If you know jazz, you know Miles Davis. I would bet that even if you don’t listen to jazz, odds are you have at least heard one of his tunes.
Over the five decades he performed, he regularly reinvented his sound, each time shifting the landscape of jazz and the broader music community too. He was at the forefront of popular movements in jazz, including bebop, cool, modal, hard bop, and fusion. Pop, soul, R&B, funk, and rap all were influenced by his work.
Here are 7 behind the scenes stories that you may not know about this musical icon.
The Birth of Modal Jazz: Kind of Blue
Not only is Kind of Blue the highest selling record in jazz history, but it is also the most influential. Recorded in the Spring of 1959, at Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York, it freed the world of jazz from the constraints of bebop.
Lyrical solos, a potent simplicity, and a feeling of gentle urgency flow through all five tracks on the record. The 30th Street studio became Davis' laboratory, and the experiment in modal music blew the jazz genre wide open. It gave the music a more free form of expression compared to more rigid bebop.
Kind of Blue was born out of Davis' desire for freedom. A massive influence on moving beyond the chord progressions of bebop was the work of author and composer George Russell. His theories of modal music in the book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization in 1953 paved the way for Kind of Blue, but it was Davis that paved the way for Russell's book.
Years earlier, a comment from an 18-year-old Davis piqued Russell's curiosity. In 1945, Davis casually said to Russel that his musical aim was to “learn all the changes.” What Russell heard was Davis looking for new and broader ways to relate chords. From that, Russell began thinking about modal music, leading to his seminal book. Kind of Blue marked the final chapter in the back and forth collaboration between the two musical geniuses.
Miles Davis’ Transcendent Trumpet: Blue in Green
Blue in Green is not the most famous song on Kind of Blue, that honour goes to So What. Yet, many critics see Blue in Green as the highpoint of the album.
Allmusic‘s Thomas Ward says that it is the most beautiful piece of music on the album and wrote that Evans’ piano part “is magnificent, and his solo a masterpiece of unrivalled lyricism.” The song’s importance can’t be denied, but its origins are a little less certain.
One story of Blue in Green’s genesis begins with a note from Miles Davis to Gil Evans. It merely contained the musical symbols for “G minor” and “A augmented.” Davis gave the paper to Evans and said: “see what you can do with this.”
Others credit Evans solely with the tune. In a radio interview, Evans said that he had written the song, “the truth is I did [write the music]” Evans insists, “I don't want to make a federal case out of it, the music exists, and Miles is getting the royalties.” In response to Evans wanting credit and royalties, Davis wrote him a check for $25.
Miles Davis Quintet: A Band Supreme
The most famous band in Jazz was Miles Davis’ quintet. Beyond his ability to write and play revolutionary music, Davis’ other significant strength was his ability to assemble great up-and-coming musicians and nurture their creativity.
After a triumphant performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Columbia Records wanted to sign Miles and have him tour. The only issue was that Miles didn’t have a band.
He quickly found pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, but was missing a horn player. Enter John Coltrane.
We all know that this story ends with John Coltrane joining the quintet and becoming a pioneer in jazz music as well.
Having met Coltrane in 1947 and playing with him at a show in 1952, Davis called him in to audition. But, Miles wasn’t so sure about asking Coltrane to join the band. Davis felt that Coltrane’s sound was still developing. But the biggest issue was that Coltrane continuously asked Davis for direction.
Later, Davis said of the audition: “Trane liked to ask all these questions back then about what he should or shouldn’t play … to me, he was a professional musician, and I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music.”
Miles hired Coltrane for one reason: he was the only one who knew all the tunes!
Cool Cool Cool Jazz: The Birth of Cool
What makes cool jazz cool? Relaxed tempos and lighter tones. Bebop was fast and complex, cool jazz chilled bebop out. Miles was at the forefront of this movement.
Davis’ solo in Charlie Parker's song Now's the Time is said to have anticipated the cool jazz movement. But it was his album, Birth of The Cool, that brought it to everybody’s attention.
Recorded in 1949, it was a pivot point in American jazz music. The concept for the album came from the New York City basement apartment of Gil Evans. As much as Miles was at home on stage, he was equally at home discussing music, theorizing, and learning from others.
The musicians were exploring “new instrumental textures”, pairing horns together rather than pitying them against each other as in big bands. Evans was concerned about the composition of the band, adding a baritone saxophone, trombone, French horn, and tuba to the mix. As for Davis, his concern at the time was simply to play with a lighter sound, which he believed to be more expressive.
More Than Music: The Paintings of Miles Davis
Miles didn’t begin to draw and paint until he was in his mid-fifties. During a period of music inactivity in the early 1980s, he started creating art. His then wife, actor Cicely Tyson, brought him sketch pads and coloured pencils while he was at a rehab facility. That began a passion for creating art that lasted the rest of his life.
He began taking lessons from a New York painter named Jo Gelbard. A piece they created together appeared on the cover of Amandla, his 1989 album. Eventually, both Davis and Gelbard left their respective partners, and they became companions.
Cheryl Davis & The Legacy of Miles
Miles died in 1991. He left his estate, and music catalogue, in the hands of three people: his son Erin, his daughter, Cheryl, and their cousin Vince Wilburn Jr. The biggest question that confronted the three is how to keep Miles Davis in the public eye, even as his core audience ages.
With over 100 recorded albums, Miles’ output is prolific. Releasing previously unreleased albums and creating new box sets appeases the most hardcore fans, but they also want to capture new and casual fans.
Attending the SXSW music festival, travelling museum exhibitions, and partnering with hip hop artists like Questlove, Nas, and The Pharcyde have all been effective in keeping Miles fresh for new audiences.
The 2015 film Miles Ahead was another way to put Davis in front of new eyes. The film started and was directed by Don Cheadle.
Cheadle took inspiration from Davis’ musical approach. Like Davis broke free of the constraints of chord progressions, Cheadle breaks free of narrative structure. The approach to the film was not to produce a biopic, but to create a movie Miles would want to star in, using facts from his life, as well as fictional elements.
Miles Davis, Chef
Miles Davis loved good food but hated going out to restaurants. So he developed a passion for cooking at home. One of his specialties was chilli.
In John Szwed’s biography of Davis, he provides a list of ingredients for that chilli, though the exact measurements are not given - Miles liked to improvise it.
Thankfully, film critic Ron Deutsch took a stab at the recipe. If you can’t play trumpet like Miles, you can cook like him, here is the recipe.
Listen To Miles With Music From Calm Radio
Now that you know all about this revolutionary figure it’s time to listen to him.
We have a variety of Jazz channels that feature Miles. Hear his work in bebop, cool jazz, modal playing, and more. Happy listening.