25 May 2010

This Date In Rock History: 25 May

On this date in 1926, Miles Dewey Davis 3d was born in Alton, Illinois. He would have been 84 today, had he not gone a-way.

Miles Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, the son of an affluent dental surgeon. On his thirteenth birthday, he was given a trumpet and music lessons with a local musician. By the age of 15, young Miles had obtained his union card and was performing in and around St. Louis with Eddie Randall's Blue Devils.

Trumpeter Clark Terry, one of Miles' idols, became his mentor and his local reputation grew. The Davises spurned offers for Miles to join several big bands. But when he was 18, the singer Billy Eckstine (another of Miles' personal favorites) came to town with his band, which included Charlie "Yardbird" Parker on alto sax and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. After another trumpeter took sick, Miles sat in with the band on a two week stand. It made him decide to move to New York City.

With the promise to his parents that he would extend his formal musical education, Miles attended The Julliard School of Music starting in September 1944. He studied by day and performed at jazz clubs in Harlem and on 52nd Street at night. Seduced by the unique rhythm of be-bop that Bird and Diz introduced him to, Miles put Julliard in the rear-view mirror and concentrated solely on jazz. In his autobiography he notes that "Up at Julliard, I played in the symphony, two notes, with be-bop, every 90 bars, so I said "Let me out of here,' and I left." With that unique musical bedrock, he began to craft his own musical style.

Early gigs saw Miles perform with saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. By 1945 he was part of a quintet with arguably the most talented and influential jazz saxophonist of all time, Charlie Parker. Jazz historians note recordings of "Koko" and "Now's The Time" with this group as the first be-bop sessions.

By the late '40s, Miles was striking out on his own, with a quintet that sometimes included Bird. But the sound was evolving, as it would throughout Miles' entire career. This phase is now identified as "cool jazz" because of the elaborate orchestrations he forged with arrangers Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan. The movement was particularly influential on the West Coast.

The early 1950s saw Miles swallowed up by heroin use and his work in the first half of the decade is spotty. But he beat the addiction and once again was at the vanguard of the latest jazz variation: "hard bop." In 1954, he recorded with the giants Sonny Rollins (sax), Horace Silver (piano) and Thelonious Monk (piano). Miles triumphant return to the public arena is still considered his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 with his first seminal quintet in tow: Red Garland on piano, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. This group would go on to record six albums in two years; supposedly the ferocity of the work was in part due to fulfilling a contract with Prestige Records, in order to sign with recording giant Columbia. These albums would bring Miles his first general notice of the music public at large.

In 1957, Miles had an operation on his vocal cords. As recounted in his life story, two days after the surgery he got into an argument and began shouting at someone "who tried to convince to go into a deal that I didn't want." The damage left him the now famous low tone, gravelly voice for the rest of his life.

Adding Julian "Cannonball" Adderly to the quintet in the late 1950s, Miles introduced a more sparse, stripped down style to the harmonies. The albums produced in this era, particularly Milestones and Kind of Blue (with Bill Evans replacing Garland on piano), are widely considered masterpieces, and have served as a literal introduction to jazz to millions of listeners. A great start if you've never heard Miles is "So What":

Electrified sound was the next stop on Miles' musical journey. In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew continue to be touchstones for not only the jazz set (the advent of "fusion") but the rock and roll community as well (fueling the impetus of what was to be known as "funk"). And once again, Miles introduced the music world to phenomenal musicians, who would go on to have significant careers in their own right: saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and keyboardists Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock.

Miles' later years in music were marred by various physical maladies and probably fans and critics with overexpectations. He died in 1991. Almost 20 years later, Miles Davis is securely atop popular music's Mount Olympus.

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