As Louis Armstrong became a household name the world over in the decades following World War II, a new generation of jazz musicians started to create their own style of playing. One of the most renowned musicians to come out of this generation was Miles Davis, who would continue to test the limits of the jazz genre throughout his four decade long career.
Born in Alton, Illinois in 1926, Davis started studying the trumpet after a neighbor gave him an old horn when he was ten. He took private lessons and played in his junior high and high school bands and eventually got a job playing in Eddie Randell’s Blue Devils’ band when he was 17. He continued his musical education at Julliard while getting an education in the New York jazz scene from musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. After a year at Julliard he decided that the school was not for him and devoted all of his energy to a career in jazz. He developed his own distinct voice among the other bebop musicians of the time, characterized by a lyrical tone and spaces of silence between notes. In 1948, Davis teamed up with composer Gil Evans to record Birth of the Cool, which ushered in the new era of cool jazz.
From there, Davis went on to record several influential jazz albums such as 1958’s Milestones and 1959’s Kind of Blue, where he demonstrated his ability to write in modal form rather than with more traditional chord progressions. He was highly influenced by other contemporary popular music styles such as rock and funk and found ways to integrate characteristics of these genres into his playing. Davis really rocked the jazz world with his 1970 album Bitches Brew widely considered one of the first and very finest examples of jazz fusion – a style combining jazz, funk and rock – ever recorded. On this album, Davis gave highlighted the rhythm section, a group of musicians often neglected in jazz music up to that point, that featured both electric and upright bassists and several percussionists. The innovative nature of this album led Duke Ellington to call Davis the “Picasso of jazz.”
Davis had a complicated relationship with the earlier jazz practitioners, particularly Louis Armstrong. He appreciated Armstrong’s versatility, and told Nat Hentoff, “Louis has been through all kinds of styles…You know you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean even modern.” However, as Louis notes in Satchmo at the Waldorf, Davis was very critical of Armstrong’s performance style, claiming that he was pandering to white audiences. Davis tried to distance himself from Armstrong, saying, “I ain’t no entertainer, and ain’t trying to be one… My troubles started when I learned to play the trumpet and hadn’t learned to dance…they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them too, with grinning and dancing.” To demonstrate the difference between himself and this style, for several years in the late 60s and early 70s, Miles always faced away from the audience in concerts.