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Miles Davis

December 25, 2007
by findingDulcinea Staff
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis is considered one of the most significant figures in the history of the genre. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926, Davis pioneered cool and modal jazz styles. His career was characterized by relentless stylistic innovation.

Formative Years

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One of Davis’s early breaks came after his high school graduation when he was invited to play alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in Billy Eckstein’s big band, during a gig in St. Louis. In 1944, Davis left for New York City, enrolling at the Institute of Musical Art (now The Julliard School). It was through jam sessions with Parker and Gillespie (which he attended instead of his classes) that Davis gained much of his musical training.
Davis soon dropped out of school and spent two of his first years in the city playing in Billy Eckstein and Charlie Parker’s bands. The first band Miles formed and fronted was a nonet (nine members). They were signed by Capitol records and in 1949 recorded an album that was largely responsible for creating the “cool jazz” style popular on the West coast. Allmusic.com has a comprehensive biography of Miles Davis that covers the stylistically important periods in his career.

Improvisatory Heights

Davis’ first quintet featured John Coltrane, Red Garland, "Philly Joe" Jones, and Paul Chambers. During the 1950s his bands made significant contributions to the creation of modal jazz, a style that relies on musical modes instead of chords. His 1959 album Kind of Blue, a collaboration between Davis and John Coltrane, is not only said to be “the pinnacle of modal jazz,” but is also considered by many to be the definitive jazz album. This video of Miles Davis and John Coltrane shows them performing the album’s first and most popular track, “So What.”
Kind of Blue is not only a landmark recording, pushing the boundaries of jazz, it’s also the best-selling jazz record in history. An NPR “Jazz Profile” provides the perfect introduction to this recording. The 54-minute audio clip features numerous discussions, reviews, analyses, and anecdotes relating to the album, and set to a backdrop of its songs.

Defining an Oeuvre

Open Source, the NPR show hosted by Christopher Lydon, explores the musical career of Miles Davis in an installment called “The Essential Miles.” At the start of the program Lydon asserts, “Miles Davis could have played ‘So What’ and the rest of his Kind of Blue album every night of his life … but then and forever, what made him Miles was that he chose not to.” The show highlights the frequent transformations of Miles Davis and his sound.
Davis was a prolific songwriter whose recordings span the years 1949 to 1993. You can explore his challenging discography at Allmusic.com, which provides a chronological list of his albums, supplemented by summaries, track listings, and reviews. Use the tabs at the top of the page to explore compilations featuring his songs.
Although renowned for his music, Miles Davis also pursued his creativity through the visual arts. Beginning in 1980 he refined a style that showed a penchant for the abstract, and drew heavily from African themes. At the official Miles Davis Web site a gallery features a selection of his works.
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