As we celebrate the 86th birthday of jazz pioneer Miles Davis, it is worth noting that perhaps no legend is a more appropriate icon for this era because Miles never stopped learning, never quit developing, was never content with his music remaining stagnant. In fact, Miles didn’t even like the term “living legend” that was attached to him in the latter years of his career because he thought it didn’t acknowledge his continual growth.
Miles Dewey Davis was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, the scion of an affluent family—his father was a dentist. After the family moved to East St. Louis, Miles took piano lessons as a youngster—his mother was a blues pianist herself, though she never played for Miles. The story goes that his father handed him a trumpet when he was 13 as a means of annoying his wife, who didn’t like the sound of the trumpet. Just a year later, Miles was already playing in gigs around town. He went to New York to study at Julliard, but eventually dropped out with his father’s permission, although he credits the school with improving his trumpet playing and his ideas of music theory.
Miles developed his mourning, soulful, melodic sound as a reaction to the swift-playing bebop style of the time. He wanted to produce notes that sounded similar to the human voice. In later collaborations with white composer and arranger Gil Evans, the Miles sound was solidified even more, particularly when he began using the Harmon mute right next to the microphone, producing a sound that is so closely associated with him that no other trumpet player of note has really utilized it over the past 50 years. The “Sketches of Spain” album they produced together is one of the most amazing examples of virtuoso jazz playing ever put on wax—in his autobiography written with Quincy Troupe, Miles describes how incredibly taxing it was on him and the other musicians to produce that sound.
Most of the seminal jazz musicians of the 20th century either collaborated with Miles at some point or passed through his quintets and sextets—Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, James Moody, Ahmad Jamal, even Branford Marsalis in Miles’ later years. In 1959, he brought together a talented group to record “Kind of Blue,” an astonishing work that is still considered perhaps the best jazz album ever made. It is also still the best-selling jazz album of all time.
But despite all these successes, Miles never settled. When he entered the 1970’s and 80’s, he was still trying out musical forms—ignoring the critics and a public that wanted him to keep playing the classics he had recorded 20 and 30 years earlier. When he covered the Cyndi Lauper song “Time After Time,” using a smooth jazz style with pop influences, the attacks were intense—this time he had gone too far. But in his typical manner, Miles ignored them all.
In fact, the “Prince of Darkness” seemed to enjoy pissing everybody off. That’s what made him Miles.