Today is the birthday of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who almost singlehandedly shaped, changed, influenced, and pioneered much of that genre with expansive and highly memorable musical works that were released (mainly on Columbia Records) during the mid-20th century.
Davis, born May 26, 1926, remains one of the great musicians of the jazz age and American music age. A true original in every sense of the term, Davis wasn’t the first to excel at the trumpet — Louis Armstrong paved the cobblestoned musical roads that hundreds and hundreds of trumpeters in his wake tread upon after him, and people like Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry also drafted the blueprints at the jazz architects table — but Davis took all that came before him and he molded and shaped it into a sound that stemmed from him and created scores of albums that challenged basic jazz tenets and set the world on its ear. He (like contemporaries Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and a slight few others) broke it through to the mainstream, and then once the mainstream listened, he socked it in its collective face with an absolutely dazzling array of sounds and musicians who played with him, churning out records at a breathless clip, all with a standard that ran as high as stars in the galaxy. His playing seemed to also rest on that level as well, he almost played hovering over the stage he tread upon, the music seemed to lift one out of the their physical being, it’s raw urgency and soulful complexity even was evident in the most heartfelt soft ballads he manifested, and it could be downright forcefully intimidating and ferocious when he played with the fervor and intensity when he stepped the jazz up a few notches.
His style and verve no doubt was honed and harnessed by a personality that matched the music. Facing racism growing up in the 1930s in a decidedly button-down, tight-minded White America, Davis became protective of his own roots, and he proudly walked a sort of metaphoric strut in everything that he did as he became a young man and into his success as eventually a legend of American music. He could be difficult and gruff, tales of Davis turning his back while performing to audiences were the stuff of legion, legend, and reality. In an autobiography he published in the late 1980s, a few years before he died, he doesn’t have much of a kind word for many people or places or events that passed his gaze in his life, but it’s the honest and forthrightness that shines through and creates his charismatic legend, much like what shaped his music as well.
And the music. There’s so many records that stand the test of time as some of the most seminal and influential of the entire recorded history of man. It can be noted that there are at least three different genres that he almost singlehandedly spawned, and he changed styles often and with strong success each and every time. Bebop, Modal, and Fusion, those titles are almost synonymous with the Miles Davis brand, and records like Milestones; the all-American masterpiece Kind of Blue, with its flair and penchants for utilizing a kind of spontaneity in its presentation; Birth of the Cool, which was exactly that; Sketches of Spain, arranged by long-time collaborator Gil Evans, who puts an icy touch of candor and spellbinding arrangements on the proceedings; In A Silent Way, which ushered in an electric form of jazz which fused elements of instrumental amplification, particularly the piano (helmed by Joe Zawinul) which gave way to even more reaching records like Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, are each checkpoints of high water achievement in the entire jazz genre itself. Bitches Brew, in particular, released in 1970 when Davis was in his 40s, took jazz and blended it with a lot of what people like Jimi Hendrix were doing at the time.
Nothing encapsulated the record more than the statement that was affixed onto its colorful and bold album cover, “Directions in music by Miles Davis.” His playing on the album, still punctuated by that instantaneous signature sound, where even the most ignorant to all forms of jazz layman could hear a few scant notes and know it was Davis blowing that trumpet, stands as possibly the peak of his long and superbly prolific career.
Only in the 1980s did his output creatively stilt a bit. Before that, the standard of the records he put out, (and there were plenty of them) were of the highest quality, a feat which was mindboggling in itself. By the 1980s, he weaned a bit, mellowed out – that decade seemed to have a tendency to do that to the creative survivors who tramped through it, jazz itself was a changed form somewhat by the time that decade hit, but faithful audiences still came in droves and multitudes whenever Miles played. He kept on going right up until the end, until his death on September 28, 1991 at the age of 65. By that point, he had achieved a mass amount of accolades, awards (Grammy and otherwise) and most importantly, total solidification as a pioneer of jazz music. To this day, he still remains one of its true titans, a figurehead right up there if not standing alone, high on the summit of the genre. His influence still runs mammoth and his popularity still evident by the scores of people still playing his records, still purchasing them, and still performing them in jazz clubs and arenas worldwide.
So celebrate the works of Miles Davis today. Whether you are a casual fan of the man, and only know of him via Kind of Blue, or are a Davisphile who owns every shred of every recording the man ever made, or somewhere in between, one thing is for sure: no matter what recordings one has to listen to by this true master artist (prior to those 1980s recordings) it will more than confirm the greatness of a man whose boldness and willingness to stretch and take music as far and wide as he could stretch it, created sonic portraits that are to be listened to by endless generations to come. The work of true, pure artists, ensure that that’s going to be the case, each and every time they create. Happy Birthday Miles.