Childhood & Early Life
Miles Davis was born on May 26, 1926, in Illinois. His parents were of African–American origin. His father, Miles Dewey Davis Jr., was a dentist, and his mother, Cleota Mae, was a music teacher. He had an elder sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Vernon.
Miles’ family was affluent, and Davis and his siblings had a happy childhood. As a youngster, Davis developed a keen interest in music. His first trumpet was gifted to him by his father’s friend. Miles took his first lessons in music from Elwood Buchanan, who advised him to play without “vibrato.” Miles joined the school band, which was directed by Buchanan. Later, he joined the orchestra, ‘Blue Devils,’ and eventually became its director.
As suggested by his father, Miles enrolled at ‘Juilliard School’ in New York to acquire better knowledge in music theory. However, he soon lost interest in theoretical studies and started following his idol, Charlie Parker, who was the most prominent name in bebop.
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Miles Davis started his career as a jazz trumpeter and played with local bands in St. Louis. Davis got acquainted with Charlie Parker in New York. Parker was a renowned name in bebop music at that time. In 1945, there was a vacant spot in Parker’s band, and Miles got the position. He performed with them for some years before parting ways in 1948.
In 1948, Davis and eight other musicians formed the ‘Miles Davis Nonet.’ The group included pianist Gil Evans and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Their idea was to recreate music similar to human voice by carefully arranging the notes. The compositions by the band were mostly unnoticed until 1957, when the album ‘Birth of the Cool’ was released. It was a compilation of major works of the group and led to the emergence of the cool jazz movement.
In the early 1950s, Davis turned into a heroin addict. His career suffered a major setback as reports of his addiction and wild temper spread across the industry. In 1954, Davis conquered his addiction and re-entered the music scene with greater determination.
Davis’ album ‘Miles Davis Quartet’ was released in the year 1954. Several other compositions such as ‘Blue Haze’ and ‘Walkin’’ followed, and this helped Davis in making a strong comeback. He gave up cool jazz and bebop and moved on to what came to be known as hard bop.
Davis developed his unique style in music in many ways. He got a “Harmon mute” affixed to his trumpet and placed it close to the microphone so that it sounded unique. This became his signature style.
In 1954, Davis performed at the ‘Newport Jazz Festival.’ Following this, he procured a contract with ‘Columbia Records.’ In 1955, he formed his own troupe, the ‘Great Quintet,’ which included musicians who were not established at that time. They recorded their debut album, ‘Round About Midnight,’ for ‘Columbia Records.’ The album received wide acceptance.
In 1959, Davis recorded the album ‘Kind of Blue,’ which featured Davis’ sextet, including pianist Bill Evans. The album turned out to be an instant success. It is still regarded as the best album in jazz music.
During the 1960s, Davis continued his journey of success. His quintets and sextets changed from time to time. While some major names left him, others, such as Wayne Shorter, took their place.
The album ‘Miles in the Sky,’ which was recorded in 1968, introduced electric musical instruments and paved the way for the fusion of jazz and rock music. The 1969 album ‘Bitches Brew’ was one of the best-selling albums that promoted jazz–rock fusion. After this success, Davis Miles became the first jazz artist to appear on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine.
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1970s was a period of decline for Davis. His albums did not sell as much as his earlier albums. Davis slipped into depression and his old habit of drug abuse resurfaced. Toward the end of the 1970s, he conquered the addiction yet again and regained his passion for music.
1985 saw the release of ‘You’re Under Arrest,’ which marked the end of Davis’ association with ‘Columbia Records.’ The album had interpretations of songs of Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper.
The first album recorded by Davis for ‘Warner Bros.’ was ‘Tutu,’ in which he used synthesizers and drum loops to create an entirely different kind of music. It earned him a ‘Grammy Award.’ Davis experimented with acting too. He was seen in movies such as ‘Scrooged’ and ‘Dingo.’
Miles married many times, but all his marriages ended in divorce. His first wife was Irene Birth, with whom he had three children. He later got married to dancer Frances Taylor and then to singer Betty Mabry.
Actor Cicely Tyson was his last wife, whom he married in 1981. It was Cicely who helped Davis in conquering his heroin addiction. The couple divorced in 1989.
Davis Miles had a lot of health issues, which resulted in hip and throat surgeries. He breathed his last in September 1991 after a respiratory failure and stroke.
After undergoing a throat surgery, Davis had a loud argument with someone, which permanently damaged his vocal cords. This gave him the hoarse voice that he was known for. His husky voice and mysterious personality earned him the nickname, the “Prince of Darkness.”
Davis felt deeply about the racist policies against the African–American people in the US. He participated in an anti-apartheid music album to show his support for the cause.
Miles Davis believed in retaining freshness in every composition. His favorite lines were, “I don’t want you to like me because of ‘Kind of Blue.’ Like me for what we are doing now.”