Some musicians are sufficiently inspired and influential to be labeled epoch-making. Miles Davis (1926-91) made new jazz epochs every few years. For nearly five decades he was at the center of the music, charting directions and introducing other legendary figures at a rate that is unmatched by his contemporaries in any art form.
The family poverty that makes for jazz melodrama was absent in Davis's background. He grew up in relative affluence in East St. Louis, Illinois and, after filling in with Billy Eckstine's big band while still in high school, journeyed to New York to enroll at Juilliard. He quickly renewed acquaintances with the bebop pioneers he had met in Eckstine's ranks, and by the end of 1945 had assumed the trumpet chair in Charlie Parker's quintet that he continued to hold for much of the next three years.
Davis's first venture as a bandleader was the innovative nonet he created in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans. This band, building on the writing Evans had done for Claude Thornhill and employing such unusual timbres for jazz as those of the French horn and tuba, provided the more subtle yet still harmonically provocative palette that soon became recognized as the "birth of the cool"; Yet in smaller bands of quartet to sextet size that Davis tended to lead in most of his live and studio work for the next several years, the emphasis was on a more assertive rhythmic edge and extended improvisations that revitalized the blues vernacular. A list of key collaborators in this 1951-54 period would have to include J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey, who together were laying the foundation for another stylistic variation, known as hard bop.
After a triumphant performance of "'Round Midnight" in a jam session at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Davis was finally able to sustain a permanent band. The personnel (John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones) are indicative of the diversely matched yet ultimately reinforcing ensembles the trumpeter would assemble again and again, bands that could create distinct group sounds behind each soloist and introduce fresh concepts regarding jazz form. While this unit, with the added participation of Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, became the dominant small jazz band of the late Fifties and helped popularize material based upon scales and modes, Davis also reunited with Gil Evans for a series of orchestral recordings that redefined the potential of the jazz soloist in a large band context.
The Sixties found Davis putting together another seminal quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This band took modern combo concepts to the edge of freedom, then incorporated electric instruments and layers of chordal and rhythmic support that launched the jazz-rock or fusion phenomenon. Working with larger, highly amplified bands from 1968 forward, and employing such future stars as Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, and John McLaughlin, Davis now concentrated on sound and rhythm more than ever, becoming simultaneously more basic and more abstract in his approach. After a period of retirement in the late Seventies, he returned to studio and live performance with another generation of leaders-to-be (John Scofield, Mike Stern, Kenny Garrett, Bob Berg) and remained jazz's most charismatic figure until his death.
Photo by Burt Goldblatt