Personalities | Miles Davis | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

The history of post-war jazz tracked the musical development of Miles Dewey Davis III so closely that it is tempting to see the trumpeter as the orchestrator of each of the most significant stylistic shifts of the era. With the notable exception of free jazz, Miles seemed to trigger a new seismic shift in the music with each passing decade.

The reality is inevitably less simple, but there is no question that if Miles did not initiate successive revolutions, he was consistently in the frontline of their development and popularization.

Davis’s playing style, often described as ‘cool’, was unique in the hotbed of 1940s New York bebop. His tone was pensive and soft, with little attack, vibrato or other ornamentation. His frequent use of a mute further created a sense of intimacy, drawing the listener into the music. While his solos may have been expressed simply, they were at the same time highly sophisticated, and his modal improvisation technique helped to lay the foundations for the free-jazz movement of the 1960s.

Early Heroes

Born into a black, bourgeois family in Alton, Illinois in 1926, Miles was brought up in St. Louis and first played music professionally in that city. His parents were musical and encouraged their son’s interests, while his father had a love of jazz music and presented Miles with a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday. Miles played in his high school band and through his teacher was privileged enough to meet one of his heroes, Clark Terry, on whom he modelled his playing style. Another lucky break came when Billy Eckstine’s band came to St. Louis, featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, with whose work Davis was familiar from records. During the performance the third trumpet player was taken ill, and Davis stepped in.

Moving to New York in 1945 to study at the Juilliard School of Music, Davis was in time to catch the flowering of bebop and determined to find Parker and play with him again; he succeeded and soon became Parker’s regular trumpet player at the Three Deuces in 52nd Street. He also played with Parker’s quintet on the keystone bebop recordings with Savoy, although his technical dexterity was not quite up to Parker’s and Gillespie’s standards, and he gave way to Gillespie on some of the more up-tempo numbers. After brief sojourns with Benny Carter’s and Billy Eckstine’s Bands, Miles was back playing with Parker in New York. During this time, he honed his playing skills and solo technique, striking out on his own in 1947 after growing weary of Parker’s unpredictable behaviour.

Miles Ahead

Although Davis knew that bebop was currently where it was at, the frenetic style of the new music was not his real forte. Davis preferred a more detached, lyrical style in the manner of Lester Young. One who knew Young was the pianist, composer and arranger Gil Evans; Davis admired Evans’ ability to move away subtly from the basic beat in...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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