Miles Davis is found on any short list of great jazz musicians in the 20th Century. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Miles was born on May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois. He grew up mostly in East St. Louis from 1927 to 1944 and attended local schools. Miles was from a relatively well-off family. His father Dr. Miles Henry Davis was a dentist and the family also owned a ranch. His mother was Cleota Henry Davis who was a blues pianist. She wanted Miles to study classical music and the violin. But at age 13, Dr. Davis gave Miles a trumpet and arranged for a local music teacher and trumpet player Elwood Buchanan to teach Miles a variety of musical styles that embraced classical, dance music, and jazz.
During his high school years, Miles had diverse musical experiences. He studied trumpet with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Miles was also hired for a three-week temporary job to play third trumpet with Billy Eckstein's band when Billy was on tour in southern Illinois and Missouri in 1944. He met trumpet legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie ("Bird") Parker who were with the band. In the fall of 1944, Miles left Illinois for New York to attend the famous Julliard School of Music on a scholarship. But his real goal was to get back together with Gillespie and Parker to play, write, and arrange jazz compositions.
According to the official Miled Davis web site,
Miles "quickly climbed up the ranks while learning from Bird and Diz and became the trumpet player for Charlie Parker's group for nearly 3 years. His first attempt at leading a group came in 1949 and was the first of many occurrences in which he would take jazz in a new direction. Along with arranger Gil Evans, he created a nonet (9 members) that used non-traditional instruments in a jazz setting, such as French horn and Tuba."
Miles "invented a more subtle, yet still challenging style that became known as 'cool jazz.' This style influenced a large group of musicians who played primarily on the west coast and further explored this style. The recordings of the nonet were packaged by Capitol records and released under the name The Birth of the Cool. The group featured Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Max Roach, among others. This was one of the first instances in which Miles demonstrated a recurring move that angered some: he brought in musicians regardless of race. He once said he'd give a guy with green skin and 'polka-dotted breath' a job, as long as they could play sax as well as Lee Konitz. After spending 4 years fighting a heroin addiction, he conquered it, inspired by the discipline of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson."
Miles became a very hot musical artist when he performed "Round Midnight," a classic from thelonious Monk, at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. He assembled a long-term quintet that included John Coltrane, Red Garland, "Philly Joe" Jones, and Paul Chambers. Later he added Cannonball Adderly as the sixth member and replaced Jones and Garland with Jimmy Cobb and Bill Evans. In the late 1950s, his groups popularized something called "modal jazz." At the end of the decade he has formed a "fusion" group with different styles that included Herbie Hancock from Chicago, another musician profiled in the Illinois Hall of Fame on this blog.
Reaching out for the best new talent was a pattern for Miles Davis. In 1959, Miles and his band recorded Kind of Blue which was the best selling jazz album of all time. Davis won a Grammy Award in 1987 for his album Tutu about Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Miles Davis died from a stroke on Sept. 28, 1991 at the age of 65. He is buried in the Bronx in New York.