Miles Davis Biography
Miles Davis was one of the 20th century's most innovative musicians. Throughout a long and illustrious career that spanned the latter half of the 20th century, he was the epitome of the consummate professional. A master innovator, he was a primary force in the development of jazz from bebop through fusion. His concise, lyrical phrasing, introspective style, and boundless invention continue to influence jazz musicians throughout the world.
“Nothing is out of the question for me. I’m always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up in the morning and see the light… Then, I’m grateful.” ~ Miles Davis
Born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois, to dental surgeon Dr. Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., and music teacher Cleota Mae Davis, Miles grew up in the black middle class community of East St. Louis, Illinois. His interest in music developed early on and by the age of 12 he had begun taking trumpet lessons. He began playing bars while still in high school and at 16 he was playing out-of-town gigs. He was 18 years old and just out of high school when he got the chance to sit in with Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker both of whom were playing in Billy Eckstine's band. Understandably, he fell under the spell of these founders of bebop.
His mother had wanted him to attend college, so as a compromise, he entered Julliard in New York City in September 1944. He immediately began playing in clubs with Parker. By 1945 he had dropped out of school in favor of a full-time career as a jazz musician. He played with Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, as well as Parker. In the summer of 1948 he formed a nine-piece band, The Miles Davis Nonet. It was distinguished by a unique horn section. In addition to his trumpet, it featured an alto sax, a baritone sax, a trombone, a French horn, and a tuba. The Nonet recordings, later released as Birth of the Cool, had a significant influence on several of the band's musicians, including saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, and pianist John Lewis, and are considered the beginning of the West Coast cool jazz movement.
“If you got up on the bandstand at Minton’s and couldn’t play, you were not only going to be embarrassed by the people ignoring you or booing you, you might get your ass kicked.” ~ Miles Davis
His progress as a musician was marred by heroin addiction in the early fifties, but, by the middle of the decade, he had kicked his habit. In July 1955, he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and created a sensation playing "'Round Midnight." The performance led to a contract with Columbia Records and allowed him to put together a permanent band. He went on to organize a quintet featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. They began recording his Columbia debut, Round About Midnight, in October. At the same time, he was still obligated for five albums on an earlier contract with Prestige. Over the next year, in order to satisfy this commitment, he alternated his Columbia sessions with sessions for Prestige. The products were Prestige albums The New Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin', Workin', Relaxin', and Steamin'. Davis' first quintet was one of his better documented groups.
“We’re not going to play the blues anymore. Let the white folks play the blues. They got ‘em, so they can keep ‘em.” ~ Miles Davis
Further milestones lay ahead for Davis -- his groundbreaking orchestral work with his musical soul mate Gil Evans, the recording of the most popular jazz album ever (Kind of Blue), further endeavors with another pivotal quintet in the '60s and finally, "the fathering of the Free Improvisation and Funk-tinged riffs and grooves of the Fusion age with Bitches Brew." Through it all, Davis remained the consummate professional and master innovator, never resting on his laurels, always focusing on the better riffs to come.
In early September 1991, Davis checked into St. John's Hospital near his home in Santa Monica, California, for routine tests. After repeated bouts of bronchial pneumonia, doctors suggested he have a tracheal tube implanted to relieve his breathing. The suggestion provoked such an outburst from Davis that it led to an intra-cerebral hemorrhage followed by a coma. After several days on life support, his machine was turned off and he died on September 28, 1991. He was 65 years old. A funeral service was held on October 5, 1991, at St. Peter's Lutheran Church on Lexington Avenue in New York City. It was attended by around 500 friends, family members, and musical acquaintances, with many fans standing outside in the rain. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City, with one of his trumpets, near the site of Duke Ellington's grave.