On September 28, 1991, jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis dies in a California hospital at the age of 65.
In an era when a pop star like Madonna is labeled a “chameleon” merely for risking an occasional change in clothing and hairstyle, our vocabulary may no longer be adequate to describe the nature of an artist like Miles Davis. In a career that spanned parts of six decades, Miles Davis didn’t simply evolve as an individual musician. He drove the very evolution of the art form he worked in, pulling much of the jazz world along with him as he moved from one new sound to the next with utter disregard for the critical or popular reaction. And though the reception to some of the directions Miles Davis took was strongly negative, it never kept him from pursuing new ones. As he once said of himself, “I have to change….It’s like a curse.”
Miles Dewey Davis III was given his first trumpet on the day he turned 13, and by the time he was 15, he was a card-carrying member of the local musicians’ union in Saint Louis, Missouri. He left St. Louis for New York City in 1944 to pursue a degree in music at Juilliard, though he immersed himself in the world of professional jazz while still receiving his classical training. In the clubs on 52nd Street in postwar Manhattan, a new sound was being born, and Miles Davis had a hand in its creation. As a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet in 1945, Davis played on some of the earliest recordings made in the hugely popular style that became known as be-bop. But by 1948, he was leading his own quintet on the first of his many departures from the jazz mainstream.
First came “cool jazz,” a highly cerebral and highly unpopular style that nevertheless sparked a whole new movement. Then came “hard bop,” a style he developed in the mid-1950s after several years lost in the early part of the decade to heroin addiction. The decade that followed was the period of Davis’s greatest popularity—a period during which he not only continued to break new musical ground on albums like Miles Ahead (1957), Kind of Blue (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960), but also managed to introduce the world to many other jazz greats he employed as sidemen: John Coltrane, Red Garland, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. From the mid-1960s onward, the rate of Davis’s evolution only increased as he went through periods of experimentation with rock and funk, among other new sounds. In a career that spanned parts of six decades, it seems the one direction Miles Davis refused to look for inspiration was backward.