F21’s Black History Month Special: Miles Davis

Written by Luke McGavin

Frequency 21 recognizes a simple fact, that black people have had an incredibly huge contribution to music over the decades. This is not just in a particular genre, but across all of them. Since Black History Month is about celebrating the contributions that black people have brought to the world across the ages, it seems only right that we should do our part by releasing four profiles on four artists, one to be released every week. These artists have contributed to music by either being a trendsetter, key founder of a particular genre, or a role model to the musical world across different genres. Today we look back at the life of Jazz pioneer Miles Davis.

It can be hard to sum up the music of Miles Davis since he took so many different stylistic directions over the course of his career. Raised in Illinois and educated in New York, he went on to pioneer various developments in jazz that led to fundamental changes in the way the genre was defined.

 Davis began immersing himself in the New York club scene while studying at a performing arts school there, and was soon playing in bebop groups and mingling with other musicians. These experiences greatly influenced his earliest recordings, which adopted the frantic energy of the bebop style.

 A shift away from this fast paced sort of jazz categorised his foray into ‘cool jazz’ and modal jazz, two much slower and more relaxing offshoots of the genre which Davis explored on a series of LPs beginning with Blue Moods (1955). This period of his career produced some of his most celebrated albums, such as ‘Round About Midnight (1957), and Kind of Blue (1959), with the latter being the best selling jazz album of all time and an undoubtedly seminal record of the genre in its own right. Kind of Blue established an iconic sound, a meditative and subtly expressive tone dominates the album with Davis’ use of mutes becoming a signature of his style.

A shift away from this fast paced sort of jazz categorised his foray into ‘cool jazz’ and modal jazz, two much slower and more relaxing offshoots of the genre which Davis explored on a series of LPs beginning with Blue Moods (1955). This period of his career produced some of his most celebrated albums, such as ‘Round About Midnight (1957), and Kind of Blue (1959), with the latter being the bestselling jazz album of all time and an undoubtedly seminal record of the genre in its own right. Kind of Blue established an iconic sound, a meditative and subtly expressive tone dominates the album with Davis’ use of mutes becoming a signature of his style.

 Throughout the early 1960’s Davis formed several bands to continue his work in modal jazz, but also formed a partnership with the composer Gil Evans, which led to several more orchestral releases of his in this period. Albums such as Sketches of Spain (1960) and Miles Ahead (1957), exhibit more complex arrangements and influences of contemporary classical and Latin music are apparent. This period of collaboration not only resulted in some quality records, it also pushed the boundaries of what was possible in jazz, continuing to show the versatility of Miles Davis.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s marked a very distinct part of Davis’ stylistic development, as he started to take on electric instrumentation and entered into a phase of jazz fusion albums. Elements of funk, soul and rock were combined with jazz to create In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970) and On the Corner (1972) – a trilogy of LPs that exemplified the jazz fusion style.

Bitches Brew in particular showcases the jazz fusion style on an epic scale. It is a landmark album with dense layers of instrumentation, extended 20 minute songs that work almost as symphonies containing different movements, and the use of electric instruments that pushed the sound of jazz into the future. This innovation was essential to Miles Davis who wanted to incorporate the popular sounds of the time into jazz as a way of progressing the genre and keeping it relevant, much to the distaste of many jazz purists who saw this as the musical saturation of a genre that they held in such high regard.

Before and during this electric period, Davis was working with a young piano player by the name of Herbie Hancock, who reluctantly started using electric keyboards on Davis’ insistence. They worked together on In a Silent Way and On the Corner and after Hancock’s dismissal from the group, this experience of working with electric instruments greatly influenced his own musical development. He went on to further develop the jazz fusion style on albums like Head Hunters (1973) and Sextant (1973) which were massively critically and commercially successful, again changing the way in which jazz was defined by adding more elements of funk to the sound.

From 1975 to 1980, Davis went on hiatus due to his cocaine addiction and the affect this was having on his mental and physical well-being. On his return he ventured into various other genres including pop and electronica, as well as producing the soundtracks to several films. The end of his career is characterised by frequent collaborations, not only with other musicians but also several directors, cameo-ing in a number of feature length films and TV series. He died on 28 September 1991 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

What makes Miles Davis a musical pioneer, is that he was at the forefront of all the major changes in jazz, and constantly sought to further the art form by experimenting sonically and technically with the genres established norm for over 40 years. His innovations helped pave the way for so many other artists to flourish, opening up different avenues within jazz that had never previously existed. In this sense, Miles Davis’ broad scope as a musician means the whole musical world is indebted to his influence, as he spanned genre and medium over a prolonged time in a way that few other artists have ever done.

Listen to the 100 minute odyssey that is Bitches Brew below.

Credit: Driving a stolen car

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