Miles Davis

Born 26 May 1926. Died 28 September 1991.

jazz trumpeter, bandleader, songwriter

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Guy Barker chats to Craig Charles

Craig's joined by Guy Barker for an orchestral reworking of classic Miles Davis.

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The single most dominating figure in jazz for the second half of the 20th century, Davis influenced virtually every aspect of the music from bebop to cool jazz, from modal improvisations to free jazz, from funk and rock fusions to the dawn of the jazz-meets-world-music revolution.

He is regarded as the heir to the trumpet tradition pioneered by Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, and his style is characterised by a clear-toned beauty on his open horn, and the delicate shading of the Harmon mute which produces a pinched, nasal and immediately identifiable timbre.

Davis began playing in and around St Louis, and came to New York to study at the Juilliard School, which he soon abandoned in favour of playing on 52nd Street with Charlie Parker, replacing Gillespie as the saxophonist's trumpet partner. He worked regularly with Parker from 1945-8, apart from Parker's spell in drug rehab during 1946-7.

Davis's first great album was Birth of the Cool recorded by his nonet in 1949-50, with arranger Gil Evans and a number of other great talents including saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, trombonist J. J. Johnson and pianist John Lewis. Davis's own drug problems blighted his early 1950s work although he made some fine discs with Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver in his line-ups.

In 1955 he formed a new quintet with John Coltrane on tenor that became one of the leading bands of the 1950s. He was reunited with Gil Evans in a series of discs including Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain that pitted Davis's solo trumpet against a large jazz orchestra.

In 1959, with a sextet that included Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans, Davis recorded what is thought to be the most popular jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue, which uses modal improvisation.

In the 1960s he formed a new quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams that set the standard for the decade's small group jazz, and it drew him towards a freer approach to rhythm and his first experiments with rock beats. In the late 1960s with new bandmembers Chick Corea Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, he moved into a period of further experiment with free jazz and fusion including the discs In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

After a time away from the public eye in the late 1970s, he returned in the 1980s to lead a series of fusion bands, and to make a sequence of highly successful and popular albums starting with We Want Miles. He played right through the summer of 1991 at various international events, including - for virtually the only time in his career - reunions with members of his former bands, as well as a Montreux concert of his Gil Evans collaborations.

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BBC Reviews

  1. Review of Tutu

    Tutu 2011

    Reviewed by Kevin Le Gendre
    A work of engrossingly fraught atmospheres, and proof that Davis was still relevant.
  2. Review of Perfect Way: The Miles Davis Anthology – The Warner Bros. Years 1985-1991

    Perfect Way: The Miles Davis Anthology – The Warner Bros. Years 1985-1991 2010

    Reviewed by Bill Tilland
    Convincing evidence of Davis’ artistic ability in his final years.
  3. Review of Complete On The Corner Sessions

    Complete On The Corner Sessions 2007

    Reviewed by Chris Jones
    The final box set from Columbia, and maybe the most important. Modern music would...
  4. Review of The Very Best Of Miles Davis: The Warner Bros Sessions 1985-1991
  5. Review of Seven Steps; The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964

    Seven Steps; The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963 - 1964 2004

    Reviewed by Peter Marsh
    More cash flow issues for the Miles Davis obsessive as Columbia unleash seven CDs of...
  6. Review of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions

    The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions 2003

    Reviewed by Paul Tingen
    The sessions that spawned Davis's groundbreaking fusion album in their entirety, plus...
  7. Review of Kind Of Blue

    Kind Of Blue 1959

    Reviewed by Chris Jones
    Consistently rated not just as one of the greatest jazz albums but as one of THE...
  8. Review of Live at the Fillmore East

    Live at the Fillmore East

    Reviewed by Dan Hill
    a couple of seconds of this contains enough musical information to frazzle your...
  9. Review of The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions

    The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions

    Reviewed by Peter Marsh
    This was the album which convinced the purists that Miles had pretty much given up...