Born in Alton, Illinois, Miles Davis grew up in a middle-class family in East St. Louis. Miles Davis took up the trumpet at the age of 13 and was playing professionally two years later. Some of his first gigs included performances with his high school bandand playing with Eddie Randall and the blue Devils. Miles Davis has said that the greatest musical experience of his life was hearing the Billy Eckstine orchestra when it passed through St. Louis. In September 1944 Davis went to New York to study at Juilliard but spend much more time hanging out on 52nd Street and eventually dropped out of school. He moved from his home in East St. Louis to New York primarily to enter school but also to locate his musical idol, Charlie Parker. He played with Parker live and in recordings from the period of 1945 to 1948. Davis began leading his own group in 1948 as well as working with arranger Gil Evans. Davis career was briefly interrupted by a heroin addiction, although he continued to record with other popular bop musicians.
1955 was Miles Davis breakthrough year. His performance of “round midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival alerted the critics that he was “back”. Davis form a quintet which included Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and John Coletrain. In 1957 Davis made the first of many solo recordings with the unusual jazz orchestrations of Gil Evans, and he wrote music for film by Louis Malle.
In 1963Davis formed a new quintet including the talents of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter. The late 1960s sound Davis playing with a variety of talented musicians. Davis retired during the mid-70s due to severe ailments and an automobile accident. He returned in 1980 making new recordings and expensive tours. He received an honorary doctorate of music from the New England Conservatory in 1986 in honor of his long-standing achievements.
Davis playing Incorporated many styles, from bop to modal fusion. Oftentimes Davis was the victim of negative criticism because of his adopting sometimes unpopular styles of music, but he is most respected for being one of a few jazz musicians who continually took the music to newer and more creative heights.
The musical events Miles Davis created during his so-called electric period (1969-1975), are acts of constant exploring in constant willingness to push into the unknown, daring to always look forward and to not rely on any conventions or any of the safety nets of the past. The music is rebellious and its uncompromising intensity is uncatagorizable for its urgent flooding past genre definitions. Miles music of the five-year period is unlike any music that preceded it, and still, 30 years later, so original, so Progressive, and so inadequately described.
Its no wonder that with his transformation into electric experiment, Miles lost a huge share of the loyal audience who had been following his earlier career. This new electric music dared to shed a “jazz” sound to integrate the highly charged, youthful raw power from rock and funk. Ignoring barriers, this music refuses to stay in any “proper” place. Besides being multicultural, it makes an even bigger transgression: it is often unpleasant, assaulted, harsh, macho, eerie, and seemingly formless. Just as Miles Davis career is a continuous progression of remaking and replenishing himself, he has moved on and left his old self in the past decade.
This music is not useful as background music. It cannot be used in the same way the 30 years worth of Miles previous music can be used. It demands attentiveness. It is militant and arrogant. It is sometimes more a display of audacity and an assertion of absolute independence then a lovely palette to summon dreams. The dream is over. All the romantic ballads and pleasurable entertainment is history. With this sound he describes a new reality for which he invents a new musical vocabulary. He cannot waste time making things pretty and acceptable anymore. To the urgency expressed is not pretty in the community standards form of understanding, but it does contain aspects of pretty, lush, and soothing standards. It is just the context for all these elements have been radically altered, with elements of ugly and brutal arrays of emotions.
This music is on fire, crackling with effervescence and affirmation. It may not always be successful as public artistic expression, but it generates all sorts of emotions previously rained in and socialized. As a body of music, this period seems highest order with no concession for the audiences expectations or for presenting what the audience might be comfortable with. Despite the ignorant criticism of the time that Miles was selling out to the big selling rock market, this music is more real than real has ever been. You can question this mutant symbiotic merging of musical forms as a matter of taste, but you cannot question the integrity of its attempt at opening new emotive ground for exploration, declaration, and celebration.
Long out of prints or available only as expensive CD imports from Japan, the records of this prolific and fertile period of Miles career has, for 20 years, been the least accessible and the least examined. Columbia/legacy has now given us the opportunity of reassessing and catching up with this period of musical evolution by issuing five double CD sets of Miles music from this era, mainly live. The sets are beautifully packaged with a much-improved design from other recent Miles box sets re-issues. Photo spreads add to the aura by illustrating the substantial visual drama of these musical events. Touching an appreciative liner notes by musicians who played in the bands or are close to the music add to the package of sensual and intellectual pleasure.
On the earliest of the dates, Black Beauty and At Fillmore, Miles leads the band through much of the material that had recently been recorded in the studio as Bithches Brew. These lives interpretations stretch out with their cracked appropriation of the dance groove of James Brown, sounding more jagged and lacking the bounce and palette of subtle coloration of the studio versions. Seemingly out to show something to this new younger crowd, Miles playing an open horn is powerful and masculine. He puts everything he has into his long solo essays, opening his soul to lengthy and thorough examination. The sound and timber of Chick Coreas electric piano is jarring and unpleasant, but his playing is a revelation. His eager chord sequences that reconfigure vamps into startling voicings and his solo runs pull the group into new directions, toward a conception freer than before. The sound is still within the orbit of a chordal structure, but is less indebted to the traditional faith in harmony and melody.
Live-evil captures miles live at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. and in the studio from 1969 to 1970 with an assortment of musicians. This record may be the most cohesive and comprehensible of the five new packages, if it does not quite attain some of the intense fire grooves of the other sets. In concert: Live at the Philharmonic Hall is another step in Miles continuing evolution. By this point jazz based musicians have all been replaced with musicians who have come out of funk and the group sound is more focused to a driving groove. The simple, repeated bass patterns of Michael Henderson (former bassist for Stevie Wonder) are an anchor to the electric jumble. His subtle shifts commandeer the ensemble into new phases of musical explication. Miles plays a lot of muted and melancholy trumpet over the African tribal chant-like music, which becomes incantation and meditation on deep recesses of the human spirit. On Dark Magus all the effects, all the power and energy, still serve to create what Miles has always created: moods, atmospheres, and feelings. In this case, they are among 20th century musics darkest and most extreme.
Out of activity on all these sets, one comes away remembering fragments. Tunes and heads tackle long after listening. The affirmations punctuated the dailiness you walk through. The brooding sadness that Miles playing investigates is not often expressed, grasped or willingly embraced. It succeeds in evoking, of illustrating, of attuning us to deeper layers of emotion that many of us are accustomed to and, certainly, never heard expressed before in such a vulnerable and, at the same time, proud and effusive manner.
“Not to appear ungrateful to Columbia/legacy for the gift of these treasures, but among the devotees of this music is a swelling call for unedited versions of this material”, says Teo Macero. The post-production editing served his client Miles well by sensibly featuring his presence but, at the same time, erased many solos of the other band members and sliced away development segments. “In short, we would like to hear for ourselves the tooling around producers argue they are sparing us from,” says Teo. For a future re-issue, it would be terrific if Columbia restored the entire sets and give us a four CD package. We also need the complete live sets excepted from Live-Evil. These moments are important enough in Miles progression and the music of these nights is deserving of reaching the public. And the considerable legions of Miles fanatics are willing to dish out the money.
In addition to his playing and nurturing of excellent talent, Miles Davis was quite remarkable in his rare ability to continually evolve. Most jazz musicians generally performed their style early on and spend the rest of their careers refining their sound. In contrast Miles Davis every five years or so would forge ahead, and do to his restless nature he not only played bop but helped found cool jazz, hard bop, modal music, his own unusual brand of the avant-garde and fusion. Jazz history would be much different if Davis had not existed. If Miles Davis had retired in 1960, he would still be famous in jazz history, but he had many accomplishments still to come. In 1991 Miles Davis passed away, he was 65. Jazz lost a man that was more than a god.