Miles Davis — the celebrated trumpeter and musical innovator who died September 28th at the age of 65 — 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’ 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’ 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’ bands reads like a who’s who: saxophonists John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley 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’ 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’ 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 18-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.
In 1948 the trumpeter put together a nine-piece group to play compositions and arrangements with a richer, almost orchestral texture. The group — which included saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and played two songs arranged by Gil Evans — was mostly white. And though he often spoke out on racial matters with a caustic directness that led some critics to call him arrogant and even a racist in reverse, Davis continued to be colorblind when hiring musicians; several of his post-1980 bands were racially mixed as well.
The nine-piece band’s Birth of the Cool recordings signaled Davis’s first success at “changing music,” but at the time they brought little financial reward. For several years he performed and recorded sporadically while fighting his heroin habit. In 1954, with his drug addiction behind him, Davis made important recordings with Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and other formidable figures. That same year, his Prestige album Walkin’ changed music yet again. Davis had bounced back from the serene, glassy textures of his “cool” band to a hotter, more blues-based idiom that soon crystallized, under the rubric hard bop, one of the most important jazz movements of the Fifties and early Sixties.
In 1955, Davis assembled another definitive band, a quintet featuring a young John Coltrane. At two marathon sessions, the quintet recorded enough material for several outstanding albums on the Prestige label. The group’s last album, ‘Round About Midnight, was Davis’s first recording for Columbia Records, an association that would last until he switched to Warner Bros. in the mid-Eighties.
Davis rang in his next important musical changes with the help of a mid-Sixties quintet that included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter. The music was both a reaction and an alternative to the period’s burgeoning free-jazz movement. Regular song structures and a regular rhythmic pulse were not abandoned altogether, but they were treated with an impressive plasticity. Musicians have been building on this quintet’s foundation ever since; early albums by Wynton and Branford Marsalis were largely indebted to this stage in Davis’s restless development.
Friendships with Hendrix, Sly Stone and other Sixties rock stars gave Davis the urge to put together “the world’s baddest rock band.” His jazz-rock phase began quietly enough with the multiple electric keyboards and floating textures of In a Silent Way. But with the help of such new recruits as guitarist John McLaughlin, Davis moved into hotter musical climates again with the albums Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. If traditional jazz critics disliked these records, they were positively horrified by the all-out sonic assault of Davis’s mid-Seventies electric band.
With two and sometimes three electric guitarists blazing away, the Seventies albums Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus bulldozed right past the jazz audience, connecting instead with the leading edge of punk and postpunk rock. The most extreme of these albums, Dark Magus, remains unreleased in this country, an inexplicable oversight on Columbia’s part. But as a Japanese import, it reached influential rock musicians such as guitarist Robert Quine (who’s played with Richard Hell and Lou Reed) and punk-funk pioneer James White’s Contortions.
In 1975, shortly after recording these albums in concert, Davis retired for five years. He was plagued by recurring health problems, including hip and leg injuries that kept him in almost constant pain. In his autobiography (written with Quincy Troupe), he forthrightly calls this time “almost as dark as the one I had pulled myself out of when I was a junkie.” He neglected his horn; the autobiography notes that “sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.” Friends doubted that he would ever play again, but in 1980, Davis recorded a comeback album, The Man With the Horn, and put together another band.
Davis continued to tour, keeping to a demanding performance schedule right through this past summer. However, in early September he entered St. John’s Hospital and Health Center, in Santa Monica, California. According to his doctor, Jeff Harris, Davis — who died at the hospital — suffered from pneumonia, respiratory failure, and a stroke.
The verdict is still out on Davis’s postcomeback recordings. Any critical assessment would be premature; music that struck many listeners as overamplified and frantically chaotic in the early and mid-Seventies has a different spin now that punk, No Wave, industrial rock, and contemporary guitar bands like Sonic Youth have found their place in the musical spectrum. For listeners who got their first taste of Miles from Eighties albums like We Want Miles, Tutu, or Siesta, these are important, even crucial, recordings.
Davis probably enjoyed more recognition, more controversy, more women, more financial rewards, more respect from fellow musicians, and more sheer living than any jazz-rooted musician of the last half-century. He would have enjoyed having the last word.
From Miles, the most bracingly honest written testament a major American musician has left us: “The world has always been about change. People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker. Because the music and the sound has [sic] gone international and there ain’t no sense in trying to go back into some womb where you once were. A man can’t go back into his mother’s womb.”