Vail Jazz: Miles Davis the inventor, collaborator and talent scout
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. In the process, a new genre is created.
Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926 – Sept. 28, 1991) was a trumpeter, band leader, composer and one of the greatest jazz musicians that 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. Miles pioneered and ultimately defined many of the genres of jazz from the 1950s 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 and a serial womanizer. Davis was an iconoclast, arrogant (famously quoted as saying, “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me”) and combative. His whispery voice was damaged by prematurely using his voice after surgery in an outburst during an argument. He had a strange presence, which earned him the nickname, the “Prince of Darkness.” While he was a talented trumpet player, his legendary status was not built solely on his chops.
A new type of jazz
After playing with the greats of bebop in the late 1940s, Davis changed directions in 1949, joining Gil Evans in the first of many successful collaborations with Evans, to record “The Birth of the Cool.” A reaction to bebop, the sound laid the groundwork for the “cool jazz” movement.
In the early 1950s, using the Harmon mute held close to the microphone, Davis created a distinctive sound that became his trademark. 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 became legendary jazz men.
In 1958, Davis 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 but went on to lead their own bands and become major jazz stars.
In 1964, he hired relatively unknown Wayne Shorter (a tenor), who greatly influenced Davis. When he also hired 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, Davis 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 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, Davis 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, Davis 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.”
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.