Miles Davis: The Man Who Changed Music

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 617 from November 14, 1991. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Miles Davis — the celebrated trumpeter and musical innovator who died September 28th at the age of sixty-five — reluctantly agreed to attend an awards dinner at the Reagan White House back in 1987. It was uncharacteristic for a man who had always been bluntly honest, about himself and about others, to even show up for such an occasion. In his frank, fearless autobiography, Miles, he wrote that Cicely Tyson, one of the many women in his life, had invited him and that he went out of respect for one of the award recipients, Ray Charles. But trouble seemed inevitable.

According to Davis's account, he was sitting at a table with a woman he described as "a politician's wife" when she asked him an apparently well-meant question about America's neglect of jazz. "Jazz is ignored here because the white man likes to win everything," Davis responded with his usual asperity. Rattled, the woman asked him, "What have you done that's so important in your life?"

Again, Davis had a ready answer. "Well," he said, "I've changed music five or six times."

Miles's off-the-cuff self-assessment seems right on the mark now that this indomitable spirit has left us. But "changing music" isn't the only thing Davis will be remembered for. He was one of the most personal, gifted and influential trumpet players to grace the second half of our now-waning century. His albums — from Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949 and 1950) to Kind of Blue (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960), through the electric maelstroms of Bitches Brew (1970) and Pangaea (1975) and on to such recent releases as Tutu (a Grammy winner in 1987) — are more than superb recordings. Many people remember the moment they first heard one Miles album or another the way they remember the Kennedy or Lennon assassinations — as turning points in history and in their own lives.

In a music that has known more great players than great bandleaders, Davis set standards for ensemble style and interaction again and again. The list of musicians who broke into the front ranks through tenures in Davis's bands reads like a who's who: saxophonists John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Wayne Shorter; pianists Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea; drummers Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette; guitarists John McLaughlin and John Scofield. But great players don't always add up to great bands; Davis knew the difference and insisted on having both.

In jazz, even more than in other idioms created primarily by black Americans, innovation is the mainspring of the art. And when it comes to innovation — or as Davis put it, "changing music" — the man had few, if any, peers. Even the most brilliant jazz revolutionaries, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, tended to create a radically new style on their instrument and then stick to it and develop it while the rest of the world caught up. A few exceptional individuals — Coltrane, Ornette Coleman — changed music more than once. But Davis's assertion that he "changed music five or six times" was no idle boast. And note that he said music, not jazz.

Davis was contemporary music's living link with the first wave of modern jazzmen — early Davis associates included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. But his own music was straining the bonds of category as early as Birth of the Cool, the collection of recordings that initiated a still-evolving exchange of ideas between jazz and European-based classical music. During the Sixties and early Seventies, Davis's admiration for such popular innovators as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone led him to fuse the worlds of jazz, rock and funk.

This move didn't just break through barriers; it pulverized them. Discrete musical categories — and theoretical distinctions between "high art" and "popular art" — would never have the same coercive force again. Critics and musicians who are still trying to hold the line against this cultural democratization, mostly from the classical and jazz camps, are classist bigots fighting a losing battle with musical and social realities. If Davis had a particular knack for getting under these purists' skins, it's easy to see why.

Davis's family background helps explain why he was so supremely self-confident. He was born Miles Dewey Davis III, the son of a highly successful dental surgeon, on May 26th, 1926, in Alton, Illinois. His stylish mother, an accomplished keyboard player and violinist, wore mink coats and diamonds; Davis credited her with inspiring his own sartorial elegance.

Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, the scene of some of this country's most violent "race riots" — events that, in fact, were little more than excuses for white mobs to slaughter blacks. The worst of them occurred in 1917, less than a decade before Miles III was born, and the bitterness and tension lingered on.

In 1944 the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis first heard modern jazz — the music that changed his life — when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played in St. Louis as members of Billy Eckstine's band. Already a capable trumpet player, with band experience and private tutoring under his belt, Davis replaced the Eckstine band's third trumpeter when the man unexpectedly became ill.

After sitting in with the band for the two weeks Eckstine was in St. Louis, Davis wanted to go on the road. His family restrained him, but he was able to convince them to send him to New York, ostensibly to study classical music at Juilliard, in September 1944.

He enrolled in the prestigious music school and attended classes by day while developing his improvising skills in the city's jazz clubs at night. In May 1945, he made his recording debut, backing the blues singer Rubberlegs Williams.

By this time, Charlie Parker was Davis's sometime roommate and musical guru. But Parker, whose drug use was already taking on mythic proportions, did not introduce Davis to drugs, as many people once thought. Other musicians had already introduced him to marijuana (which he rarely smoked), heroin (which he soon became addicted to) and cocaine (one of the principal enthusiasms of his later life). But Davis was too strong-willed to put up with the indignities and uncertainties of drug dependence indefinitely. He kicked heroin in 1954 and had reportedly given up both cocaine and alcohol by the mid-Eighties.

Toward the end of 1945, Davis dropped out of Juilliard to play trumpet in Parker's quintet. He made his first recordings as a leader on August 14th, 1947, with Parker — playing tenor saxophone rather than his customary alto — featured as a sideman. The original compositions Davis introduced at this session, including "Half Nelson" and "Milestones," were even more harmonically challenging than many of Parker's tunes and are still modern jazz staples.

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From The Archives Issue 73: December 24, 1970
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