by Ted Drozdowski
Radical change was Miles Davis’ specialty — not just in his own playing and composing style, but in the very landscape of jazz and pop. That one revolutionary artist — considered by some to be the most influential musician of the recording era — would be a godfather of bebop, cool jazz, modal improvisation, jazz-rock fusion and even dance oriented electronica seems improbable, especially in today’s narrowcasting music business. But Davis did all that and more, becoming a cultural icon and the very embodiment of jazz, in particular, across the globe.
And his reach extended well beyond the trumpet. Davis’ conversational phrasing has inspired guitarists since the 1940s, and as a bandleader he’s championed an array of greats from John McLaughlin to John Scofield to Mike Stern to Sonny Sharrock.
Davis began playing professionally at age 17 in his East St. Louis hometown and had his first brush with fame when he subbed in composer Billy Eckstine’s band, alongside such distinguished group members as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But it was in New York City, after dropping out of Julliard, that he began to develop his own style and sound — the latter once described by Davis as “a round sound with no attitude in it.”
At the age of 18, Davis became a regular in the Big Apple’s 52nd Street jazz scene, playing with sax masters Coleman Hawkins and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. He’d gotten a quick tutorial in music theory at Julliard, but his education kicked up a few notches when he joined Charlie Parker’s quartet — as chops-heavy an outfit as ever existed. Glimmers of Davis’ slow, bold melodic style began shining through the flying wedge of the Parker group’s sound. Davis’ recorded take on Parker’s “Now’s the Time” is a document of the trumpeter’s signature tone and approach in the making.
Just after leaving Parker’s group in 1948, Davis became friends with composer Gil Evans. The pianist’s imagination as an arranger would be key in devising the sound of several Davis groups whose work stands today as manifestos. The first was the series of recordings that would become Birth of the Cool, a radical departure from the already radical departure that was bebop.
Davis formed a nonet, and he and Evans directed its music. Long elegant tones, slow slinky melodies and carefully layered harmonies were their stock-in-trade. And their music resembled nothing like the homogenous big bands or bop’s sonic tongues of fire. “Cool” was an apt description of their approach, which seemed laid back but was brimming with sophistication and relaxed mastery.
As Davis and Evans, who had an extensive grasp on classical composition, fleshed out this new sound, the nonet recorded sides for Capitol Records between 1949 and 1950. These releases were not commercially successful at the time, although it was clear to jazz musicians and die-hard fans that Davis was onto something different. They had a more profound impact in 1956 when they were collected and released as the Birth of the Cool album and became more widely available for the dissection of emerging players.
By then, of course, Davis was on to something different. He’d broken up the nonet and gone to Europe for an extended period. When he returned he acquired a heroin addiction. He fled New York for St. Louis to recover.
Nonetheless, Davis continued to make albums for the Prestige label that reflected a new interest in more aggressive playing. The style he helped forge with albums like Walkin’ and Dig became known as harp bop. It slowed the tempos of bebop, but beefed up the groove and displayed a strong affinity for blues and R&B.
In 1955, cured and hungry for something new, he moved back to New York City and delivered a killer performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. He also assembled his classic first quintet with John Coltrane on sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Red Garland on piano and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Following the hard bop path, much of their repertoire was plucked from the great American songbook. But Davis infused the group with the style he’d perfected in the “cool” era — long melodic lines, sinuous breathy tones and solos that followed a modal strategy, placing the accent on harmony and chordal development.
Through various line-ups and the continuation of his partnership with Gil Evans, the group and its sound evolved, culminating in 1959’s Kind of Blue, an undisputed masterpiece — an album so richly textured and packed with beauty it transcends genre. For those who are overwhelmed by the more intense modal blowing of Coltrane and his disciples like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Pharoah Sanders, Kind of Blue is the ultimate modal album, and any jazz guitar player who says the disc had no influence on him or her is probably lying or in denial. Duane Allman considered the album a touchstone, and Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright drew on its chord structure for Dark Side of the Moon’s “Breathe.” Last year the U.S. House of Representatives honored the disc’s 50th anniversary by voting it a national treasure, 409 to 0.
By the mid-’60s, Davis had become interested in playing aggressively once again. He formed a new group with Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter, who blended the energy of hard bop with the unfettered improvisation of free jazz. As the group developed, their sound became more aggressive, adding electric guitar, electric bass and electric piano to the mix. That would lead to Davis’ next landmark recording: 1970’s two-LP Bitches Brew. Davis laid the groundwork with 1969’s In a Silent Way, recruiting Gibson-playing legend John McLaughlin and adopting elements of hard rock and slamming funk, book-ended by Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. Rich in burning improvisation and aggressive rhythms, Bitches Brew numbers like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Pharoah’s Dance” took eccentric elements of jazz like modal and free playing to the mainstream, and made them accessible, thanks to a driving rock foundation. Although artists like Hendrix and The Beatles had already used the studio as an instrument on their recordings, the notion was foreign to jazz before Bitches Brews. Davis employed tape edits, delay and reverb effects, distortion and tape loops and other post-production filigrees to nail his vision.
As groups like McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House spun off from Davis’ conception of fusion, his own bands got wilder as well, culminating in the group that made 1975’s live Agharta. By then, Davis was playing his trumpet through a pedal board and a stack of Marshalls and was trading fiery runs with the double-guitar line-up of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, two under-rated monsters of the six-string.
Having contributed to the development of bebop, established the cool sound (which, unfortunately, was misinterpreted by a school of players who twisted the music into the wimpy genre, “smooth jazz”), been a hard-bop pioneer and given birth to fusion, Davis checked out for a few years. When he re-emerged in 1979, he was still playing an aggressive rock-inclined brand of jazz, but returned to his trumpet’s natural tone, leaving the saw-tooth waves to guitarist Mike Stern. His 1983 disc, Decoy, exhibited a prescient mix of modern R&B and electronica. He also modernized his earlier penchant for reinterpreting standards and cut beautiful melody driven versions of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Davis’ interest in the contemporary yielded collaborations with experimental funk bassist/producer Bill Laswell, Scritti Politti and Public Image Ltd. And he employed drum loops, samples and programming for his own Tutu, which won a Grammy in 1987.
Davis remained restless and creative until the end, which came on September 28, 1991, when he suffered a stroke that triggered heart and lung failure. To this day, his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, remains the best-selling album in jazz history.