With a career spanning several decades, and an influence spanning several continents, Miles Davis has arguably had a bigger influence on jazz music than any other musician. In the 1991 obituary in The New York Times, Miles Davis was described as an "an elusive touchstone of jazz," and someone who "defined cool," (Pareles). Davis' album The Birth of the Cool makes his name not just symbolically associated with the quality of coolness, but actually a synonym of the birth of cool jazz -- a specific genre of jazz that originally and bravely broke from established big band and be-bop traditions to enter the realm of the avant-garde via improvisation and experimentation. Jazz was forever transformed via Miles Davis' contributions and his musical legacy as composer and trumpet master.
Davis was born in Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926. His upbringing was "middle class," and he was exposed to music early in his life at the urging of both his parents (Kirker). Davis' early music experiences and trumpet lessons had a large impact on him, as one of his teachers "advised Miles to develop a straight, vibratoless tone, unlike popular trumpeters of the period like Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge," (Kirker). Miles' early tutelage in trumpet was then enhanced with a formal education at the Juilliard School, where he was accepted in 1944.
However, Miles would drop out of Juillard after he met Charlie Parker. The meeting between Davis and Parker was as cataclysmic for the world of music as a meteor hitting the planet. Even after Parker and Davis parted ways, the impact the former had on the latter and the confidence this alliance gave Davis ensured that Miles Davis would revolutionize American music.
Davis was "the personification of restless spirit, always pushing himself and his music into uncharted territory," ("Miles Davis: Miles' Styles."). He branded cool jazz, without completely discarding the musical phrasing, instrumentation, and style of be-bop. Davis later fused funk, rock, and jazz into something quintessentially Miles Davis. His experimentation and composition transcended his trumpet mastery.
Impact on Modern Jazz
Davis was responsible for developing new genres of jazz, making him one of the most important contributors to music in general. He worked not just as an instrumentalist and composer but also as "visionary and organizer," (Kirker). Although Davis pushed many different types of musical boundaries, it was particularly with cool jazz and jazz fusion that Davis left his most significant and popular legacies.
Davis did more than give birth to new types of jazz music as a composer; as a trumpet player Davis also rebranded the instrument. The trumpet as a lead instrument was forever changed after Miles Davis, who baffled critics with his "glaring defects" such as missed and cracked notes that somehow seemed irrelevant (Walser 343). In spite of technical "mistakes," Miles Davis' trumpet solos "have been models for generations of jazz musicians," (Pareles). This is largely because Davis defined his musical career by stepping beyond rigid boundaries -- boundaries that he understood but deliberately stretched. As Davis himself put it, "in order for me to play a note it has to sound good to me…music is about style," (70). Davis impacted modern jazz by permitting greater freedom of expression, allowing for and encouraging improvisation and breaking the rules of traditional musical structure, sound, and composition.
Davis' on-stage persona and performances also proved mystifying from a critical standpoint, as he redefined the relationship between jazz musician and audience. Miles "spoke little onstage, never announced his musicians or the names of the times that were played, and often played with his back to the audience and then left the stage while others were soloing," ("Miles Davis and John Coltraine"). Davis therefore had an impact on the whole character of modern jazz -- which is beyond musical phrasing and compositional styles.
Davis was no stranger to controversy and revolution. In his autobiography, Miles Davis points out the huge impact his cool jazz had on the audiences, and on the culture in general. Issues related to race emerged, too. "A lot of white people…didn't like what was going on…they didn't understand what was happening with the music. They thought they were being invaded by niggers from Harlem, so there was a lot of racial tension around bebop," (67).
One of Davis' most renowned legacies was his vision to fuse different types of music with jazz, something that was revolutionary in the 1960s. Davis started playing with musicians using electric instruments, like guitarist George Benson and later, John McLaughlin. Funk music also made its way into Miles Davis compositions and performances. "Drawn to the music of James Brown and Sly Stone, and he began to use driving funk rhythms in his own music," ("Miles Davis: Miles' Styles."). Davis' work with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and other fusion luminaries forever transformed the soundscape of jazz music.
Musical Examples from the Davis Collection
The Miles Davis signature bebop and cool jazz sounds are epitomized by albums recorded in the 1950s and 1960s such as Milestones and especially Kind of Blue. These are accomplished jazz albums that ironically sound traditional in light of what Davis would go on to accomplish over the next few decades. However, listening to Kind of Blue in light of its contemporaries reveals a signature Davis sound that permeates the recording. The 1967 album Miles in the Sky highlights the first time Davis started fusing rock and jazz. Then, Davis put out a series of experimental, "free jazz" albums that showcase his restless spirit and hunger for new sounds. These recordings include ESP and Nefertiti, which draw from the trends in psychedelic rock music of introducing world music sounds like Indian and Arabic scales into the American jazz repertoire. The seed of jazz fusion was firmly planted in 1969, when Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul recorded In a Silent Way. However, the biggest contribution of Miles Davis to modern jazz -- actually, modern music in general -- is Bitches Brew. As Tingen puts it, the "hypnotic grooves, rooted in rock and African music, heralded a dramatic new musical universe." The album has also been referred to as a "watershed" moment for jazz (Tingen).
Other Musicians Influenced by Davis
Miles Davis has likely influenced every jazz trumpet player that came after him, at least on some level. His willingness to play beyond the confines of classical trumpet playing bore out a whole new generation of musicians who interpreted the instrument differently -- just as Jimi Hendrix would do with the electric guitar. In fact, Davis at one point during his embrace of rock music electrified his trumpet and even added wah pedals and other effects (Pareles).
Davis' legacy is beyond one instrument, though. With his visionary and unconventional approach to musical composition and willingness to experiment with musicians from vastly different backgrounds, Miles Davis left a strong legacy on all boundary-pushing players. The most obvious and direct influences of Miles Davis include the people he worked with when he was making Bitches Brew. Davis worked with the musicians who would later form fusion bands Weather Report (such as Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter) as well as the musicians who formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra (such as John McLaughlin). These jazz fusion bands would in turn have a tremendous impact on rock music, leading to the proliferation of progressive/prog-rock in the early to mid-1970s. Bands like Yes and Rush are just a few of the top-40 examples of bands that owe some tribute to the great Miles Davis. Some of the musicians that Miles Davis worked with throughout his career, like Herbie Hancock, were also visionary and experimental in their own right, even as they were influenced heavily by the music and character of Davis. By the time Davis died in 1991, he had…