A small-statured man in a fine suit, hunched over and silhouetted against a smoky backdrop — trumpet to his mouth about to play a softly muted note that no one expected but perfectly fits the moment.
This iconic imagery is what many of us imagine when we think of Miles Davis, and with good reason. He embodied and defined “cool” for an entire generation of jazz lovers, but the breadth of his musical legacy defies genre.
From his early years in the New York bebop scene, through two Great Quintets, an electric period, a musical hiatus and comeback, and numerous collaborations along the way, Miles Davis was a musical revolutionary far ahead of his time.
Throughout the 1940s, Miles honed his craft, performing with bebop pioneers such as Charlie Parker and Max Roach. He eventually grew tired of the genre’s increasing focus on virtuosic technique, so he turned his focus toward making greater use of space in his music, giving just as much attention to the notes that aren’t played as those that are.
It was at this point he began to use a Harmon mute on his trumpet and created the soft, whisper-like sound that would become his lifelong signature.
By 1955, he’d formed his First Great Quintet with John Coltrane on tenor sax, pianist Red Garland, Paul Chambers on the bass and drummer Philly Joe Jones. This group recorded some of hard bop’s most definitive albums, including “Round About Midnight” and “Steamin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet.”
Toward the end of the decade, Miles’ interests evolved toward modal jazz — a style that loosens the chains binding the improviser to a progression of chords and that Miles himself referred to as “a return to melody.”
His quintet was expanded to a sextet with the addition of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb replaced Garland and Jones, respectively. This is the lineup featured on Miles’ landmark modal masterpiece, 1959’s “Kind of Blue”.
Recommended Tracks: “So What”, “Flamenco Sketches”
One of Miles’ greatest collaborations was with composer and arranger Gil Evans. With Evans, Miles combined jazz, classical and other musical traditions to create a sound that was as rich in texture as it was unique.
Utilizing musicians from both disciplines and delving into classical repertoire such as Léo Delibes’ “The Maids of Cadiz,” this period between 1957 and 1962 would prove to the world that Miles Davis was far more than a great jazz musician. One of the finest examples of Miles’ genre-defying genius is “Sketches of Spain,” a record that celebrates the Spanish folk tradition with the music of Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla.
Recommended Tracks: “Concierto de Aranjuez: Adagio”, “The Pan Piper”
The 1960s would see the formation of Miles’ Second Great Quintet. With Herbie Hancock on the piano, bassist Ron Carter, Tony Williams on the drums, and the compositional prowess of tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, this group would further push the boundaries of improvisational music into a more open ended approach; one that would come to be known as “time, no changes.”
With albums such as “Miles Smiles” and “Nefertiti,” Miles Davis would once again be at the forefront of musical innovation. 1969s “Filles de Kilimanjaro” is the final album to utilize all members of this quintet. The use of electric bass and electric piano would foreshadow the next phase of innovation in Miles’ career.
Recommended Tracks: “Filles de Kilimanjaro”, “Mademoiselle Mabry”
As Miles became more interested in the music of rock and funk artists such as Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, he entered a phase in his career that would later be referred to as his “electric period.”
The heavy use of electric guitar and piano, synth sounds, and electronic effects on his trumpet would ruffle feathers among traditionalists, but the music was undeniably fresh and unique.
1969s’ “In a Silent Way” is an alluring, ambient soundscape that’s regarded as the first album of this era. “Bitches Brew,” released the following year, is the most popular record of this period and brought Miles a great deal of commercial success.
1972s’ “On the Corner” may be the most fascinating release of Miles’ electric period. Created with the goal of reaching a young, Black audience, the album was lambasted by critics when it was released.
However, the passage of time has led to this record being recognized as a truly innovative work that helped pave the way for other great forms of music, such as electronica and hip hop.
Recommended Tracks: “On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles”
Burnout and health issues led Miles to take a musical hiatus throughout the latter half of the 1970s, but he would return in the early 80s as prolific and creative as ever until the end of his life in 1991.
Bassist and producer Marcus Miller frequently collaborated with Davis, contributing to acclaimed albums such as “Tutu” and “Amandla.” This decade also saw Miles’ genius recognized when Denmark awarded him the Sonning Award in 1984, a distinguished prize that had previously been exclusive to classical musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Andrés Segovia.
As a result, Miles collaborated with Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg on “Aura,” a suite of nine tone poems that mix jazz fusion, ambient and classical impressionism into 60-plus minutes of genre-defying mastery.
As the final album released in his lifetime, “Aura” proved to be a true testament to Miles’ dedication to musical innovation.
Recommended Tracks: “Yellow”, “Green”
The scope of Miles Davis’ creative legacy expands far beyond the music listed here. From an up-and-coming trumpet player holding his own with Charlie Parker in the clubs on 52nd Street to numerous musical revolutions and completely reinventing what it means to be a jazz musician, the music of Miles Davis cannot be restricted to any one genre. His genius is worth exploring any day of the year and his birthday is as good a day as any.