I was born in a jazz-free house. My mother was an opera lover and my father listened to hard rock music mostly, so throughout my childhood, I never had the chance to experience the fascinating genre that I came to love later in life.
It was by mere chance that I discovered jazz. In my early twenties, I started working for a local booking agency focused on jazz and fusion. While working there, I was constantly exposed to old and contemporary jazz, so that’s how I started discovering and appreciating the complexity and intricacies of the music genre: the hypnotic jam sessions, the hectic drumming, the sudden changes, and the vibrant wind instruments.
Coincidentally, the booking agency I worked for organised the last European concert of the most influential jazz artist to ever exist: Miles Davis.
It was a cloudy evening. That night, Davis was accompanied by Deron Johnson (keyboards), Ricky Wellman (drums), Foley McCreary (lead bass), Richard Patterson (bass), and Kenny Garrett (saxophones). Legend has it that it didn’t rain during the two-hour performance of the band, but all hell broke loose as soon as Davis lifted his trumpet and left the stage.
That was the 24th of July 1991, and the concert took place in Castelfranco Veneto, a small city of 30,000 inhabitants in the countryside of northern Italy. The legendary trumpeter, the man who changed jazz music multiple times, would die a couple of months later at St. John's Hospital in California after suffering a stroke and respiratory failure.
The innovations that Miles Davis brought not only to jazz but to music in general still resonate today, over thirty years since he passed. The legacy he created by constantly pushing the boundaries of modern music inspired musicians across all genres. Today, Miles Davis is still considered a unique example of versatility, uncompromising creativity and passion in the music landscape.
Today we’ll look into the life and work of the Prince of Darkness, the way he single-handedly changed the way artists make music, and how his influence can still be perceived today.
Who was Miles Davis?
With a career spanning five decades and marked by unrelenting innovation, it's hard to describe the artistic life of this formidable musician fully.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in 1926 in Illinois. He started learning to play the trumpet at an early age, inspired by the creative atmosphere of St. Louis. In 1944, he entered New York’s Juilliard School of Music, where he started performing with some of the most well-known jazz musicians of the time.
From the end of the ‘40s to the end of the ‘50s, Davis recorded and played music extensively; he performed together with his legendary nonet, and in 1957 released Birth of the Cool under Capitol Records, his first major release and the one that led him to international recognition.
After recording and touring with his newly formed quintet, Davis released Kind of Blue in 1959, one of the most successful jazz albums in history. It was an instant success that skyrocketed Davis' career and made him a jazz icon.
Most musicians would consider this as the pinnacle of their career and start winding down thereafter, choosing not to explore new sounds but to stick with the ones that made them famous. However, that was never the case with Davis: the legendary trumpeter always tried to push the boundaries of his music. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, he released almost 20 albums while constantly trying to blend and transcend musical genres.
Some of the albums Davis released at the time were not well received neither by critics nor by fans because they were considered too experimental and hard to follow. Looking back now, Davis was way ahead of his time, and it took us decades to fully understand the depth of his innovation and dedication to revolutionise contemporary music.
Miles Davis took a hiatus from recording and performing between 1975 and 1981. When he came back in the early ‘80s, he was a legend looking for new sources of inspiration, studying the latest technologies and sounds and implementing them in his songs. This final decade of his life proved to be another crucial chapter in Davis' career, defined by extensive experimentation, collaboration with artists across all genres, and relentless creativity.
The evolution of the Prince of Darkness
His ability to reinvent himself and draw inspiration from newer sounds to keep his style contemporary is nothing short of extraordinary. I can’t think of any other artist, in any discipline, who could be so inspired and inspiring for five decades.
If you skip through Davis’ discography on any music streaming service, you’ll hear influences from all possible music genres, from progressive rock to ambient to ethnic music. The variety and complexity of his output are mind-blowing and proof of Davis’ fundamental role in shaping modern music.
You can appreciate Davis’ chameleonic approach to composition since the early stages of his career – the period that led to the publication of Birth of The Cool. With his first commercially successful album, Miles Davis brought jazz closer to classical music with innovative and intricate arrangements that were unheard of at the time.
With his early works, Miles Davis elevated jazz music and upgraded the level of complexity this genre could achieve. Accompanied by an incredibly talented ensemble, Davis managed to be on top of the experimental scene while enjoying commercial success for many years.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Miles Davis evolved once again and added the influences of rock, electronic and funk to his music. The result was albums that were often misunderstood or altogether ignored at first, only to become seminal works for the following generations of musicians.
An example is the fantastic On the Corner, an experimental album published in 1972 and largely ignored by fans and critics alike when it came out. On the Corner features elements of rock and funk music blended with Indian and African instruments, mesmerising rhythms and moments of pure genius.
It took listeners decades to appreciate the experimentations included in this album, which jumps from one musical genre to another with such nonchalance that it still inspires artists today.
In the final part of Davis’ career, which began at the end of his hiatus in 1981, his usual experimental output is alternated with more accessible works. Two major albums that define this era of Davis’ career are the Grammy-award winning Tutu, and Aura, the last album that was published while the trumpeter was alive.
Tutu divided jazz critics when it came out because of its reliance on drum machines and extensive electronic contaminations. Nonetheless, this work went on to become one of the pivotal jazz publications of the 1980s and inspired the newest generations of artists like no other release of the period.
The dynamic and diverse atmospheres included in Aura proved once again Davis' role as a music innovator. Released in 1989, the album contains soundscapes inspired by ambient and experimental electronic music while seemingly connecting the arrangements to his early works thanks to intricate and unpredictable jazz textures.
Leaving a Legacy
The fact that Davis’ last concert in Europe was held in a small city in the Italian countryside proves how far his music reached. A few days later, he’d be performing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, probably in front of a completely different audience.
Ultimately, what made Davis’ music unique was its ability to resonate with different cultures. His concerts were attended by fans of all sorts of music genres, from jazz to classical, to punk and electronic music.
His compositions never felt artificial and forcefully experimental. Since the beginning of his career in the 1940s, Miles Davis was always able to reinvent his style according to modern influences while staying fundamentally true to himself. He never tried to please his audience; instead, he chose to push the boundaries of his style until a bridge with a new audience was created.
To thoroughly examine the career of Miles Davis would probably require years of study. The way he pushed the boundaries of jazz, bridging the gap between seemingly unreconcilable musical genres, is something no other musician has been able to do since his death.
His legacy comprises artists who have an avant-gardist approach to music composition. American trumpeter Christian Scott is among those who have been able to reprise the work of Davis and push it forward.
American rapper and producer Kendrick Lamar stated Miles Davis was one of his primary sources of inspiration while recording his pivotal 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly.
Ambient producer Brian Eno cited Get Up With It as the album that inspired him the most while recording On Land, released in 1982.
Every genre Miles Davis touched in his five-decade career brought to life a new generation of artists who understood the importance of contamination and artistic evolution. The Prince of Darkness paved the way that jazz musicians are still following today: the ultimate testament to the creative restlessness of one of the most incredible musicians ever to exist.
Listen to more Miles Davis here.
Cover Credit: Bernhard Schmidt/Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.