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Miles Davis: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will teach you about Miles Davis, the influential jazz trumpeter and composer. You'll learn about his beginnings in jazz, as well as his innovative experiments with rock, pop, and electronic music.

Jazz and Beyond

What comes to mind when you think 'jazz'? Perhaps you think of dance bands or smoky jazz clubs. You'd be right -- jazz is both of those things -- but trumpeter Miles Davis spent his entire career asking what else jazz could be. In his lifetime, he stretched and broke the boundaries of jazz over and over, making records that have influenced thousands of jazz, rock, and even pop musicians.

Miles Davis, ca. 1955
Young Miles Davis (Photo by Tom Palumbo)

Miles' Early Life

Miles was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois. His father was a well-known dentist, and the Davis family was well off. When Miles was young, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, and it was here that Miles would have his first musical experiences.

Miles first encountered the trumpet at age thirteen. After just a few years of lessons with trumpeter Elwood Buchanan, Miles began playing professionally. When singer Billy Eckstine's band came to town in 1944, Miles temporarily joined the trumpet section. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker were also in Eckstine's band and would be important mentors for Miles later on.

Beginnings to Birth of the Cool

Despite his early success as a professional trumpeter, Miles' parents urged him to get a formal education, and he agreed to enroll in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. It didn't last long, though. By 1945 he had dropped out, located his hero Charlie Parker (whom he'd met in Billy Eckstine's band the year earlier) and joined Parker's jazz quintet. Miles played on several of Parker's recordings from 1945-48.

One of Davis' first friends in New York was Gil Evans, a Canadian composer and arranger who had befriended several young jazz musicians. In 1948 the two began work on a new project: a collection of nine musicians (also called a nonet) featuring jazz musicians as well as a French horn and a tuba. This nonet is best remembered through Birth of the Cool, an album recorded in 1949 and 1950 but not released until 1957.

The music on Birth of the Cool was carefully composed and arranged, standing in contrast to most jazz albums of the time, which featured much more improvisation and less instructions for each performer. Meanwhile, the style of playing was more laid-back and relaxed than that of other jazz musicians. Some examples on the album are 'Moon Dreams' and 'Boplicity.'

The '50s and Kind of Blue

Miles began leading his own groups in the late 1940s, but a brief struggle with heroin addiction hampered his creative work in the early '50s. Miles began making new records almost immediately after his recovery in 1953; most of these were in a hard bop style, featuring fast tempos and short, improvised solos on the harmonies of popular songs.

In the late '50s, though, Miles would change direction. Birth of the Cool's 1957 release rekindled an interest in a softer, relaxed approach to jazz, with less emphasis on virtuosic playing and fast notes; this music would come to be known as cool jazz. Together with his pianist Bill Evans and his tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Miles worked to take the cool philosophy to the next level.

In his 1959 release Kind of Blue, the quintet plays music that is not only 'cool' in style, but has done away with the frequent harmonic motions of hard bop and stretches out a handful of chords; one track, 'So What,' uses only two harmonies for the entire track. This style of jazz, termed modal jazz, was enormously influential, and Kind of Blue was a smashing success; today, it is the best-selling jazz album of all time.

The '60s and Electric Miles

By the 1960s, Miles had moved on to yet another creative frontier. No longer interested in playing hard bop, he instead worked at creating music with no harmonic structure, allowing his musicians to play whatever harmonies or melodies they thought of. Miles Smiles (1966), Nefertiti (1967) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968) explore this freer direction.

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