Ok, so this is the one blog I have been toying with the idea of writing from my first week of working with the good people at Art Gallery. My reason for not doing it so far has been that to formulate his life into the roughly 500 words I allow myself with each blog is near impossible.
Believe me, the life of Miles is not one to encapsulate that easily.
I have actually thought of writing it as one headline, say something like ‘genius and sharply dressed be-bopper who NEVER stopped moving forward in leaps and bounds as all good modernists should’ and leaving it at that, but that doesn’t do him justice and well, I relish a challenge.
In the end, I have decided to dive in and riff my way through this most influential life and see what sticks to my pen. It won’t be – cant be – the most comprehensive portrait, but I hope if nothing else it will be one that gets you to investigate further, the man and his music.
Born Miles Dewey Davis III, on May 26th 1926 in Illinois, he was brought up in a wealthy African American family, with dad Miles Jr. a dentist and mum Cleota a music teacher. The family owned a 200-acre estate and ran a pig farm there that turned a tidy profit.
Miles excelled at his all-black school in sports, maths and music. He took trumpet lessons from the age of 9, and then a little later started to perform in local bands in the St: Louis area.
He studied musical theory to broaden his education on the instrument and he became a member of a local group known as ‘The Blue Devils’ not only playing with them but also acting as musical director, which stood him in good stead for the years to come when leading his own line ups through the next few decades.
He became a father aged 18 and then finished his high school education, before hitting the musical road.
He played for a fortnight with a Billy Eckstine band line up in 1944, which included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Art Blakey and by the end of that two weeks, he knew where his future lie.
Namely New York.
Once there, he studied at Julliard, the renowned music school, but his mind was set on working the jazz clubs, often with his idol, saxophonist Charlie Parker. Infamous ‘jam’ sessions, which included Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke and Fats Navarro to name just a couple, ensued. He brings girlfriend Irene and his daughter Cheryl to New York and he also picks up ‘Bird’ Parker as a roommate.
He leaves Julliard and begins to work the 52nd street clubs full time and he records for the first time aged 19 in 1945. He has a son Gregory with Irene, but in truth, music had a total hold of him, as did increasingly the drink and drug lifestyle that went with it.
He teams up with composer/arranger Gil Evans, and with fellow musician Gerry Mulligan on baritone, the ‘Cool Jazz’ movement is born. Much of the material they recorded ended up on the album from 1950 called ‘The Birth of the Cool.’
On a trip to Paris in 1949, Davis fell in love with the city and its culture as well as the singer Juliette Greco, with whom he would have an on/off affair with for many years to come. He had also developed a heroin addiction by this time and it began to affect not only his performances but also his life in general.
He was arrested for possession and work began to drop off. In the middle of all this, a second son Miles IV was born in 1950.
His habit was all consuming and he knew he had to kick it to move on in his career. He was a lover of the sport of boxing and it was his sporting idol, Sugar Ray Robison, among others, who encouraged him to do so. He did this by going cold turkey in a guesthouse and when he emerged after 8 days, he was clean from the junk and ready to go again.
He began to use a mute on his trumpet and his signature sound was born. In 1954, he recorded for the Blue Note label and gradually his sound began to evolve from Be-Bop.
He began to attain a reputation for being difficult to deal with, being called distant and cold and this reputation would follow him to the end of his life. His raspy voice, which added to his overall mystique, was the result of him talking too soon after an operation on his larynx in 1955, causing permanent damage.
He was a hit at the Newport Jazz Festival that year, and he signed with Columbia Records when his previous contract with Prestige ended.
His classic quintet featuring John Coltrane on tenor sax, Paul Chambers on bass Red Garland on piano and Philly Joe Jones on drums recorded from 1957. Their first album for Columbia was ‘Round About Midnight’ which had a classic cover of Miles aglow in the colour red.
The release cemented his reputation as the leader of the new musical sound named ‘Modal Jazz.’
1958 sees the release of the classic ‘Milestones’ with Miles on the cover wearing THAT green shirt.
He then teamed up again with Gil Evans for a series of classic albums which included ‘Miles Ahead’, ‘Porgy and Bess’, and ‘Sketches of Spain.’
Then ‘Kind of Blue’ hits in 1959. Bill Evans had joined on the piano. Tunes such as ‘So What’ ‘Freddie Freeloader’ and ‘Blue in Green’ take this album a long way from just being a jazz album. It crosses over into the mainstream with rave reviews and unheard of radio airplay and it remains the best selling jazz album of all time.
Added to the music, Miles was a very sharp dresser and always on the cusp of what was ‘on trend’. Later it was said, he would dress to suit the mood of the music he was playing. Well, your correspondent can confirm, it was very sharp around then.
Away from the bandstand in ’59, he was attacked by police outside the Birdland Jazz Club whilst working there. They told him to move on, he refused and then they not only battered him, but also charged him with assaulting them. He was later acquitted. Not surprisingly, bitterness rose up in him after that injustice and in truth, it never left.
He had married dancer Frances Taylor in 1958, but there were numerous accounts of domestic violence against her. He drank heavily and took cocaine, often he said, to counter act the Sickle Cell Anaemia he was suffering from.
His new quintet for the early 60s then took shape with Herbie Hancock on piano and 17 year old wonder kid Tony Williams on drums. Wayne Shorter later joined in 1964.
Despite the ill health that plagued him, he and the quintet began a policy of often playing at colleges, having grown weary of playing the traditional jazz clubs.
Albums that followed included ‘Miles Smiles’ Nefertiti’ and ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro.’ The sound had become ‘freer’ breaking away from the normal chord structures and indicating the ‘fusion’ sound that was to come. Chick Corea eventually replaced Hancock on piano.
The album ‘Bitches Brew’ from 1970 featured 20 minute long tracks, that tested somewhat those who considered themselves Davis fans. The man himself was unconcerned with this. It drew new young fans to his music, so for him, it worked.
Forward, he had to keep going forward.
He appeared at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 and his 1972 album ‘Jazz on the Corner’ combined the influences of German composer Stockhausen with the more funk-based sounds that Davis had experimented with in recent years.
The mid-70s were a troubled time for Davis as ill health struck him harder and he was on the end of poor receptions for his live show.
He took a break until 1980 living a fairly reclusive lifestyle in his New York Brownstone.
He married actress Cicely Tyson in 1982, and she helped to get him off his cocaine addiction and back into music.
They would divorce however in 1988.
He gradually re-entered music, where performed pop songs such a Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.’ I saw him perform this at the Royal Festival Hall around then and he was wearing loose and very colourful flowing clothing.
It was all a long way from the late 50s/ early 60s music I was actually buying by him then.
He released ‘Tutu’ in 1986 and he was now in the world of samplers and synths.
Whilst having a hospital check-in 1991, he fell into a coma. After a few days on life support, the machine was turned off and he died on September 28th aged 65.
When asked why he never played his old classics at his gigs, he said
‘I had no feel for it, it’s like warmed over turkey’ and playing those old songs ‘hurt his lip.’
As I said in the intro to this piece, this would be by no means a full and comprehensive take on Miles Davis. He appears to me, as a man marching to his own beat. Constantly on the run from the yesteryear towards the days that are yet to come.
As the man himself said…
‘I don’t want you to like me because of ‘Kind of Blue.’ ‘Like me for what we’re doing now.’
Modernist to the core.
The Mumper of SE5