In every artistic medium there are innovators who push innovation to the edge -- who change the paradigm of their art, and who become iconic figures within their world. Classical music had innovators in every generation -- Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Leonard Bernstein, and more. Jazz, too, evolved from a combination of folk and tribal styles through different eras (Dixie, Be Bop, etc.) into what now is really a true 20th century musical phenomenon.
The origins of Jazz have been much discussed -- emerging out of the African slave culture with a musical synergy of tribal (rhythm, scales, syncopation, and improvisation) and the European musical tradition of harmony, instrumentation and chromaticism. One famous musician noted, though, that jazz was uniquely American and that, "No America, no jazz. I've seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Africa" (Taylor, 1993). The idea of jazz seems simple, yet the actual concept is somewhat harder to define since it is really a conglomeration of many forms -- from Dixieland marches to Ragtime waltzes and even into 21st century fusion. Since Jazz evolved over several hundred years, more folk than formal, it was sometimes not musically notated until much later. However, there are characteristics of jazz that are important because they form the background of the topic, and certainly any study on modern jazz artists requires an overview of the paradigm. First, jazz is more a category of music than a specific set of harmonies or theoretical rules. Second, the patterns in jazz usually have a call and response pattern, much like tribal music, or improvisation. Many musicologists think that this is what separates the good from the great in jazz -- the ability to improvise. It is also what makes preservation of concerts in recording so valuable, because the performance is quite unique. For example, in Dixie, players take turns playing melody and counter-melody; in Be-Bop the players have an agreed upon key, but the rest is rather free form; modal jazz has no real notion of a chord progression but allows improvisation on a scale or mode; avant-garde and free jazz have very loose rhythms, chords and scales and sound more like pre-Medieval chants or Eastern music (Cook, M., et al., 2002; Gioia, 2006).
It is the manner in which jazz allows musicians of all types to hear music in any number of paradigms that helps make jazz strong and endearing. Certainly, rather than being limited to tonal Baroque rules, Jazz finds new ways to explore tone and timbre. Instead of being limited to whole and half steps, jazz experimented by moving into the tones in between, quarter tones and more. Many jazz artists just do this intuitively, and for musicians like Miles Davis, became a significant part of their unique style. Jazz, then, most particularly since the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, also helped to push the African-American experience to a more logical conclusion to the Civil Rights movement. Jazz welcomed desegregation -- it was about music, not race; and listening to jazz helped break down the color barrier as well. Indeed, after listening to Miles Davis at a New York club, another jazz musician commented: "Ah, yes, ain't that somethin'? We all came up with our own music -- and all using the same notes" (Mandell, 2008, p. 16).
Miles Davis (1926-1991) -- Davis was a bandleader, composer, and jazz trumpeter -- and also one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He and his ensembles were at the forefront of several major developments in jazz including cool jazz, hard bob, free jazz, fusion and techno. Many of the more well-known contemporary jazz artists played with Davis, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 noted as "one of the key figures in the history of modern jazz" (Miles Davis, 2006).
Davis grew up in two places; the Black East St. Louis area and a summer ranch in northern Arkansas. His father was a denitist, and the family relatively affluent . His mother wanted him to lean piano, but his musical studies began at 13 when his father gave him a trumpet -- Davis said probably to irritate his mother. It was during this time that Davis developed his signature style, a round, no-vibrato so that the tone is true and more "apparent" -- less hidden by tremolo or excessive vibrato (Mandel, 17-31).
Davis moved to New York City in 1944 to study at the prestigious Julliard School. This was a whole new world to Davis, who decided to stop out of Julliard because of its focus on "white repertoire," and spent more time in night jam sessions with Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Davis' career took off in the late 1940s and 1950s and became known even then as an innovator -- someone who heard things in a way that was new, marvelous, and exciting. His "Blue Period" (1950-54) was characterized by an increasingly harmful heroin addiction, a love affair with actress Juliette Greco who remained in France while Davis was in New York. While this period was full of personal tragedy, it was during this time when Davis began recording for Prestige Records, who encouraged him to take his displaced anger and put it to music -- which became Hard Bop (Mandel; Davis and Sussman.) (see also: www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5D6YX8jqN8&playnext=1&list=PLC185D2985024BC66&feature=results_main) . It was also in this period Davis gained a reputation for being distant, cold, withdrawn, and for having a quick temper. Among the several factors that contributed to this reputation was his contempt for the critics and specialized press and some well publicized confrontations with the public and with fellow musicians. (One occasion, in which he had a near fight with Thelonious Monk during the recording of Bag's Groove, received wide exposure in the specialized press) (Mingus, 1955) (See also: http://www.youtube.com / watch?v=gkkMX2IWnb8).
Davis spent the next three decades taking the style of sparseness, use of space, intense lyricism, all molded together with deep fire and morphing the disparate elements into various styles and techniques that pushed the boundaries for the listener as well as the musicians. Davis' music became brilliant and, unlike many contemporary composers who moved from the emotional to the intellectual, still enjoyable to the lay-musician. Davis collaborated with a number of the British "New Wave" school, including Scritti Politti. In the 1980s, she signed with Warner Borthers due to his unhappiness with Columbia, and was one of the first to use modern studio tools (synthesizers, samplers, and drum loops) to create a new and innovative setting for his music. In 1990 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, had already been featured on 60 Minutes, and even had a small part in the film Scrooged, staring Bill Murray (Remembering Miles, 1991) (See also: http://www.youtube.com / watch?v=yMqWHkvP_1s).
After another battle with addiction, this time from cocaine, Davis died on September 28, 1992 from a stroke, pneumonia, and respiratory failure -- he was 65. For years, there had been rumors that he was suffering from AIDS, something he and his manager denied, but he was taking AZT for at least the last five years of his life. He is buried in the Bronx, and his recordings continue to inspire a new generation of jazz afficianados (Davis & Sussman, 2006).
For many, Miles Davis epitomized innovation in jazz. In his listing in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, the editor wrote: "Miles Davis played a crucial and inevitably controversial role in every major development in jazz since the mid-'40s, and no other jazz musician has had so profound an effect on rock. Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style -- in attitude and fashion -- as well as music" (Remembering Miles, 1991). One of his albums "His Kind of Blue" was the best-selling jazz album ever, and on its 50th Anniversay, the U.S. House of Representatives commemorated Davis and his contribution to a uniquely American form of music (House Resolution 894 Honoring the 50th Anniversary of "Kind of Blue" and Reffirming Jazz as a National Treasure, 2009) (See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hB669XXjnUg).
From a musical perspective, Miles Davis was a creator and innovator, as well as a rule-breaker and trend shaper. His approach to music focused on individual expression, interaction with other musicians, and a continual evolving response to other musicians and styles. His performances were always original, and he pushed the envelope in transforming the style and "space" of jazz into the late 20th century paradigm. He never forgot his African-American performance tradition, and he was quintessentially a strong influence on everyone with whom he played, as well as his millions of fans who knew him only through recordings. One author describes it perfectly:
Miles Davis' artistic interest was in the creation and manipulation of ritual space, in which gestures could be endowed with…