New York in September. Earning a contract with Capitol Records, the band went into the studio in January 1949 for the first of three sessions and produced 12 tracks that attracted little attention at first. The band's relaxed sound, however, affected the musicians who played it, among them Kai Winding, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, J.J. Johnson, and Kenny Clarke, and it had a profound influence on the development of the cool jazz style on the West Coast. (In February 1957, Capitol finally issued the tracks together on an LP called Birth of the Cool.)
Davis, meanwhile, had moved on to co-leading a band with pianist Tadd Dameron in 1949, and the group took him out of the country for an appearance at the Paris Jazz Festival in May. But the trumpeter's progress was impeded by an addiction to heroin that plagued him in the early '50s. His performances and recordings became more haphazard, but in January 1951 he began a long series of recordings for the Prestige label that became his main recording outlet for the next several years. He managed to kick his habit by the middle of the decade, and he made a strong impression playing "'Round Midnight" at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1955, a performance that led major-label Columbia to sign him. The prestigious contract allowed him to put together a permanent band, and he organized a quintet featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, who began recording his Columbia debut, 'Round About Midnight, in October.
As it happened, however, he had a remaining five albums on his Prestige contract, and over the next year he was forced to alternate his Columbia sessions with sessions for Prestige to fulfill this previous commitment. The latter resulted in the Prestige albums The New Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin', Workin', Relaxin', and Steamin', making Davis' first quintet one of his better-documented outfits. In May 1957, just three months after Capitol released the Birth of the Cool LP, Davis again teamed with arranger Gil Evans for his second Columbia LP, Miles Ahead. Playing flügelhorn, Davis fronted a big band on music that extended the Birth of the Cool concept and even had classical overtones. Released in 1958, the album was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, intended to honor recordings made before the Grammy Awards were instituted in 1959.
In December 1957, Davis returned to Paris, where he improvised the background music for the film L'Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud. Jazz Track, an album containing this music, earned him a 1960 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance, Solo or Small Group. He added saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to his group, creating the Miles Davis Sextet, which recorded Milestones in April 1958. Shortly after this recording, Red Garland was replaced on piano by Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb took over for Philly Joe Jones on drums. In July, Davis again collaborated with Gil Evans and an orchestra on an album of music from Porgy and Bess. Back in the sextet, Davis began to experiment with modal playing, basing his improvisations on scales rather than chord changes.
This led to his next band recording, Kind of Blue, in March and April 1959, an album that became a landmark in modern jazz and the most popular album of Davis' career, eventually selling over two million copies, a phenomenal success for a jazz record. In sessions held in November 1959 and March 1960, Davis again followed his pattern of alternating band releases and collaborations with Gil Evans, recording Sketches of Spain, containing traditional Spanish music and original compositions in that style. The album earned Davis and Evans Grammy nominations in 1960 for Best Jazz Performance, Large Group, and Best Jazz Composition, More Than 5 Minutes; they won in the latter category.
By the time Davis returned to the studio to make his next band album in March 1961, Adderley had departed, Wynton Kelly had replaced Bill Evans at the piano, and John Coltrane had left to begin his successful solo career, being replaced by saxophonist Hank Mobley (following the brief tenure of Sonny Stitt). Nevertheless, Coltrane guested on a couple of tracks of the album, called Someday My Prince Will Come. The record made the pop charts in March 1962, but it was preceded into the best-seller lists by the Davis quintet's next recording, the two-LP set Miles Davis in Person (Friday & Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco), recorded in April.
The following month, Davis recorded another live show, as he and his band were joined by an orchestra led by Gil Evans at Carnegie Hall in May. The resulting Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall was his third LP to reach the pop charts, and it earned Davis and Evans a 1962 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance by a Large Group, Instrumental. Davis and Evans teamed up again in 1962 for what became their final collaboration, Quiet Nights. The album was not issued until 1964, when it reached the charts and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by a Large Group or Soloist with Large Group. [Read more via AllMusic here.]