Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Jazz Week,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Miles Davis started learning the trumpet at 13, and three years later he was playing professional gigs at a local music society, although his mother refused to let him officially join a band until he had finished high-school. Davis was from a wealthy ranch-owning southern family from Illinois, and his father was a dental surgeon. Although she was a music teacher, his mother is said to have hated the sound of the trumpet.
Davis attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1944 but dropped out after his first year. He left Juilliard with an impeccable playing technique and knowledge of music theory that would prove indispensable in developing pioneering jazz styles later in his career.
Davis’ musical style went through many transformations in his long career (spanning half a century) in an attempt to always remain at the avant-garde of new musical currents. Throughout his career, only his accessible lyricism remained intact, defined by a clear and mesmerizing vocal quality, the intimacy of which was intensified through the often use of a Harmon mute. In essence, Davis wanted to stay as true to the human voice as was possible.
After helping to establish the Bebop genre alongside the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie “Bird” Parker (with whom Davis had a tempestuous relationship), Davis vied away from the bebop scene and began to develop his signature sound, defined by its vocal quality and accessibility. “Cool Jazz” was the antithesis of Bebop, which produced somewhat incomprehensible bursts of music at impossibly high speeds. “Cool Jazz” wanted to bring the music back to the people. With the help of arranger Gil Evans, and several other like-minded artists, the Birth of the Cool(1956) was initiated.
Although many of Davis’ musical collaborators have been white (most notably Gil Evans), Miles Davis has been noted for his anti-white sentiments. For example, Davis’ departure from Julliard School of Music in 1945 was due to the educational focus on the white composer canon of Western music, in agreement with the widely used term “Dead White Males” (DWEM) in cultural criticism. As Davis wrote in Miles the Autobiography(1990): “I hate how white people always try to take credit for something after they discover it. Like it wasn’t happening before they found out about it. Then they try to take all the credit, try to cut everybody black out.” Unfortunately, the truth of this is undeniable and well documented in the music industry.
In the Jazz scene of the 1940s and ’50s, drug use was an unavoidable rite of passage. Miles Davis’ struggle with heroin addiction is paralleled in the life-stories of other famous Jazz musicians including Ray Charles and Charlie “Bird” Parker (whom Davis lived with at this time). Davis’ addiction to heroin was first made public in an interview with band-leader Cab Calloway, composer of “Minnie the Moocher” (1931), in a Down Beatinterview, something for which Davis never forgave Calloway. After this exposure as well as an arrest in Los Angles for possession, Davis moved back home to Illinois in order to recover from his addiction, but this was only the beginning of a long ordeal in which his own father had him arrested. After several false recoveries, Davis returned home to clean up for the last time and finally stopped using for good in 1954.
Miles Davis sustained injuries when two gang-bangers opened fire on him when he was sitting in a car with a woman in Brooklyn, New York, in 1969. He subsequently offered a $10,000 reward for their apprehension, but the reward was never collected. In an interview, Davis claimed that both assailants had been killed. After Davis was hospitalized and treated, he was booked for marijuana possession.
Davis’ album Kind of Blue (released in 1959), is the best-known Jazz album ever recorded. After going platinum four times, it is also the best-selling Jazz album of all time, selling four times the amount of the album that comes in second place on the list: Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock (1973).
Miles Davis made his television acting debut in an episode of Miami Vice titled “Junk Love.” He was cast as a pimp named Ivory Jones, who shoots the breeze with Crockett and Tubbs in his famously husky tones.
Miles Davis permanently damaged his vocal chords in 1957 when he shouted at a colleague days after undergoing throat surgery.
During a routine appointment, doctors suggested Miles Davis have a tube implanted to relieve his breathing following repeated bouts of bronchial pneumonia. The jazz legend was so outraged that he gave himself an intracerebral hemorrhage. Davis fell into a coma and after several days on life support, he died on September 28, 1991.