By Jackson Stein, Staff Writer
[Photo via milesdavis.com]
Not enough can be said about the impact that Miles Davis had on music. No matter what kind of musical concept emerged in the jazz scene, he immediately embraced it and asserted himself as a top-notch innovator. Whether it came with guest appearances on bebop quintets or his own expert work with jazz fusion, Davis’ expressive style and electric playing have landed on some of the most essential and revolutionary albums of all time.
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Born Miles Dewey Davis III on May 26, 1929, in Alton, Illinois, the jazz legend grew up in a musically censored home with parents who exclusively played classical music. However, after moving to St. Louis, a local doctor gifted Davis his first trumpet at age 9, opening up endless possibilities for creative expression. After participation in school talent shows, Davis eventually convinced his parents to send him to New York’s Juilliard School of Music in 1944, a move that allowed him to join the band of his hero, Charlie Parker.
It didn’t take long for his guest performances to bloom into leading his own compositions. Davis’ evolution into band leader, however, didn’t affect his passion for emphasizing the power of the ensemble, as he would serenely urge other band members to improvise and let their sound be heard.
His transition out of the chordal and frenetic bebop style led him to embrace the gentler, modal style of cool jazz with his early solo material. He stressed the importance of the solo on the alluring Porgy and Bess, and he truly mastered this sound on the 1959 masterpiece, Kind of Blue.
Arguably the most important jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. With help from fellow jazz legends John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and others, this album set countless milestones, and its popularity has cemented it as the definitive cool jazz album.
Had Davis ended his musical career at that point, he still would’ve gone down as one of jazz’s greatest musical minds, but his creative ambition was just getting started.
Taking huge influence from the musical worlds of rock and funk, Davis spearheaded the jazz-fusion movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He released his first fusion classic, In a Silent Way, in 1969. It shook the jazz world with futuristic sonics that embraced both electrifying grooves and beautiful ambiance.
The following year was even bigger for Davis with the release of the equally epic and far more popular Bitches Brew. The improv-heavy, mysterious monster of an album has gone down as the most important jazz fusion album ever made. Tracks like “Pharaoh’s Dance” are among his most experimental, and its daunting runtime, biting grooves and heavy sense of uncertainty keep the listener on the edge of their seat the whole way through. Any and all adoration this album has received over the years is well-deserved, as it’s one of the finest moments in Davis’ enjoyable, fascinating and revolutionary discography.
Davis would continue to innovate with albums like the Afrobeat-inspired On the Corner in 1972 and the psychedelic and fierce Agharta in 1975. He continued to feed his versatile creativity until 1991 when he died from a sudden brain aneurysm.
Miles Davis was not a jazz purist. He built his career on boundless ambition, expertly crafting some of the most inventive music of all time, and he did it all without losing the hopeful imagination that defined his earliest work. He was able to craft music evoking both household comfort and extraterrestrial exploration, and he is undeniably one of the most influential jazz artists of all time.