Miles Davis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a mother. When he died last week, 65 years old and long ailing, there was nobody, absolutely nobody, who wouldn’t have called him a giant of jazz, a titan of the trumpet, a founder of contemporary American music, or many other boilerplate articles of praise — all ringing true as the extraordinary notes he conjured out of his horn for 46 years.
As a jazz trumpet player, Davis was as great as they come. Beyond that, he was an innovator, instrumental in nearly every important jazz idiom between the ”cool” style of the late ’40s and the jazz-rock fusion of the late ’60s and ’70s. He was an unparalleled bandleader, able to inspire his ensembles to heights of group improvisation. And finally, as a mentor to younger musicians he had no peer, giving an important boost over the years to well, pick a name. John Coltrane, one of the few giants who might be called Davis’ equal? Herbie Hancock, sometime pop star and a leading jazz light of the generations after Davis? Wayne Shorter? John McLaughlin? Chick Corea? All of them got key early exposure and experience in Miles Davis’ bands.
But somehow none of these easily catalogued achievements even begins to tell the real story. Davis, right at the start, defied one mythical jazz stereotype: He was born, not into poverty but, the son of a dentist and gentleman farmer, into a respectable middle-class family. He didn’t learn trumpet from (to ride the myth for all it’s worth) a boozy elder in a whorehouse band: His father gave him his first horn for his 13th birthday, even though his mother wanted him to have a violin. He wore Brooks Brothers suits and, with another famous St. Louis’ trumpeter, Clark Terry, stayed out all night at furious jam sessions — with his dad’s permission. After high school he even moved to New York to study classical trumpet at the Juilliard School of Music.
And then the jazz took over: As he later recalled, ”I spent my first week in New York and my first month’s allowance looking for Charlie Parker.” Along with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker was a fountainhead of the then obscure, wildly angular, challenging style known as bebop, which would emerge from the undergrowth to replace the relaxed swing of the Depression era and the war years, and open new possibilities for jazz. He became Davis’ mentor, and by 1945 Davis, all of 19, was playing on the historic first recordings Parker made as a leader of his own ensemble.
Music, though, wasn’t all Davis learned. Parker, like many bebop musicians, was addicted to heroin, and in its grip may have been more irresponsible than most: He was notorious for arriving at gigs too messed up to function, and often disappeared with his musicians’ pay. Davis, too, hit bottom in a bout with heroin, but again he proved very out of the ordinary. When he threw off drugs, he rode a wave of brilliant recordings to become, by the late ’50s, much more than a star trumpeter: Signing with Columbia Records, he became a full-fledged culture hero, surrounded by a mystique that began with his Ferrari and extended to his clothes and to the elegant women who might have been chosen to match the car.
Yet there was more to the mystique than flash. To the black community, Miles Davis was a symbol of the uncompromising black artist, named by Life magazine as one of the people most influential in advancing the prestige of black America. And to jazz musicians, he was an innovator in far more than music. He refused to talk during his performances, instead standing silently, sometimes even turning his back on his increasingly white audiences. He may have enjoyed baiting them, defying the code that said jazz musicians — especially black jazz musicians — were required to hoke things up. ”When I’m working, I’m concentrating,” he said. ”I bet you if I was a doctor sewing on some son of a bitch’s heart, they wouldn’t want me to talk.”
There was more to it, of course. He was, says saxophonist Jackie McLean, who played with him from 1949 to 1953, ”very arrogant, standoffish, and egotistical most of the time.” Yet in standing up to tradition, he helped all musicians. Club owners in those days expected jazz artists to play all night; as Dizzy Gillespie later noted, ”Miles broke that up,” by threatening to walk out if he was asked to play more than three shows.
And then there was his music. He had a popular touch, moving beyond the introspective fury of the serious postwar jazz, and recording symphonic suites arranged by Gil Evans, which hid their musical complexity in a sound that seemed simple, refined, sometimes elegiac. He played popular ballads, songs like ”My Funny Valentine,” and even, to the astonishment of many in the jazz world, ”Someday My Prince Will Come” from, of all things, Snow White.
It might have been that popular touch that led him down his most controversial path. In 1969, Davis began to record electrified music that had more in common with rock than with any known form of jazz. This was the start of jazz-rock fusion, and some of his efforts drew unexpected praise: His 1970 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson has been cited as an important proto-heavy metal record, his 1972 On the Corner as an impressive jazz exploration of funk. But many in the jazz community reacted with unrestrained dismay to what they saw as at the very least a departure from true jazz principles, and at worst a betrayal.
Davis withdrew from public life from 1975 to 1981, then reemerged, with influence diminished, though longtime fans thronged to hear him, hoping, as one disaffected critic used to say, that something new and astonishing might again emerge. For no one could forget the light, almost melancholy sound of Miles Davis in his most poignant flights, probing subtly where others might blare, setting aside virtuosity to say more in a single trumpet sigh than others could with torrents. Says Wynton Marsalis, ”Few in jazz or in any other music have been as good as he was at his best,” and his best is with us still.
The rarest of jazz artists, and a master of the recording studio, Miles Davis left a legacy of LPs spanning 46 years. The secret of his astonishing longevity lies in his majestically individual responses to changing times. He heard, he reacted, he conquered — and not once or twice, but at least four times, altering the entire musical world, not just jazz, in the bargain. Listeners pursuing Davis for the first time might begin with the most famous, seminal records, but they would miss out on some masterpieces that, while not cataclysmic, best capture Davis’ crafty lyricism and brooding charm — and a few quirky records that show him groping toward yet another breakthrough. Here is a selective guide to Miles Davis’ many musical masks. Each deserves an A or A+.
Birth of the Cool
In 1949, the 23-year-old Davis assembled some of the best jazz composers and players in New York, almost all of them older and more experienced than he was, for the first of three nine-piece sessions that ushered in the lapidary abstractions of cool jazz. The 12 selections were beautifully mastered for this reissue.
Miles Davis Cronicle
But how cool can you get? In 1954, Davis led another all-star band in a performance of a blues, ”Walkin’,” that was so earthy and dramatic it helped codify a countermovement known as hard bop. ”Walkin”’ is just one of the peaks among these 94 selections from Davis’ Prestige years, 1951-56. Much of the development of modern jazz is imprinted in these eight CDs, including the marathon debut of Davis’ greatest quintet, with John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones.
Porgy and Bess
All of the collaborations by Davis and the great composer-arranger Gil Evans are landmarks. Miles Ahead, the album that made him famous in 1957 (presently available only in a montage of alternate takes), is the most serene, Sketches of Spain the most starkly expressive and erotic. But Porgy and Bess, Davis and Evans’ favorite, runs the widest gamut of emotions, and ends euphorically with the stunningly swinging ”There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.”
Kind of Blue
Possibly the most celebrated jazz LP ever issued, this was the 1959 session that popularized modal jazz, with musicians improvising melodic variations on scales rather than chords. But you didn’t have to know that to find such selections as ”So What” and ”All Blues” irresistibly seductive. All seven musicians involved — including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans — would later expand on the lessons heard here, as would two generations of musicians in jazz and rock. Scandalously, Columbia has ravaged the sound with its digital reprocessing.
Someday My Prince Will Come
(Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab) It’s often considered a way station between the great bands of the late ’50s and mid-’60s, but for sheer romance it has few rivals. Also available on a Columbia CD, but with inferior sound.
Circle in the Round
An odd assortment that traces Davis’ unique sojourn between 1955 (the John Lewis-Dizzy Gillespie bop classic, ”Two Bass Hit”) to 1970 and the dawn of fusion (David Crosby’s ”Guinnevere”). You can hear him stalk the electric age step by stubborn step.
Recorded in Copenhagen in 1985 and suppressed by Columbia for four years, this is Davis’ last great album. Composed by Palle Mikkelborg as a tribute to Miles, this sequence of concertos often recalls the introspective bravura of Davis’ work with Gil Evans.
The Missing Sixties
Funny thing about the great Davis bands of the mid-’60s: Most of the albums with George Coleman or Wayne Shorter on tenor and the rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams are out of print. Let’s hope they’ll be back on reissues. In the meantime, it’s worth a trip to a rare-record store to find In Europe, Heard ‘Round the World, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, probably the greatest rock & roll record ever made by a jazz musician. Of his recordings from the ’70s and ’80s, also out of print, highlights include Get Up With It, We Want Miles, and Star People. All belong to Columbia.