"I got five Ferraris to support!"
1926-1991. Middle class kid from the St. Louis area. He ditched Juilliard as a teen to play bebop with Charlie Parker. He was awful - unable to match the de rigueur trumpet bravura of a Fats Navarro or a Dizzy Gillespie - but Parker took a liking to him and Miles began to form his own unique style out of his technical deficiencies, choosing to cultivate a zen master's sense of sound and space and blues.
Miles' own recordings back then (the 40s) were hip; tunes like "Milestones" and "Half Nelson" were classix (though the actual authorship has long been disputed). He became, like many young beboppers, a junkie, and, allegedly, also a pimp, to pay for his habit (see: Mum's first impression of Miles Davis). Co-invented (with Gil Evans) cool jazz, with another hip 40s recording session - The Birth of the Cool.
He became, eventually, an ex-junkie, showing the obsessive's inner strength that characterized much of his career. Post-junkie, post-pimp, he helped invent the hard bop backlash to cool jazz in the mid-50s, with tunes like "Walkin'" and with the musicians of the first of his two classic Quintets, recording for Prestige and, starting a 30-year relationship, with CBS Records. This was the blossoming of Miles the Icon, a best-dressed, hard-headed, they-broke-the-mold Leader of Men and of jazz. It was also the blossoming of a young tenor saxophonist, the equally hard-boiled obsessive John Coltrane; his memory lingered on Miles' work long after his departure from the group.
Needing a new challenge, and a new uniqueness in the face of hard bop's ubiquity, Miles "invented" modal jazz, with the laid-back Kind of Blue and portions of Milestones, a new way of doing things, by eschewing the growing complexities of bop-based improvisation and focusing on sound, space, and melody; in this period, he resumed working with Gil Evans, resulting in orchestral-jazz best-sellers like Porgy and Bess, an adaptation of themes from George Gershwin's opera.
The quintet continued as a leading live attraction, despite changes in personnel; they worked the same bop/modal repertoire well into the 60s. To some, it was becoming stale, however great it still was - people like Ornette Coleman and Miles' man Coltrane were stealing his thunder by innovating beyond his now-mainstream stuff. Sam Rivers' short-lived gig as Yet Another Tenor Player Who Can't Fill Coltrane's Shoes was an inkling of what was to come - he was a card-carrying member of the jazz avant-garde - but in this period (documented on 1964's Miles in Tokio) there was, apparently, internal friction over how far Miles would allow the envelope to be pushed.
The second classic quintet started around 1965, with the ESP album: Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter (occasionally subbed for by "Gary X" or Buster Williams), and Tony Williams. They borrowed from free jazz ("time, no changes"), with the enigmatic, sour-sweet modal compositions of Shorter a guiding light. The recordings done at Chicago's Plugged Nickel give an indication of the odd dichotomy of hearing them live - the Same Old (pre-ESP) Repertoire, for the most part, but the improvisations veered into the realms of the avant-garde, minus the expressive extremes of a Coltrane, Albert Ayler, or Eric Dolphy. The band would set new standards for telepathy, able to switch moods and tempi at will, and this type of jazz would form the basis for Wynton Marsalis' neo-conservative crusade, starting in the early 80s. Miles became an "auteur", with a "name above the title" honorific: Directions in Music by Miles Davis.
Other LPs include Nefertiti, The Sorcerer (with a future Miles wife, the actress Cicely Tyson, on the cover), and Miles Smiles. The band recorded so much, that hours of material would not begin to be released until Miles went into one of his periods of hibernation in the following decade. Some of those recordings featured guitarists like Joe Beck and George Benson; Montreal guitarist Sonny Greenwich might have become a full-fledged member of the group, had he not had some green card problems. Miles had his ear to the ground, and what he heard was guitars and acid rock; he had five Ferraris (and some ex-wives) to support, after all.
Rock snuck into the quintet in dribs and drabs; there was the straight eighths pulse, and compositions built on one chord, eschewing the harmonic richness of the quintet's normal repertoire - since the players were free to go anywhere during their solos, the compositional context of those solos didn't matter as much anyway.
With In a Silent Way, the accumulated dribs and drabs became noticeable; with Bitches Brew, all hell broke loose. Something new had arrived, something later to be known as fusion. It was controversial stuff among jazz fans, but Miles was looking to a wider market, anyway - both to rock and to the black community in general, for whom jazz was not as big a deal as it was in previous generations.
The musicians from those groups went on to define fusion in different ways - the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Hancock's Mwandishi and Headhunters bands, and Chick Corea's Return to Forever, etc. Meanwhile, Keith Jarrett, who had played electric organ and electric piano, helped define the backlash to fusion, by switching back to acoustic piano, and leading acoustic jazz groups.
Miles went elsewhere, assembling "the baddest rock band" around, with the Bitches Brew formula devolving over the years into something hard, funky, and esoteric. He would sometimes use a wah-wah pedal on his trumpet; his style became more terse and brittle, and in later years, he would switch often to playing an electric organ to direct the band. Post-Hendrix guitarists like Pete Cosey were sometimes the driving force. Jazz fans became even more Not Amused at the concerts, and at recordings like On The Corner and Get Up With It.
Then he left, bothered by health problems (e.g. a bad hip), and, perhaps, with drug problems. CBS began issuing outtakes from the massive archive of unreleased recordings; VSOP formed, to help fill the void. When Miles came back in the 80s, it was kinder, gentler, more user friendly, with contemporary pop songs in the repertoire, like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", and tunes by Michael Jackson and Prince. But there was still great jazz content, with originals like the sing-song "Jean Pierre" (done on his Saturday Night Live appearance, while he was still noticeably slowed by the bad hip and rusty in his playing), and even "Time After Time" hearkened back to the 50s quintet's transformations of plain pop tunes and show tunes like "My Funny Valentine" and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top".
Miles loved boxing, fast cars (and fast women, perhaps), and fine cuisine. He was a not-bad chef and an "interesting" painter. You could learn a coolness thing or two from his wardrobe and coif, in any era. At his height, he was the Linus of jazz and black culture, and even in the last years of his life he'd still have you taking notes and thinking about your next clothes-buying spree.
He had a unique, raspy whisper of a voice; when Richard Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live, he did a Miles impression, and I wondered how many people in the audience would get it. The whisper came from an incident of Miles hotheadedness: he'd had some throat surgery, I think, or was about to have some, and the doctor told him to rest his voice for a while, and by no means should he raise his voice. But during some contractual dispute with Prestige Records (I think), he couldn't contain himself, and he got into a shouting match with one of the execs there. His voice was gone after that, and it became a trademark, with some of his recordings featuring chit-chat between himself and the control room. "Teo... Teeeeee-oh!" to his CBS producer Teo Macero, for instance.