Miles Davis is cool, but you knew that already. Disputing the musician’s coolness is more arduous a process than proving the moon landing as a hoax. Miles Davis is cool because he branded an album Birth Of The Cool and nobody objected; because he wore sunglasses in inappropriately dark settings; because under those shades his eyes could pierce through titanium; because he turned his back to audiences of thousands while performing; because he ingested every drug available in the United States during his lifespan; because he complained about an arrest for marijuana possession on the grounds that he preferred cocaine. His is a timeless, transcendent cool, always grounded in his art, even when dressed like the test tube baby of Ronald McDonald and Parliament Funkadelic. Cool was his ethos, his brand, his platform to cross party lines, to turn fair-weather jazz fans into diehards and influence artists as disparate as the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, and Prince. For any musician, critic, enthusiast, or curious listener, Miles Davis is required listening.
Miles Davis grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois and kissed his first trumpet at 13 years old. He was a professional within four years, cutting his teeth with the locals and sitting in with bands traveling through the city. Davis graduated high school and feigned interest in the Julliard School Of Music to facilitate a move to New York. His true intention was less academic. During a previous stint in singer Billy Eckstine’s band, Davis played with saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and essentially followed them to NYC.
A sophisticated, complicated approach to melody and improvisation called bebop was developing in the after-hours clubs of Harlem. Parker spearheaded this new language as far back as 1939. By his 1944 arrival in the city, Davis seemed late to the game. Truly, his timing was remarkable. In 1945, the Musician’s Union lifted a recording ban that had been in place since 1942. This same year, Davis replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Parker’s group. He was subsequently able to appear on some of bop’s earliest documents like The Charlie Parker Story and Yardbird In Lotus Land.
Miles Davis toured extensively as a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet, but road fatigue and heroin addiction began to wear on Parker. Davis left the group in 1948, having never fully committed to bebop’s virtuosic tendencies. Even on his earliest sessions as Parker’s sideman, Davis’ sound is distinct: Round tone, expressive phrasing, economical note choice. His deliberate approach is a foil for Parker’s flash, whereas Gillespie’s technicality often seemed to compete with the band leader.
After parting ways with Parker, Davis teamed up with arranger Gil Evans and a nine-piece band to conceive Birth Of The Cool. Bebop was Parker’s game, but cool jazz was the first of Davis’ innovations. Scandal came early, as black musicians objected to Davis’ use of white players in his “nontet.” Race was intrinsic to the development of jazz; bebop’s complications were in part a safeguard against white exploitation. Davis openly objected to Dizzy Gillespie’s pandering to white audiences, but he also disagreed with artists like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus who tended to only play with black musicians. Cool explored both personnel and ideas of black and white in its study of gray areas—between combo and big band, classical and jazz, improvisation and the written word. Birth Of The Cool was recorded between 1949 and 1950, but did not see release until 1956. Meanwhile, California musicians like Dave Brubeck repackaged cool as “West Coast jazz” and sold millions of records while the prototype incubated in Capital Records’ holding cell.
From Cool on, few movements in jazz existed without Miles Davis at the helm. Angry over the reaction of his brave interracial project, he aided the development of the blues-heavy, groove-oriented style “hard bop” in the early 1950s with albums like Walkin’, Dig, and Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. Relaxin’ is mischievously named; the uptempo “Oleo” is a rare example of Davis displaying chops, and the album features the consistently unrelaxed melodies of a young tenor saxophonist named John Coltrane.
Davis’ hard bop phase ended with the most fruitful envelope push of his career. In 1959, the Miles Davis Sextet produced Kind Of Blue, a patient set of five tunes, three of which did not exist prior to the pressing of the record button. Traces of previous works inform Blue—Cool’s elegance, hard bop’s depth—but Davis had never played with such conviction or conjured such powerful performance from his collaborators. Historically, Blue ushered in “modal jazz,” named for the simplified harmonic structures of its songs. But opener “So What” is not fantastic because it uses only two chords. The track excels because Davis, Coltrane, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, and pianist Bill Evans treat “So What” as the whitest of canvas, their solos as close to pure expressions of self as any have accomplished.
Kind Of Blue is the highest selling jazz album of all time with figures over four million. In 2009, Congress unanimously voted it to the rank of national treasure. Experimental guitarist Alan Licht considers it the beginning of the musical minimalism. Q-Tip compares it to the Bible, Quincy Jones likens it to orange juice. Most of its tracks fade in and fade out, as if the music always existed and never plans to end."