Miles Davis took the world by storm with his refusal to adhere to the expectations of a jazz musician, and was the first of the post-hippie era to use rock rhythms within his jazz music. This sparked a trend that shook the musical world.

Born on 26th May 1926 in Alton, Illinois, Davis was from a financially secure household keen to support his youthful endeavors. His father purchased him a trumpet at the age of 13, unknowingly cementing his future as a musical icon. His family’s support and moderate affluence afforded him a private tutor in the form of a music school director named Elwood Buchanan, who taught Davis a controversial method of playing the trumpet without the use of vibrato, a strict parallel from the popular style of musicians such as Louis Armstrong. This new method of playing helped distinguish Davis from the early outset of his trumpet career.

Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson 1982

Davis and Cicely Tyson in 1982. Photo: Antonisse, Marcel / Anefo

New York, the Juilliard, and beyond and heroin

Upon the instruction of his father, Miles Davis went to pursue further musical education at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, known now as the prestigious Juilliard School. During this time the start of the Miles Davis phenomenon began when he was invited to play with the famous Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the place of an ill bandmate. Davis utilised his time in New York to develop a close relationship with Charlie Parker, becoming his roommate and protégé.

He began playing in a nine-piece band after dropping out of his music school, and fell for the seductive lifestyle of the time, becoming a heroin addict in 1949. His addiction halted his progression and it wasn’t until he became clean in 1954 that he began to rise once again towards fame.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis on piano with Howard McGhee (trumpet), Joe Albany (pianist, standing)
and Brick Fleagle (guitarist, smoking), September 1947

Restless and experimental jazz music

Just one year later, Davis took the scene by storm and formed a group known as the Miles Davis Quintet, hailed immediately as the biggest and best jazz group of the decade. Over the next few years Miles Davis started to develop his reputation as a restless musician, as his group formation changed radically and repeatedly. His orchestral collaborations saw him involved with some of the most prominent musicians of the time, distinguishing himself as a wildly experimental player, and from this time came some of the best known jazz records of all time. Kind of Blue, which is the number one best-selling jazz record ever, was composed at this time.

Just as Davis had revolutionised the jazz scene in the ‘50s, he did the same in the ‘60s when he formed another famous quintet in 1963 with a slightly more stable group of musicians. Only one person was substituted in the five years. All of their material was entirely original, and they took the scene by storm once again.

Just after Woodstock in 1969, Davis recorded the album Bitches Brew, influenced by artists such as Jimi Hendrix. This period of jazz fusion was well received, and Davis even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, becoming the first ever jazz musician to be recognized by the rock and roll movement. This collaborative style was typical of Davis, who was becoming renowned for his refusal to play by the rules – perhaps influenced by his rocky past.

Addiction, resurrection and recognition

In 1972 a car crash pushed Davis towards a more reclusive lifestyle, and unfortunately for Davis, his demons came back to haunt him. In 1975 he became addicted to alcohol and cocaine, which yet again took a toll on his career, forcing him to take a break from music for five long years. In 1981 he reappeared on the music scene, but many of his long time fans were disappointed to find him leaning
much more towards pop. This wasn’t reflected in sales, however, and The Man with the Horn was a huge hit, the most successful since Bitches Brew. His releases became more and more commercial, and Davis began collaborating with artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Scritti Politti. Despite being pulled apart by critics over his pop and hip-hop influences, Miles Davis was selling out every performance and his popularity was at an all-time high, owing to his continued loyalty to experimentation.

In 1990 Miles Davis was awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and graced the stage once more, performing many of his old songs alongside Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival. This revival of his classics was widely celebrated, as it was the first time in decades that many of his best-loved tracks had been heard live. On 28th September 1991 Miles Davis passed away from pneumonia, and was posthumously awarded his ninth and final Grammy award for his recording with Quincy Jones earlier that year.