On this day, the world of jazz music mourns the passing of perhaps its greatest luminary, Miles Davis. Widely regarded as the quintessential jazz musician, Davis left an indelible mark on the genre that continues to resonate today. Born in 1926 in Illinois near St. Louis, his musical journey was destined from the start. His mother, a music teacher, and early training in trumpet under the guidance of Elwood Buchanan, one of his father’s dental patients, set the stage for a legendary career.
At the tender age of 12, Davis found himself under the tutelage of the principal trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, further shaping his prodigious talent. A pivotal moment came at 18 when Davis filled in on trumpet for Billy Eckstine’s band, a lineup that included soon-to-be jazz legends Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. This moment laid the foundation for the jazz revolution known as bebop.
Upon relocating to New York for studies at Julliard, Davis continued to collaborate with an extraordinary array of musicians who would define jazz throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He shared stages with luminaries like Thelonious Monk and Fats Navarro, and his journey led him to join Charlie Parker’s quintet, the first of many significant collaborations.
It was during this period that Davis recorded numerous albums in extensive sessions, a body of work that would have sufficed to define most musicians’ careers. Yet, Davis continued to evolve, delving into complex composition styles, eventually departing from purely live recorded music.
Despite his long and illustrious career marked by critical acclaim, Davis faced personal hardships, including tumultuous relationships and battles with addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. A battle with pneumonia led to a coma, and on this day in 1991, Davis passed away.
Miles Davis’ life story is a reflection of jazz throughout the mid-20th century. He adapted to the changing times, blazing trails for other musicians to follow. On the anniversary of his passing, we explore three essential albums that offer a window into the essence of his music.
1. “Kind of Blue” (1959)
“Kind of Blue” stands as the single greatest-selling jazz album of all time, its iconic cover etched into the memories of record collectors worldwide. Recorded during the zenith of Davis’ quintet years, this album featured Bill Evans on piano, creating one of the most renowned line-ups in jazz history. The album epitomizes Davis’ exploration of modal jazz, a style defined by modulating and improvising over basic chord progressions.
The brilliance of “Kind of Blue” lies in its harmonious blend of avant-garde experimentation and simplicity. While groundbreaking in its musical phrasing, the album’s mellifluous foundation, established by Evans’ piano, Coltrane’s saxophone, and Davis’ trumpet, creates an organic flow that continues to captivate listeners.
2. “Bitches Brew” (1969)
A decade after the release of “Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis embarked on a mission to challenge critics and fans alike with the advent of his electric period. The 41st album in his discography, “Bitches Brew,” was characterized by its formalistic experimentation. Recorded in a single three-hour session and meticulously edited by producer Teo Macero, this album epitomized jazz fusion, blending electric and traditional jazz instruments.
Sonically, “Bitches Brew” stands at the intersection of Davis’ prior work and the experimental directions he would later explore. While it retains echoes of the melancholic jazz sound of “Kind of Blue,” it injects a newfound energy influenced by rock music, heralding a fresh era of jazz.
3. “Bitches Brew” (1969)
Immediately following the release of “In a Silent Way” in the previous year, Miles Davis pushed the boundaries of jazz by infusing the genre with the stylings of rock music, forging an entirely unique sonic landscape.
Rhythm takes center stage, with two drum sets, congas, shakers, electric and acoustic bassists, and multiple pianists contributing to the album’s tracks. Davis masterfully incorporates electric guitars, clarinets, saxophones, and, of course, his signature trumpet, creating a sound that traverses Latin jazz, rock, and sheer cacophony.
“Bitches Brew” may not offer the sweet melodies of Davis’ quintet era, but it serves as an immersive journey into the realm of jazz when embraced on its terms, offering a transcendent musical experience.
Miles Davis’ legacy extends far beyond his lifetime, and these three albums offer an insightful exploration of his evolution as a musician and his profound impact on the world of jazz.