Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 - September 28, 1991) is one of the most highly regarded musicians in the history of jazz. Iconic as a trumpeter, Davis also broke artistic ground as a composer and bandleader. Over the course of his career, Davis was central to the creation of several movements within the jazz world, including Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and Third Stream. He is perhaps most well known for his unique, wispy trumpet sound and use of the wah-wah mute.
Born in Illinois, Davis began his musical studies at the age of 13, when he began studying classical trumpet. Davis quickly made a name for himself in the then-thriving St. Louis jazz scene, differentiating himself from other local trumpet players with his smooth, cool sound. Davis turned professional at the age of 16, playing gigs around St. Louis after class and even earning himself a brief stint in the Billy Eckstein band.
Partially to please his parents and partially to get closer to the jazz scene that was erupting in Harlem, Davis moved to New York City in 1944, ostensibly to study classical music at Juilliard. Davis quickly tired of Juilliard's Eurocentric curriculum and dropped out, devoting himself to nightly jam sessions in Harlem. It was during this period that Davis met and jammed with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz greats. Soon, Davis was offered a spot in Charlie Parker’s Quintet, heading into the studio several times and embarking on a nationwide tour.
After a period of freelancing, Davis teamed up with Canadian pianist and arranger Gil Evans to form the Miles Davis Nonet. The nonet, although a commercial failure, was important for its unique artistic and musical qualities. The group’s laid-back approach and lyrical arrangements precipitated the birth of the “cool jazz” movement, and it was Davis’s trumpet, ringing like a human voice, that led the band.
After recording Birth of the Cool, Davis immersed himself in the blues and again found himself on the forefront of a musical movement, this time through his involvement with what would later be dubbed “Hard Bop.” Hard Bop was differentiated from Bebop by its slower, more straight-ahead rhythms and more accessible harmonic structures. It was during this time that Davis formed his First Great Quintet, with Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. It was this group that recorded Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis, four loosely-related albums recorded in two days.
After a series of recordings with Gil Evans, Davis reformed a prior group that included Bill Evans, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, and John Coltrane to record Kind of Blue, widely considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. The album, like Birth of the Cool, emphasizes lyricism and accessible structure over technical flash. Since it’s release in 1959, the album has sold over 4 million copies, making it the best-selling jazz album of all time.
The latter portion of Davis’ career was characterized by constant experimentation and reinvention. After his Second Great Quintet broke up, Davis began to work with electric instruments, citing the great rock groups of the sixties as an influence. Making moves for acceptance with a younger, hipper crowd, Davis remade his image several times and even guest-starred on an episode of the popular TV series Miami Vice. After struggling with drug addiction, depression, and various illnesses, Davis died in Santa Monica, California at the age of 65.
The overall scope and trajectory of Miles Davis’ career place him among the giants of 20th century music. Among other awards, Davis has been awarded eight Grammys and an Honorary Doctorate from the New England Conservatory, and his album Kind of Blue was recognized for its immense contribution to American music by the US House of Representatives in 2009. Davis is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.