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Miles Davis at the 1989 Jazz Festival in Nice, Paris. By Oliver Nurock @Wiki Commons

Miles Davis: We all know what he looks like, or at least have seen some of the iconic pictures of him. If you Google Image Search you’ll recognize him right away (click). This is Miles Davis: The trumpeter who became the icon of jazz.

The American trumpeter born in 1926 had a tremendous influence on jazz music in the 20th century. Without Davis, jazz history would have looked completely different. In the 1940s he played with saxophone legend Charlie Parker, in 1958 his album Kind of Blue would change jazz forever, and in the sixties, he recorded the first ever jazz rock albums.

 From his birth until his final breath he participated in, contributed to and made jazz history. 

What did he play then, and what is so special about his playing? It is impossible to cover all contributions and artistic breakthroughs, but below you will find three great musical moments from his life. Listen and see for yourself!

Birth of the Cool (1950)

A hallmark of the cool jazz movement: while it was recorded between 1948 and 1950, Miles Davis’ album Birth of the Cool wasn’t released until 1957. During the early 50’s a new sound emerged: the cool jazz sound. Unlike the unstructured and mostly improvised bebop music of Charlie Parker and the likes in the 40’s, cool jazz tried to do something very different: it was much more arranged and thought out, had a more relaxed pace and an overall cooler sound.

The intro of Miles’ recording of Israel from the Birth of the Cool album serves as a prime example. You hear several horn instruments, trumpets and saxophones, playing the melody at the same time, while this is all pre-written, agreed on beforehand, so to speak. This is what we would call arranged. The improvisation and the solos only start after the rather long and highly structured intro. The music was therefore somewhat cooler and more serious, but also more audible. Check out Israel below to hear the nicely arranged intro melodies and the “cool” sound:

A comparison with Charlie Parker’s famous bebop recordings shows just how different this is from earlier jazz. The piece starts out immediately with improvisation and consists almost entirely of improvised solos, the pace is high and the focus is more on displaying virtuosity than on transferring listenable melody. You can hear this if you go back and forth between Davis and Parker: 

Kind of Blue (1958)

Miles Davis’ 1958 album Kind of Blue has written jazz history on its own. It’s a very special collection of songs for many reasons. Each piece has its own character, it has very long solo’s, and the harmonic approach on the whole album is new and different from all the jazz music that came before. To explain exactly what harmonic structures are, and how they work on this album would be too much for an introductory piece, but you can hear it makes for much more freedom for the improvisers. You can hear this especially in the use of space in Davis’ trumpet solos. This is only one aspect that makes this music so great and entire books could be written about all the details that are out there, but everyone must at least have listened the first song, So What:

Four and More (1964)

With what is called Miles Davis’ ‘second great quintet’, he recorded Four and More in 1964. Davis and his band tried to explore the boundaries of jazz music within the existing structures. This means very high tempos, wild improvisations and big contrasts. On the whole, the music has become much more adventurous and free. Lucky for us, Miles has recorded his song So What on this album too, making for a great opportunity to compare the two different styles, two different interpretations of the same song by the same man. For Davis, playing the song in the same style as he did on Kind of Blue in 1958 would be unacceptable, against his ethics as an artist. The difference is obvious, so brace yourself for a wild ride:

More listening

Of course, Miles Davis recorded much more than the above mentioned. He played straight ahead jazz in the 1950s, he was one of the inventors of jazz rockrecorded more jazz rock albums, played down right funk throughout the 1980s and went back to his jazz roots when recording with Quincy Jones. We will get back at these periods in more detail in other articles. But for now: Miles’ legacy lives on by listening, so enjoy his music!