Artistically unpredictable and personally mercurial, jazz genius and American icon Miles Davis lived an impossible-to-pin-down life. For years, it seemed the same was true about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's long-in-the-works biopic. Now though, the...
Miles Davis is the most revered jazz trumpeter of all time, not to mention one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. He was the first jazz musician of the post-hippie era to incorporate rock rhythms, and his immeasurable influence on others, in both jazz and rock, encouraged a wealth of subsequent experiments. From the bebop licks he initially played with saxophonist Charlie Parker to the wah-wah screeds he concocted to keep up with Jimi Hendrix, Davis was as restless as a performer could get.
Davis was raised in an upper-middle-class home in an integrated East St. Louis neighborhood. His father was a dentist; his mother, a music teacher. In 1941 he began playing the trumpet semiprofessionally with St. Louis jazz bands. The skills were there. Four years later, his father sent him to study at New York's Juilliard School of Music. Immediately upon arriving in New York City, Davis sought out alto saxophonist Parker, whom he had met the year before in St. Louis. He became Parker's roommate and protégé, playing in his quintet on the 1945 Savoy sessions, the definitive recordings of the bebop movement. He dropped out of Juilliard and played with Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Charles Mingus, and Oscar Pettiford.
As a trumpeter Davis was far from virtuosic, but he made up for his technical limitations by emphasizing his strengths: his ear for ensemble sound, unique phrasing, and a distinctively fragile tone. He started moving away from speedy bop and toward something more introspective. His direction was defined by his collaboration with Gil Evans on the Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949 and early 1950, playing with a nine-piece band that included Max Roach, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, and Gerry Mulligan using meticulous arrangements by Evans, Mulligan, Lewis, Davis, and Johnny Carisi.
Drugs were prevalent on the club scene in this era, and by 1949 Davis had become a heroin addict. He continued to perform and record over the next four years, but his disease kept his career in low gear until he cleaned up in 1954. The following year, he formed a group with drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Red Garland and, in his first major exposure, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. This incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet quickly established itself as the decade's premier jazz group.
Between 1958 and 1963 the personnel in Davis' groups — quintets, sextets, and small orchestras — shifted constantly and included pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and Hank Mobley, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Continuing the experiments begun with Birth of the Cool, Davis' work moved toward greater complexity — as on his orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans (Miles Ahead, 1957; Porgy and Bess, 1958; Sketches of Spain, 1959; Quiet Nights, 1962) — and greater simplicity, as on Kind of Blue (1959). Here he dispensed with chords as the basis for improvisation, instead favoring modal scales and tone centers. The five tracks released have gone on to be some of jazz's most well known. On the 50th anniversary of its release, Kind of Blue, which is the best-selling jazz record of all time, received a deluxe rerelease treatment with extra tracks from the sessions being included.
In 1963 Davis formed a quintet with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and saxophonist George Coleman, who was replaced by Wayne Shorter in 1965. This group stayed together until 1968. In that time, it exerted as much influence on the jazz of the Sixties as the first Davis quintet had on the jazz of the Fifites. Davis and his sidemen — especially Shorter — wrote a body of original material for the quintet.
In 1968 Davis began the process that eventually brought him to a fusion of jazz and rock. With Miles in the Sky, the quintet introduced electric instruments (including George Benson's guitar on one piece) and the steady beat of rock drumming to their sound. Davis never left the chemistry of his ensembles alone for long. New members came and went as his creative whims dictated. With Filles de Kilimanjaro, the rock influence became more pronounced. 1969's In a Silent Way featured three keyboardists — Hancock, Corea, and guitarist John McLaughlin and was near psychedelic. For his next record, he put together what he called "the best damn rock & roll band in the world" — Shorter, McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland, Corea, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, plus organist Larry Young, bassist Harvey Brooks, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and percussionists Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, Don Alias, and Jim Riley — and, with no rehearsals and virtually no instructions, let them jam. The result was the historic Bitches Brew, a two-LP set that sold over 400,000 copies.
In the three years following Brew's release, Davis amassed the kind of audience that rock stars enjoyed, performing in packed concert halls around the world. As his sidemen (who in the early 1970s included pianist Keith Jarrett and percussionists Billy Cobham and Airto Moreira) ventured out on their own, in such bands as Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, jazz-rock fusion became one of the dominant new forms.
A 1972 car crash that broke both his legs put a temporary stop to this activity and marked the beginning of his growing reclusiveness. The recordings he made between 1972 and 1975 advanced the ideas presented on Bitches Brew, extracting the percussive qualities of tuned instruments, making greater use of electronics and high-powered amplification, and deemphasizing individual solos in favor of ensemble funk. The music was roiling and fierce. His sidemen in the mid-Seventies included bassist Michael Henderson, guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, drummers Al Foster and Mtume, and saxophonists Sonny Fortune and Dave Liebman. Agharta, recorded live in Japan in 1975, was his last album of new material for five years. He spent much of that time recuperating from a hip ailment. With the encouragement of his new wife, actress Cicely Tyson, he reemerged in 1981 with a new album and concert appearances. While many old supporters were disappointed by his newly acquired pop clichés (including some vocals), The Man With the Horn was his most popular release since Bitches Brew and marked his return to live concerts. We Want Miles was a live set; Star People reenlisted Gil Evans as arranger along with Davis' Eighties sextet: Mike Stern or John Scofield on guitar, Marcus Miller or Tom Barney on electric bass, Bill Evans on saxophone, Al Foster on drums, and Mino Cinelu on percussion.
Davis' music took increasingly commercial turns; he recorded material by Cyndi Lauper and the rock band Scritti Politti (Davis was a guest on the group's Provision), later experimenting with hip-hop and go go rhythms. Critics generally lambasted the lukewarm funk of Davis' new music, but the trumpeter had reached new heights of popularity, his concerts selling out all over the world and his recordings even dented the pop charts. Davis continued to surround himself with young musicians; among them, saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Bob Berg, and keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco.
Tutu, Davis' first recording for Warner Bros. after ending his 30-year tenure with Columbia, was a purely studio-created project with Davis' horn the only "live" instrument. Aura (recorded in 1985) had Davis in front of Danish arranger Palle Mikkelborg's big band for pieces that harkened back to the protofusion experiments of the late 1960s.
In 1985 Davis contributed to the anti-apartheid Sun City recording, and the next year he and his band appeared at the televised Amnesty International Concert at Giants Stadium. Increasingly, he devoted increasing time to visual art — his paintings were exhibited in galleries and a book devoted to them was published. In 1988 Davis' marriage to Tyson ended, and Gil Evans, his close friend and musical associate, died; the long-rumored adaptation of Tosca that the two had been discussing for years never came to fruition.
Davis' quest for increased public recognition led him to TV and film. He appeared on Miami Vice, made commercials for a New York jazz radio station, and had a featured role in the 1990 film Dingo. Davis also worked on the soundtracks for Siesta, The Hot Spot, and Scrooged (in which he played a street musician). In 1989 Davis published his controversial autobiography (cowritten with poet Quincy Troupe). While detailing Davis' drug problem and romantic involvements, the book was noticeably skimpy in its praise for important Davis collaborators. In 1990 Davis received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In failing health, Davis began to look backward for the first time in his career. The summer before his death Davis participated in a career retrospective — something he had always vigorously avoided — held at La Villette in Paris. Joining the trumpeter and his band were important Davis-associated instrumentalists including Jackie McLean, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. Shortly after that concert, Davis performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival with a big band led by Quincy Jones, re-creating the legendary Davis–Gil Evans collaborations.
Davis died in September 1991, reportedly suffering from pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke. The posthumously released Doo-Bop, a jazz/hip-hop collaborative project with rapper Easy Mo Bee, indicated that Davis' penchant for experimentation would be key to his legacy.
In the 2000s, jazz and rock musicians regularly gathered to record or perform pieces from Miles' canon. Reissues of his catalogue abound as well. In 2009 Sony/Legacy released The Complete Columbia Album Collection, a box set that featured 52 albums on 70 CDs.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this story.