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Miles Davis

Chapter Summary

Miles Davis

Trumpet player Miles Davis (1926–1991) was a leading personality among the giants of jazz. He was born into a relatively affluent family in Alton, Illinois. For a short time in 1945, he attended the Julliard Conservatory in New York City.

Davis played with Earl Hine’s band, Claude Thornhill’s band, and Charlie Parker. Davis developed an important association with Gil Evans on recordings. It seems that no matter what Davis played on his horn it had a rather sad feeling to it. He played more scale-oriented rather than chord-oriented improvisations.

An Innovative Force

Of all the stylistic periods contributed to or initiated by Davis, it was with the cool period that he is most connected. However, Miles Davis was destined to be known not only for his contribution to the development of cool jazz. But rather he was an innovative force in the evolution of jazz. Davis always searched for new, fresh, exciting ways to play his music. He used amplification on his trumpet in Summertime from Porgy and Bess.

Around the 1950s, Davis’ music focused on a quintet for about two years. This quintet led to his sextet. He had started to develop the playing style that characterized much of his later work during the 1950s. His playing style used the softer tone of the cool era. He slowed down melodic activity and played fragmented phrases that left open spaces for the rhythm section.

Modal Jazz and Beyond

By 1958, his playing style used modal scales and slower moving harmonies. Davis suspended his melodies above the harmony. The result was a lack of harmonic movement that seemed to disassociate the melody. Davis successfully carried music through the transition from bop to cool and again on to modal jazz. The next recording would launch players like John Coltrane.

As rock began to dominate the pop music culture, Davis faced the dilemma confronted by most leaders in jazz. How to keep jazz relevant as its popularity dramatically waned. Davis addressed the problem by importing the energy of rock into jazz. Within the small group format Davis’ explorations led him to another stylistic breakthrough—fusion. In a Silent Way released in 1969 was the first recording to truly address the rock issue. Davis maintained his leadership as styles changed.

Miles Davis’ explorations in Jazz/Pop are more commercial than his previous work and some of the musical material was even drawn from the popular music scene like a song by Cyndi Lauper. Despite the new format, Davis’ melodic style is still recognizable.


Miles Davis was a maverick among jazz musicians. He had an ability to sense new directions in music and became known as a “stylistic explorer” in the jazz world.

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