When we use the term “inventor” to describe an artist, we think of a creative person who takes art to another level, place or concept. Breaking the “rules” and discarding the conventions that are well-established, the artist explores the boundaries of what is possible, finding innovative ways to connect us with his or her art. In the process a new genres is created and the world takes notice.
Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926–Sept. 28, 1991) was a trumpeter, band leader and composer and one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived. He possessed an inventive, creative nature open to new ideas and new sounds, a willingness to take risks and collaborate with others and an uncanny ability to identify brilliant, young, unknown players who joined him over the years. Miles pioneered and ultimately defined many of the genres of jazz from the ’50s to the ’80s.
An African American born into an affluent middle class family, he was a boxer as a youth, a heroin addict in his 20s (stealing from his friends to buy drugs) and a serial womanizer. Miles was an iconoclast, arrogant (famously quoted as saying, “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!”) and combative, and with his whispery voice (damaged by prematurely using his voice after surgery — because of an outburst in an argument) he had a strange presence which earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness.” While he was a talented trumpet player, make no mistake about it, his legendary status was not built on his chops. Of course he could play, but his greatness lay in other areas.
After playing with the greats of bebop in the late ’40s, Miles changed directions in 1949, joining Gil Evans, in the first of many successful collaborations, to record “The Birth of the Cool.” A reaction to bebop, the sound laid the groundwork for the “cool jazz” movement.
In the early ’50s using the Harmon mute, held close to the microphone, Miles created a distinctive sound that became his trademark and even now when a trumpeter plays with a Harmon mute, it still conjures up the sound of Miles. He also began playing standards and popular tunes in what became known as the “hard bop” style — slower tempos with more harmony and melody and a harder beat than cool jazz. He was joined in these projects by, among others, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, who both went on to become legendary jazz men.
Switching gears again in 1958, he focused on modal music (improvisation built on one “mode” or scale instead of chord progressions). Hiring Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, they recorded the all-time largest selling jazz album, “Kind of Blue.” Each of his sidemen was relatively unknown, and they went on to front their own bands and become major jazz stars.
In 1964 he hired relatively unknown Wayne Shorter (tenor), who greatly influenced Miles. When he also hired keyboardist and pianist Herbie Hancock (then unknown), his band would go on to become one of the most important bands of the ’60s as they explored free-jazz.
By the late ’60s Miles switched his attention to rock and “jazz-fusion” (a melding of jazz, rock and funk), forming groups and playing with guitarists George Benson and John McLaughlin, and keyboardists-pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, ultimately recording “Bitches Brew” in 1969, the definitive jazz-fusion recording. All have gone on to be extremely important jazz musicians.
By 1974, burned out and in ill-health, Miles became inactive, only to re-emerge in the early ’80s, returning to his musical approach from the ’50s, but interpreting more contemporary music from the pop world.
Because he continuously reinvented himself, Miles had little respect for musicians who continued to play the same style of music throughout their careers and famously said, “A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.”
That was Miles — inventor, collaborator and talent scout.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 19th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit www.vailjazz.org for more information.