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Through the second half of the twentieth century, few individuals have personified jazz as thoroughly as Miles Davis. Born in Illinois in 1926, Davis came from a prominent family led by his father, a dentist. A music teacher patient of his father’s gave Davis his first trumpet in 1935 and began giving him lessons against the wishes of his mother, who wanted her son to learn violin. In 1939, the family moved to St. Louis, where Davis was given a new trumpet and began to play in local bands; he also continued his studies with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal trumpeter Joseph Gustat. In high school, Davis played in the marching band, entered music competitions, and began to study music theory in earnest. He became musical director for the Blue Devils and, in 1944, filled in for two weeks in Billy Eckstein’s band. Later that year, he went to New York City to study at the Institute of Musical Arts but spent his time scouring Harlem’s jazz clubs in search of Charlie Parker, with whom Davis had performed in Eckstein’s band. He became a jam session regular in Harlem and, through the end of the decade, performed in various groups.
After refusing a spot in Duke Ellington’s band, Davis focused on his own project, arranged by Gil Evans, which became the Miles Davis Nonet. With this group, Davis advanced earlier solo ideas and developed the idiom of cool jazz. He signed with Capitol and recorded, through 1950, sessions that would be released as 1957’s Birth of the Cool. During this period, Davis’s heroin addiction influenced his decisions and he supported his habit through freelance work and short-term contracts. A one-year contract with Prestige resulted in four albums, released through 1956. A stint at home and in Detroit helped Davis recover from his addiction, and he returned to New York to record a series of albums. In 1955, Davis performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, where he was noticed by Columbia’s George Avakian. He was signed to the label, formed the Miles Davis Quintet, and toured extensively through 1957. That year, he announced his retirement—until collaborations with Gil Evans through 1962. With Evans, Davis’s music explored Spanish, operatic, and orchestral forms.
In 1959, Kind of Blue became the best-selling jazz album of all time and, despite Davis’s problems with the law, his sextet toured. Davis re-formed his quintet in 1963 and released a series of looser albums that featured improvised rhythms to match the soloists’ melodies. In 1968, Davis’s wife introduced him to popular rock and funk musicians, which inspired him to pursue an electric sound. In 1969, In a Silent Way debuted this new sound and featured Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin. Critics considered the album to be Davis’s “sellout” moment but, through 1975, he continued to blend funk and rock into various jazz idioms. From this period, 1970’s Bitches Brew would eventually be certified double platinum but became eclipsed, in the moment, by the early solo work of Hancock. He went on hiatus from 1975 until 1980 but returned and recorded a series of albums through 1991. He performed at international festivals and was featured on the records of other artists, including Public Image Ltd., a band that had been influenced by the evolution of his oeuvre. In failing health, Davis denied rumors that he was HIV-positive though, upon his death in September 1991, an autopsy revealed he had been taking medication to combat the disease. He was buried with his trumpet.