In celebration of Black History Month, we are running a series of short articles featuring influential black musicians.
His raspy voice, his intense and mercurial personality, and possibly, his personal tumult – all of these made Miles Davis “The Prince of Darkness” in the jazz scene. Davis had enormous influence on the world of jazz, and was at the forefront of at least six genres of jazz. He was the son of affluent parents, and his mother had a passion for music; she saw in her son a future blues pianist. Embracing the trumpet instead, though, he made it into Juilliard, then dropped out to replace Dizzie Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band.
Miles Davis was a consummate innovator, and his career spawned so many musical gems and several different subgenres that it’s hard to select just a few to focus on. ‘Round Midnight was the performance that brought his band a record contract, and his album of the same name brought him accolades and some fame. The album explored improvisation around a mode or scale, rather than the chord progressions seen in bebop. Kind of Blue was recorded in two days, released in 1964, and endures as one of the great classics of the jazz canon. In the later ’60s, he drew from the fast paced rock and roll he heard from Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone to release Bitches Brew, a project that took countless takes and edits, again breaking from jazz tradition by compiling multiple takes and overdubs, rather than releasing single live recordings.
Davis supported the Black Power movement, and was active in the civil rights movement to the extent that he fundraised for the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC. He considered jazz to be an accomplishment owned by Black America, and was critical of his heroes, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, for their willingness to entertain and pander to white crowds. Davis himself was known to turn his back to audiences regardless of who was in it, in part so he could better hear himself play, and in part to separate himself from the crowds.
Davis had a tumultuous personal life, having married a divorced a couple of times and struggled with drugs later in life. He also had a sharp dry wit. He attended a White House dinner during the Reagan years, and was one of the few black artists at the event; when Nancy Reagan asked him what he was known for, he replied, “Well, I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. What have you done except fuck the president?”
Davis’s records are available in all formats, including on YouTube, and I recommended them as an soundtrack for recovering after a long day of fighting fascism (you can also watch the trailer for Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s well-received biopic of Davis from last spring and read Jonathan Pirro’s review of it here).