Miles Davis (1926-1991), American trumpet player and bandleader, one of the most innovative, influential, and respected figures in the history of jazz . Davis was a leading figure in the bebop style of jazz and in combining styles of jazz and rock music. As a player, he was a master improviser (one who invents melodies while playing; see Improvisation) who played seemingly simple melodies with great subtlety and expressiveness. As a combo (small ensemble) leader, he assembled classic groups and allowed them the freedom to experiment and develop. The recordings of Davis and his groups have been imitated by musicians around the world.
Born Miles Dewey Davis III in Alton, Illinois, he grew up in East Saint Louis, Illinois. Davis began music lessons after receiving a trumpet on his 13th birthday from his father. Two years later he joined the musicians' union and began playing with a local band on weekends. About this time he met trumpeter Clark Terry, who helped and encouraged him. In 1944, after graduating from high school, he went to New York City to study classical music at the Juilliard School of Music. While there, he also began playing with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and other pioneers of the new jazz style known as bebop. In 1945, at the age of 19, he began playing in a combo led by Parker. The recordings he made with Parker that year demonstrate that Davis had excellent tone but an immature style of improvising. However, he refined and improved his style of improvising during the next few years with Parker.
In 1949 and 1950, Davis made a series of recordings with a nine-person group that appeared on the album The Birth of the Cool (1950). The terms cool and cool jazz referred to a slower, more subdued style of bebop. By the mid-1950s Davis had developed one of the most distinctive styles in all of jazz. Unlike Gillespie, the first great bebop trumpeter, Davis preferred simple, lyrical melodies to speedy, flashy ones. Using delicate pitch-bending (a slight lowering or raising of a note) and a light vibrato (a gentle and regular wavering of pitch), he created a beautiful and expressive style. Often he used the harmon mute (a metal mute) to get a pinched, quiet sound. In the 1960s he began playing louder and used high notes and quick phrases more frequently. Still, he maintained most of his uniquely beautiful playing style to the end of his life.
Beginning in 1955 Davis led some five- and six-person groups that were among the finest in jazz. Between 1955 and 1970, his various groups included saxophonists John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wayne Shorter; drummers Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, and Tony Williams; bassists Paul Chambers and Ron Carter; and pianists Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. The albums recorded by these groups, such as 'Round about Midnight (1956), Milestones (1958), Kind of Blue (1959), E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), and Nefertiti (1967), represented major landmarks in the evolution of bebop. In particular, Kind of Blue is considered by many to be one of the finest jazz albums ever made. His other important albums of this period include Miles Ahead (1957) and Sketches of Spain (1960), which he recorded with big bands led by arranger and composer Gil Evans.
At the end of the 1960s Davis began to make use of the electronic instruments, rhythms, and song structures of rock music. His manner of playing the trumpet did not change much, but his musical surroundings were dramatically different. The album Bitches Brew (1969) is one of Davis's first significant fusions of the jazz and rock music styles. Although many jazz fans disliked his move into fusion jazz, many bebop musicians followed his lead and took up the new style in the 1970s. His accompanists of the late 1960s and early 1970s included guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham.
Beginning in 1975 Davis experienced a period of inactivity and reclusiveness because of injuries suffered in an automobile accident and the subsequent onset of several illnesses. He returned to performing fusion jazz in 1980, playing with musicians such as guitarist John Scofield, bassists Darryl Jones and Marcus Miller, and saxophonists Bill Evans (not the pianist of the same name) and Branford Marsalis. Albums from this final period include The Man with the Horn (1981); Decoy (1983); and You're Under Arrest (1985), which contains recordings of the popular songs “Human Nature” by singer Michael Jackson and “Time After Time” by singer Cyndi Lauper. In 1990 Davis performed a leading role as a jazz musician in the Australian motion picture Dingo (1991). His album Doo-Bop, released the year after his death, was one of the first to fuse jazz with the hip-hop and rap music styles.
Since 1960 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has honored Davis with eight Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and three Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. In 1986 the New England Conservatory awarded him an honorary doctorate of music.