From the Archives: Miles Davis, Jazz Legend and Innovator, Dies at 65
Miles Davis, the trumpeter whose lyrical simplicity often reduced his audiences to tears but whose demonic habits sometimes overshadowed his genius for jazz, died Saturday in St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica.
Davis, credited by many critics with broadening the appeal of modern jazz more than any other performer of his era, was 65.
Pat Kirk, a hospital spokeswoman, quoted Davis’ physician, Dr. Jeff Harris, as saying his patient had died of “pneumonia, respiratory failure and a stroke.”
He had been admitted to the hospital early this month.
The ailments that finally killed him were only the latest in a series of maladies that had permeated his life. They included a throat operation for polyps which subsequently affected his voice, hip surgery necessitated by sickle-cell anemia, leg infections and broken bones, ulcers, gallstones and addictions to heroin and cocaine.
He was called both jazz’s only true superstar, for his wide appeal that cut across socioeconomic barriers, and the “Prince of Darkness,” for the distant elegance that was his persona.
In appearance he was short and slender with a delicate, almost feminine face, yet he was an athlete, a skilled boxer and physical-culture enthusiast who also admitted to having been a pimp and drug addict.
Aesthetically he was a trendsetter who crossed over from the freneticism of be-bop to the era of “cool” jazz to the realm of fusion and rock ‘n’ roll. And unlike most of his peers, his recordings remained in catalogues four decades after they were issued—testimony to his ongoing popularity.
Although he never used the word “jazz” to describe his music, it was impossible to separate him from the genre.
From the flea-infested hotel rooms and heroin-laden saloons he shared with Charlie (Yardbird) Parker in the infancy of bop to the synthesized melding of Latin rhythms and Afro soul, Davis was a jazzman.
But unlike most of the struggling artists involved in the post-World War II spawning of modern jazz, Miles Dewey Davis III never needed the money.
He was born the son of a dentist and oral surgeon who owned acreage in Alton, Ill., and a mother who taught music.
It was that financial independence, said his sister Dorothy, that made her brother able to “turn his back on people he didn’t like when he sensed a racial snub. . . . He always spoke his mind.”
While his father hoped he would become a doctor, a 12-year-old Miles gravitated to the trumpet and lessons in St. Louis.
He was encouraged to emulate the grace of Bobby Hackett and not the heated virtuosity of Louis Armstrong. (He would one day be called by his friend, the arranger Gil Evans, “the first man to change the sound of the trumpet since Armstrong.”)
“Play without vibrato,” Davis said he was once told. “You’re gonna get old anyway and start shaking.”
From that he developed a lyric, often melancholy manner of phrasing with expressive nuances. It was a sound once described as that “of a man walking on eggshells”; critic Ira Gitler described the tone as “a diamond cutting into opaque glass.”
Davis normally strived for simplicity, unlike the labyrinthine techniques of another of the trumpet’s acknowledged masters, Dizzy Gillespie.
And as time passed Davis became even less a radical improvisationist and more a thematic entrepreneur, unafraid to repeat and polish his ideas during his solos. Because of that drive toward melodic perfection, he was sometimes accused of having composed his impromptu reflections.
Davis, however, was so dedicated to extemporaneous performances that one of his sidemen, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, once said that Davis “paid us not to practice our solos at home so as to avoid the polish that makes even some improvised music sound boring. He always wanted it fresh. . . .”
After graduation from high school in East St. Louis, Ill., Davis insisted on going to New York, where he met his idols, Parker and Gillespie. At the urging of his parents he enrolled in the Juilliard School but spent more time hanging out in 52nd Street nightclubs, where a new sound called “be-bop” was incubating.
“Up at Juilliard,” Davis said, “I played in the symphony, two notes, ‘bop-bop,’ every 90 bars. . . . So I said let me out of here and then I left.”
He sat in with the bands of Benny Carter and Billy Eckstine and made his first records with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. From his association with Hawkins, Davis developed a taste for expensive clothes that in later years evolved into polka-dot smoking jackets, plaid pants and oversized sunglasses positioned under a head of hair most male lions would have envied.
He spent three years with Parker and from 1949 to 1950 made a series of recordings for Capitol. The nine-man combo played arrangements by Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and Davis. The records were reissued later as “Birth of the Cool.”
Davis’ group featured a unique sound centered around lower-register brass instruments with muted dynamics. This was to be a forerunner of cool jazz, itself an alternative to the frantic pace of be-bop.
But by the late 1940s Davis had become a heroin addict—some blamed Parker’s influence—and within a few years had become so debilitated he was unable to perform, although he did make a few recordings with Horace Silver, Parker, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey.
In 1954, despite what George Wein and most of the music world knew of Davis’ condition, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival took a chance and signed Davis for that musical gathering.
Davis came on stage and joined a jam session in progress, playing a muted solo on “ ‘Round Midnight.” Whether it was the performance itself or whether the crowd was reacting to Davis’ struggle with narcotics is arguable. What isn’t is that the ovation he received was so overwhelming that the trumpeter was encouraged to form a quintet that featured a then-unknown tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane playing alongside pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Davis’ phrasing now was even simpler—still concentrated in the middle ranges but with warmer tones and rich inflections. Davis’ solos often lagged behind Jones’ beat, contributing to a halting intimacy.
In 1957 he made the first of several remarkable solo recordings on trumpet and fluegelhorn and added saxophonist Julian (Cannonball) Adderley to the quintet. Such giants of the medium as Herbie Hancock, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley and Shorter later moved in and out of his quintet or sextet.
Onstage, Davis continued to draw accolades for his experimentation and his artistry, but not for his demeanor. Unlike most performers, Davis never played to an audience, sometimes even turning his back on the crowd while refusing to announce the songs he was playing. And he contributed to the distancing by playing from a modified crouch with his slender body motionless and his horn pointed toward the floor.
There also were times when he didn’t show up for his concerts at all and times when he showed up but walked off the stage without any apparent provocation.
“I play for myself and I play for musicians,” were all that Davis would say publicly about his antics.
In his 1989 “Miles: The Autobiography,” Davis confirmed his drug addictions and his often-violent episodes with women. He was married three times, the last to actress Cicely Tyson; that union ended in bitter divorce. He was imprisoned for nonsupport of one ex-wife and admitted freely that he could often be considered unpleasant, at best, to those around him.
“In my life I have few regrets and little guilt,” he wrote. “Those regrets I do have I don’t want to talk about.” How he behaved was irrelevant, he suggested. How he played was not.
He continually experimented, moving into modal music, which is based on scales and is a stark alternative to chord-based improvisation.
By 1969, Davis switched gears again and recorded a fusion album, “Bitches Brew” which sold 500,000 copies, considered exceptional for a jazz album. He utilized Fender bass solos and vamps and began using younger musicians like bassist Ron Carter, pianist Armando (Chick) Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette. He melded Latin percussionists into a blend of jazz and rock and amplified their work against a backdrop of tribal rhythms.
Yet even as he began to appeal to yet another generation, he abandoned that novel approach and revisited modal music and the cool school.
Then he moved through fusion and funk with occasional hints of reggae—even playing synthesizer on some of his records.
He segued in and out of the public awareness in the 1980s, sometimes for artistic reasons, sometimes because of a new addiction--this time to cocaine.
As he aged, the raspy-voiced horn player publicly rejected the “living legend” aphorism that was increasingly used to describe him. He said it didn’t square with his drive to stay in the forefront of contemporary, evolving music.
His eagerness to remain in music’s mainstream didn’t endear him.
In 1990, The New Republic critic Stanley Crouch accused him of “mining the fool’s gold of rock ‘n’ roll” in a reproach headlined “Miles Davis: The Most Brilliant Sellout in the History of Jazz.”
Generally, though, he was admired for his fluent and frequent shifts in direction.
“Perhaps more than any other musician in the history of jazz,” said Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, “Miles Davis changed directions time and again. . . .
“During every move, Davis took a sizable portion of the jazz community along with him, acquiring new musicians and new audiences to keep pace with each trend. Whichever of his many facets one admires--and few of his followers are neutral about some of his more radical moves—he left an impact that will last well into the next century and arguably beyond.”
In a 1981 New York Times interview, Davis--who is survived by three sons, a daughter, his sister and two brothers--was asked if during any of his physical and emotional crises whether he had ever thought about losing his ability to play.
“It doesn’t go like that with me,” he replied. “I never think about not being able to do anything. I just pick up my horn and play the hell out of it.”
In August, he was made a chevalier in the French Legion d’Honneur. Minister of Culture Jack Lang called him “the Picasso of jazz.”
In what could well be an epitaph, Lang said Davis “has imposed his law on the world of show business: aesthetic intransigence.”
Memorial services are pending in New York City and East St. Louis, Ill.
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