Miles Dewey Davis III

Born May 26, 1926, Alton, Illinois, U.S.

Died September 28, 1991, Santa Monica, California.

American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, composer

One of the major influences on the art from the late 1940s.

Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, where his father was a prosperous dental surgeon. In this regard, Davis had an unusually comfortable upbringing unlike his peers.

Davis studied trumpet in his early teens. He played with local jazz bands in St. Louis before moving to New York to study at the Juilliard Conservatory with help from his father. Once in New York, Davis skipped most of his classes at Juilliard to attend jam sessions at local clubs and cafes. He made a point to meet the jazz greats of the day, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Although he could not keep up with these legends, many took a liking to Davis’ tenacity and fortitude.

Parker and Gillespie took Davis under their wing through the late 30’s and 40’s.

Though recording and touring with Bird and Gillespie, the three began to go separate ways. Bird began a phase of debilitating drug use, Gillespie began working more with larger band formations, and Davis, finding that he could not keep up with the virtuosity of Bebop, began exploring other creative avenues.

Davis began to find a unique voice by cutting against the trends of bebop. His bebop playing is regarded as not always in tune and tentative. But his imagination for what else could be expressed in the field began to seem like a greater asset than any technical shortcomings.

Rather than emulate bebop, Davis began to explore the trumpet’s middle register, experimenting with harmonies more modal harmonies and a different kind of improvisation around harmony that seemed to have a different sense of pharse than Bird’s trademark flowing 32nd-note passages. Davis developed a more direct and unornamented style, often exploring a single note or two, in mixed, slower rhythmic combinations. He experimented with slower tempos, bringing almost every aspect of bebop under the microscope and working with what the genre suggested to be its opposite.

Davis’ experimentations went largely unnoticed in the late 40’s, and he continued to stay employed be playing regular bebop gigs. But finally, Davis began to see if his ideas could be implemented with an ensemble. At the same time, arranger and composer Gil Evans was hosting sessions and informal conversations on the future of jazz at his apartment in Manhattan. Daivs and Evans began to form an ensemble that rehearsed at Evan’s apartment and in a basement space – a laundromat’s spare storage room – in midtown Manhattan. The ensemble consisted of:

Davis, trumpet
Mike Zwerin, trombone
Bill Barber, tuba
Junior Collins, French horn*
Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone
Lee Konitz, alto saxophone
John Lewis, piano
Al McKibbon, bass
Max Roach, drums
*Gunther Schuler also played French horn on some tracks. Schuler went on to become the President of the New England Conservatory.

Mulligan, Gil Evans, and pianist John Lewis did most of the ensemble’s arrangements. These arrangements took some ideas from bebop (certain jazz forms and adventuresome harmonic approaches) and juxtaposed textures that the particular ensemble could obtain (use of French horn, bass trombone, tuba, etc.) The particular ensemble came together only for a short time, initially releasing singles instead of a full album of work. The dozen singles released between 1949–50 became known as The Birth of the Cool. These recordings changed the course of modern jazz and paved the way for the “West Coast” styles of the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1957 that the tracks were recorded for what we know to be the album.

Jeru style points:
Unison sound helps to blend timbres – ‘super-instrument’.
Elements of swing rhythm keep the genre relatable.
Restricted range of the instruments in singable, vocal ranges.
Brisk tempo, but not as fast as bebop. More reliance on the ‘back beat’
Solos also inhabit restricted, singable range.

Moonbeams Style points:
Orchestral approach to arranging
unison rhythms keep instruments blending timbres
Slow, ballad tempo
All instruments play ornaments together
Solos blend in and out of the texture
Almost no drums and very little bass presence
More on the making of Birth of the Cool

While Birth of the Cool was still becoming known, through the 50’s, Davis was already busy innovating a new style. He recorded prolifically with other jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk (though he did not like how Monk accompanied him!)

Davis was compromised by an addiction to heroin through the early 50’s but managed to kick his habit in 1954. At this point, through the rest of the 50’s and 60’s, Davis became known as the greatest contemporary innovator of jazz. He formed classic small groups in the 1950s recruiting the talents of then up-and-coming talents John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummers “Philly” Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. Davis’s albums recorded during this era:

’Round About Midnight (1956)
Workin’ (1956)
Steamin’ (1956)
Relaxin’ (1956)
Milestones (1958)

Remarkably, Davis capped these albums off with the 1959 release of his most seminal album, and one of the most celebrated albums in all of jazz history, Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue

Kind of Blue is remarkable for a great many things, but one to remark upon would be its experimentation with what became known as ‘modal jazz’. Through the 1940’s and 50’s, Davis was continuing to move away from Bebop. Kind of Blue marks his final turn away from the genre into something completely different, perhaps most notable because of its embrace of an entirely non-chromatic language, which critics and theorists call modal. This limited harmonic palette is much more like a pre-bebop blues language, operating around small 5-, 6- and 7 note scales, free of harmonic dissonance and one in which all notes sound good, none in need of resolution. The deployment of this language inevitably led to a sound free of tension, otherwise known as ‘cool’. Although Davis’ birth of the “Cool” had already fully arrived by 1957, clearly, Davis had a different conception of that term, which became fully ensconced in Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue was an immediate success for its slow-moving, relatable melodies, infrequently changing harmonies and entirely ‘listenable’ approach to jazz.

So What

Blue In Green

Davis’ next albums were equally groundbreaking, but the continued popularity of Kind of Blue almost overshadowed them. Among these eclectic, experimental albums were:

Miles Ahead (1957)
Porgy and Bess (1958)
Sketches of Spain (1960)

One of the most fascinating aspects of these albums is that they mark the reunion of Davis with Gil Evans, the arranger for much of the singles on Birth of the Cool. Evans made the striking arrangements for these albums, involving complex harmonies, orchestral sounds, and formed the perfectly balanced backdrop to some of Davis’ most inspired playing. Davis and Evans occasionally collaborated in later years, but never again so memorably as on these three masterful albums.


Style points:
Muted orchestra textures mimic muted trumpet
Orchestra call and response to the solo line
Layers of orchestral textures keep a full sound throughout

One of the most-memorable events of Davis’s later years occurred at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991, when he joined with an orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones to perform some of the classic Gil Evans arrangements of the late 1950s. Davis died less than three months later. His final album, Doo-Bop (1992), was released posthumously.

Free Jazz And Fusion

Slowly, Davis began to take much of his harmonic experimentation into the late 20th Century world of electronics. His funk and jazz fusion phase is heavily intertwined with experiments with amplification, electric keyboards.

In A Silent Way, 1969

Davis won new fans and alienated old ones with the releases of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (1969), albums on which he took foundational ideas of improvisation to their fullest ends of realization. These albums’ influence was heard in such 1970s fusion groups as Weather Report and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

Davis continued in this style with notable albums:
Live-Evil (1970)
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970)