The Genius of Miles Davis: Explained!

Ransom Riggs

Ed Note: Sometimes it's hard to hear music as described on the page. Bill DeMain's story on Miles Davis and Kind of Blue in our latest magazine is wonderful, but we wanted to make sure readers actually got to hear the sounds. So we asked Ransom to remix it with any YouTube clips he could find. The following is a mish-mash of Bill's story and Ransom's writing, all enhanced with Miles' music. We're hoping it gives readers a slightly richer experience. Enjoy!

Music icon Miles Davis has long been revered as a jazz pioneer -- but what exactly did he pioneer? To some purists, jazz music can be broken into two distinct eras: Before Miles and After Miles. A student and bandmate of Bebop legends Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Miles' musical education took place occasionally at the Julliard School of Music but mostly in the smoky clubs of 52nd street, where he was trained in the esoteric art of "hot jazz," a hyper-complex, acrobatic style of playing torrential melodies at breakneck tempos. Miles was a quick study, but after a year touring as a rising star in Charlie Parker's band, he dropped out in 1958. Miles found that the "hot" stuff didn't speak to his soul; instead, he was captivated by the pensive, intimate sounds of pianist Thelonious Monk, singer Billie Holiday and composer Gil Evans. Their songs cut deeper and played more slowly than popular "hot jazz" tunes, and with those musicians' help and influence, he pioneered a style known as "cool jazz," which focused the genre's intensity into a laser beam of sound. Here are some clips that help illustrate the "birth of the cool," as music historians have dubbed it.

A quiet fire: the early years

From early in his career, Miles was obsessed with the idea that a single note could convey all the beauty of music.

That idea started to take form in his one-off recordings from the late 1940s, when to most Americans he was nothing special -- just another fast-blowing sideman who'd once played with Charlie Parker. Jobs were scarce and he drifted around, on the cusp of celebrity but not truly finding it until he moved to Paris in 1949, where he was hailed as a jazz god. When he returned to he U.S., the contrast was unbearable, and Miles' career almost went permanently off the rails. Broke, bored and frustrated by a lack of creative momentum, he turned to heroin -- a period in his life he would later call "a four-year horror show."

By 1954, the junk was threatening everything he held dear. Shunned by even his closest friends, he returned to his hometown of St. Louis, where he locked himself in his family's guest house for two months and kicked the habit cold-turkey. After that, his resolve to find a new sound grew stronger than ever, and his playing became richer. It was imbued with a deep loneliness and heartache that hadn't been there before -- on full display in his 1955 release 'Round About Midnight, which put Davis back on the map. Here's a clip from the title track, "'Round Midnight," a song written by Thelonious Monk:

On this album, he pared down his solos and found drama in moments of silence; Miles' "cool" aesthetic dominates the beginning of the song. Here, Miles trumpet has a depth of feeling and starkness that never errs on the side of sentimentality. (The clip is from a performance in Stockholm, 1967, and features Wayne Shorter on sax and Herbie Hancock on the piano.) He now had all the tools he needed to construct his masterpiece, Kind of Blue.

Miles' "Blue" Period

Sessions for Kind of Blue commenced on March 2, 1959 in a converted Greek Orthodox church in Manhattan. Together with his sextet, which included pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist John Coltrane, Davis was creating beautiful compositions spontaneously. He abandoned the usual chord progressions that govern jazz and supplied only outlines for his pieces. To capture the spirit of discovery, he gave his band vague directions: telling them to "play this pretty" or make it "Latin-flavored." After just nine-hours in the studio, they were finished, and the resulting album tracks are all first takes; "First-take feelings -- they're generally the best," remarked pianist Evans. Here clips from a few tracks on this classic album.

So What?

The five tracks on Kind of Blue may have been improvised, but they didn't come out of nowhere. "So What" isn't just the name of a song -- it was one of Miles' favorite expressions. Whenever someone would challenge him on an idea or decision, he would respond in his raspy voice: "so what?" You can hear his motto in the sassy two-note phrases that run throughout the song.

Freddie Freeloader

This tune was named after a guy who often tried to sneak into Miles' gigs without paying, and the groove captures Freddie's slippery personality. It also features what many feel are some of the best solos on the album, a part of Miles' musical legacy that went on to influence lots of other musicians; you can hear it in the free-roaming solos of guitarist Duane Allman and the keyboard works of the Doors' Ray Manzarek.

Ken has his say
Ken Burns' Jazz is a great film that has a segment devoted to the making of Kind of Blue. It's worth watching just for the interviews; the reverence with which critics and other musicians talk about Miles speaks volumes.

Miles: the later years

After briefly touring behind Kind of Blue, Miles set off on new adventures. During the next 30 years, until his death in 1991, he pioneered the use of electric instruments in jazz and experimented with rock, funk and pop. Some jazz purists felt that Miles went from birthing the cool to chasing it -- they point to his final album, You're Under Arrest, which includes covers (excuse me, "jazz reinterpretations") of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature". Check out this strange, very 80s video for "Decoy," a soul-electronica hybrid which sounds about as far from "Freddie Freeloader" as you can get while still playing the trumpet:

Despite critics of his later work, however, it could be argued that, having perfected his vision of "cool jazz," it was natural for Davis to move on to other styles and musical expressions. No matter: even if he'd released five Michael Jackson cover albums, Kind of Blue ensured he'd always be known as the Father of the Cool; it was moment in musical history when his spare phrasing and sense of melodic space found an answer to the eternal question: "What is the sound of one note swinging?"