Miles Davis and the Jazz Age

Jazz History and Literature

22 April 2004

One of the most popular jazz musicians of all time is Miles Davis. Davis brought many new sounds and sights to the world of jazz. In his time, he had influence as an innovative bandleader, as well as a composer. Davis\'s pure sound was a major part of his unparalleled success.

Miles Davis was born on May 26, 1926. He spent his childhood years in East St. Louis. His father was tough, but seemed to have Miles\' best interests in mind. As for his mother, she seemed to be less understanding of her son. Racism was an inevitable factor in the times that Miles was growing up. Because white students got the first opportunity at a position to play, a status as the best trumpet player in high school was still not good enough. Davis\'s first job was with a jumping small band called Eddie Randall\'s Blue Devils. He was only 15 at the time, but this brought him local recognition. Davis caught a big break in the summer of 1944 when the Billy Eckstine’s big band came to St. Louis without a trumpet player. Davis filled in the trumpet slot and got his first taste of playing in the spotlight with a big-time band. Later that year, in the fall, Davis made his way to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Davis learned the teachings of Thelonious Monk. Monk had a great influence on him and motivated him to learn his rhythms, his dramatic use of space in solos, and his insistence on melody. Davis found favor with older musicians. He sat in with the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on 52nd Street. Davis considered his first recordings to be mostly inaudible. He felt that one could barely hear him playing in the recordings. Despite his insistence that he couldn’t be heard, he did a second recording featured himself with Charlie Parker. This recording took place on November 26, 1945, by the still unsure 19-year-old kid, who obviously lacked the agility of a mature musician. Davis faced some harsh reviews towards his early recordings, mainly the reviews having to do with his sometimes rusty and underdeveloped playing. Despite the early critics, Davis began tapping into his own original idea: a mellower sonority for modern jazz.

Two years later, at the age of 21, Davis recorded four of his own tunes for Savoy; however, this time Parker was a sideman on the tenor saxophone. Davis found a niche for his trumpet sound in compositions like "Milestones" and "Sippin\' at Bells." These songs were darker in texture than comparable Charlie Parker arrangements. Davis began to develop a distinctive voice as a player. This distinction was shown on ballads such as the 1947 "My Old Flame" and "Out of Nowhere," played with Parker. Davis consistently played with Parker between 1945 and 1949. Unfortunately, by 1949 he became irritated by Parker\'s "irresponsibility" to the band. Parker was eager to try his hand a different kind of music called "bebop.” Frustratingly enough, Davis continuously received comparison in ability to his contemporary Dizzy Gillespie. Despite such a comparison Davis matured to a point that he was able to do things that Gillespie only dreamed. By the 1950s, Davis possessed a blues sound so rich, it had a down-home quality. Gillespie was quoted as saying, "Miles is deep." Gillespie’s quote points directly to Davis\'s sophisticated new sound to modern jazz. Critics praised the vibrant tone of Davis, while criticizing the apparently thin tone of Gillespie. Critics and audiences alike said that Davis\'s music aroused an instant passion for the listener. Soon, Gillespie\'s music became a type of music that one had to eventually develop a liking for over time. With such comparisons to Gillespie, critics painted Davis as the more modern and aggressive musician with substance to fully become immersed in the music. He had passion.

As was the case for many musicians of his time, Miles also ran into a drug problem. Between the years of 1951 and 1954, Davis fumbled. He played less and less in New York, and he did not record as frequently as in the past years. Before the drug problem became too intense, Davis signed a