What is cool? At its very essence, cool is all about what’s happening next. In popular culture, what’s happening next is a kaleidoscope encompassing past, present and future: that which is about to happen may be cool, and that which happened in the distant past may also be cool. This timeless quality, when it applies to music, allows minimalist debate – with few exceptions, that which has been cool will always be cool.
For nearly six decades, Miles Davis has embodied all that is cool – in his music (and most especially jazz), in his art, fashion, romance, and in his international, if not intergalactic, presence that looms strong as ever today.
2006 – The year in which Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on March 13th – is a landmark year, commemorating the 80th anniversary of his birth on May 26, 1926, and the 15th anniversary of his death on September 28, 1991. In between those two markers is more than a half-century of brilliance – often exasperating, brutally honest with himself and to others, uncompromising in a way that transcended mere intuition.
In carrying out what always seemed like a mission, Miles Dewey Davis III – musician, composer, arranger, producer, and band leader – was always in the right place at the right time, another defining aspect of cool. Born in Alton, Illinois, and raised in East St. Louis, where his father was a dentist, Miles was given his first trumpet at age 13. A child prodigy, his mastery of the instrument accelerated as he came under the spell of older jazzmen Clark Terry, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and others who passed through. He accepted admission to the Juilliard School in 1944, but it was a ruse to get to New York and hook up with Bird and Diz. Miles was 18. Cool.
Within a year, he accomplished his goal. He can be heard on sessions led by Parker that were released on Savoy in 1945 (with Max Roach), ’46 (with Bud Powell), ’47 (with Duke Jordan and J.J. Johnson), and ’48 (with John Lewis). In 1947, the Miles Davis All-Stars (with Bird, Roach, Lewis, and Nelson Boyd) debuted on Savoy. His years on 52nd Street during the last half of the 1940s brought him into the bop orbit of musicians whose legends he would share before he was 25 years old.
At the turn of the decade into 1950, as Miles led his first small groups, an association with Gerry Mulligan and arranger Gil Evans ushered in The Birth of the Cool (Capitol), a movement that challenged the dominance of bebop and hard-bop. Miles’ subsequent record dates as leader in the early ’50s (on Blue Note, then Prestige) helped introduce Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, and Percy Heath, among many others, establishing Miles’ role as the premier jazz talent scout for the rest of his career.
An historic set at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 resulted in George Avakian signing Miles to Columbia Records, and led to the formation of his so-called “first great quintet,” featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones (the ’Round About Midnight sessions). Miles’ 30 years at Columbia was one of the longest exclusive signings in the history of jazz, and one that spanned at least a half-dozen distinct generations of changes in the music – virtually all of which were anticipated or led by Miles or his former sidemen.
Over the course of those 30 years, service with Miles became an imprimatur for the Who’s Who of jazzmen. Kind Of Blue, undisputedly the coolest jazz album ever recorded, was done in 1959 with the second edition of Miles’ “first great quintet” – principally Coltrane, Chambers, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb – who stayed together until 1961.
After several intermediate groups (which featured such giants as Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Victor Feldman, and George Coleman), Miles’ “second great quintet” slowly coalesced over 1963-64, into the lineup of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (who was 17 years old when he joined Miles). They recorded with producer Teo Macero and toured around the world together until 1968, achieving artistic and commercial success that was unprecedented in modern jazz.
1968 was a cataclysmic year of sea change for Miles and for America, a year of upheaval – the escalation of the war in southeast Asia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the rise of the Black Power movement were among the factors that pushed Miles’ music toward a more insistent electric (amplified) pulse. At the same time, Miles dug the triple-whammy he heard in the music of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone. What began in 1968 with Miles’ quintet quietly adopting electric piano and guitar, blew up into a full-scale rock band sound on 1969’s breakthrough double-LP Bitches Brew (which landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone, the first jazzman to appear on the magazine’s front-page. Very cool.)
At the core of Bitches Brew, whose sessions took place the week after the Woodstock festival in August 1969, there was the final small group known as the “third great quintet” – Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette – augmented by John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Joe Zawinul, Bennie Maupin, Steve Grossman, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Don Alias, Airto Moreira, Harvey Brooks, and former quintet members Hancock and Carter.
Six months later in February 1970, Miles kicked off the Jack Johnson sessions, shuffling many of those same players over the next two months, plus Sonny Sharrock, Steve Grossman, Michael Henderson, Keith Jarrett and others. In no uncertain terms, the jazz-rock fusion movement had been launched full-tilt, and the spirit of Miles permeated the three dominant bands who rocked the stages (as he did) of the Fillmores East and West (et alia) through the ’70s and beyond – Weather Report, Return To Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
His freewheeling lifestyle and high-energy forays into funk and R&B grooves somehow dovetailed with a period of declining health in the early ’70s, until Miles finally went underground in 1975, after playing (what turned out to be) his final gig at New York’s Central Park Music Festival that summer. A series of live LPs (domestic and imported from Japan) and other archival releases from the ’50s and ’60s were made available over the next five years to fill the void.
Into the ’80s, Miles’ reputation as talent scout extraordinaire went unquestioned. He surfaced stronger than ever in 1981 on The Man With the Horn with a top-tier lineup of young players – Mike Stern, Marcus Miller, Bill Evans (no relation), Al Foster, and Mino Cinelu (all of whom went on to successful careers). It was Miles’ first LP to skirt the Billboard album chart’s Top 50 since Bitches Brew, and the band was recorded live for the follow-up double-LP, 1982’s We Want Miles. They remained stable (abetted by John Scofield) in 1983 on Star People. The lineup then morphed on 1984’s Decoy, as Miller was replaced by Daryll ‘Munch’ Jones, Robert Irving III was added on synthesizers and programming, and Branford Marsalis shared saxophone parts with Evans.
Miles’ final album for Columbia Records was released in 1985, the cryptically titled You’re Under Arrest. It (re)-introduced Miles’ nephew Vince Wilburn into the lineup (he played briefly on The Man With the Horn), as Bob Berg took over the big chair from Evans and Marsalis. The album debuted two ballads that would be staples of Miles’ performances for the rest of his career, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
The following year, Miles began recording for Warner Bros., a prolific period that yielded one new album every year (the first four co-produced with Marcus Miller): Tutu (1986), Music From Siesta (1987, a film soundtrack collaboration with Miller), Live Around the World (1988), Amandla (1989), Dingo (1990, an orchestral collaboration with Michel Legrand), and his final studio album. the hip-hop informed Doo-Bop (1991), whose title tune gave Miles a posthumous Rap/R&B hit single in 1992.
“Miles Dewey Davis III – trumpeter, visionary, and eternal modernist – was a force of nature,” wrote Ashley Kahn (author of Kind Of Blue: The Making Of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, Da Capo, 2000) in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame dinner journal on the occasion of Miles’ induction. “With an ear that disregarded categories of style, he sought out new musical worlds, and generations followed in his footsteps. While the creative rush and experimental charge that come to most musicians in youth eventually run down, Davis held an exploratory edge for most of his 65 years. It had to be fresh, or forget it.”
Beyond his defiant stance, his piercing glare, his amorous conquests and one-of-a-kind fashion statements – there was and always will be one eternal truth: the music of Miles Davis.
In 1996, five years after his death, Columbia/Legacy issued the first deluxe multi-disc box set in The Miles Davis Series, the 6-CD Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, (collaborations from 1957-’68). It went on to win three Grammy Awards – Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes, and Best Recording Package (Boxed) – the second of only three times in Grammy history that trifecta was ever achieved.
Legacy’s Miles Davis Series was unofficially inaugurated in 1997 with five double-CD live digipaks, including Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West (April 1970, when Steve Grossman replaced Wayne Shorter) and Miles Davis at Fillmore (at the New York venue, June 1970, with Keith Jarrett in the new lineup), along with In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall (New York, September 1972); Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall (New York, March 1974); and Live-Evil (New York, February & June 1970; and Washington, DC, December 1970).
1998 brought the next two box sets: the Grammy Award-winning 6-CD Miles Davis Quintet 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings; and the Grammy Award-winning 4-CD Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (of 1969-’70). The fourth box set was issued in 2000, the 6-CD Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961, which won two Grammy Awards, for Best Boxed Recording Package and Best Album Notes.
In 2001, one decade after his death – and in honor of his 75th birthday celebration – Legacy formally (re-)launched The Miles Davis Series, with the original motion picture soundtrack album for Columbia Pictures’ Finding Forrester (starring Sean Connery and directed by Gus Van Sant), consisting almost entirely of Miles Davis music. Five new digitally remastered titles followed: ‘Round About Midnight (with four bonus tracks from the original 1955-56 sessions, not heard on the original 1957 LP); Milestones (with all three known alternate takes from the 1958 LP sessions); Miles Davis At Newport (the full-length performance from the 1958 jazz festival); Jazz At The Plaza (also from 1958, unreleased until 1973, but out-of-print for nearly two decades); and Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Best Of The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961, a single-CD of tracks from the box set.
Later on in 2001 came The Essential Miles Davis, the double-CD 23-track collection gathered from the discographies of the six companies for whom Miles did his most important recordings (Savoy, Capitol, Prestige, Blue Note, Columbia, and Warner Bros.). The Columbia archives then surrendered a live concert treasure long considered to be a crucial ‘missing link’ in the Miles Davis iconography, with the release of the double-CD It’s About That Time: Miles Davis Live At Fillmore East (March 7, 1970). It was followed – on the fateful in-store day of September 11, 2001 – by the triple-CD box set The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, covering those 1967-’69 dates. In 2002, the three albums that came out of those sessions were restored, the classic In A Silent Way, and expanded editions of Filles De Kilimanjaro and Water Babies.
The Miles Davis Series returned in 2003, with the 5-CD box set The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, chronicling those February-June 1970 studio dates that introduced John McLaughlin. (The resulting album, 1971’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson, was reissued in January 2005, in conjunction with the Ken Burns PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson.) Meanwhile, August 2004 brought the sixth box set, the 7-CD Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Miles Davis 1963-1964, the largest volume ever produced in the series.
In 2005, Legacy commemorated the 50th anniversary year of Miles’ original signing to Columbia in 1955, starting with the timely (February) release of My Funny Valentine for the first time on CD in the U.S. (recorded February 1964 at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall in New York). One week later came the ‘DualDisc’ configuration of Kind Of Blue, with the CD side containing the original album plus its only existing alternate take (“Flamenco Sketches”), and the DVD side containing a 25-minute mini-documentary, Made In Heaven.
As with its predecessor, the Seven Steps box set ‘broke out’ several titles as newly expanded editions in March 2005: Seven Steps To Heaven, Miles Davis In Europe, Four & More (the follow-up to My Funny Valentine), and Miles In Tokyo and Miles In Berlin (both issued for the first-time in the U.S.). May brought ’Round About Midnight: Legacy Edition, the deluxe 2-CD version of Miles’ first full-length Columbia LP plus bonus tracks on disc one; with disc two comprising the Newport Jazz Festival performance of “’Round Midnight” (with Thelonious Monk) from 1955, plus the previously unissued 1956 Pasadena concert.
2005 concluded with the September release of the 6-CD box set, The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, six complete performance sets at the Washington, D.C. nightclub in December 1970, by the lineup that starred Miles, Keith Jarrett, Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, and (on the final night) guitarist John McLaughlin.
Altogether since 1997, the Miles Davis Series has reissued digitally remastered and restored versions (many of them expanded editions) of: ‘Round About Midnight (1957), Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Milestones (1958), Miles Davis At Newport (1958), Jazz At The Plaza (1958), Kind Of Blue (1959), Sketches Of Spain (1960), Someday My Prince Will Come (1961), Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall – The Complete Concert (1961), In Person: Friday Night At the Blackhawk (1961), In Person: Saturday Night At the Blackhawk (1961), Quiet Nights (1962), Seven Steps To Heaven (1963), Miles Davis In Europe (1963), Miles In Tokyo (1964), Miles In Berlin (1964), My Funny Valentine (1965), E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Four & More (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles In the Sky (1968), In A Silent Way (1969), Filles De Kilimanjaro (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1971), On the Corner (1972), Big Fun (1974), Get Up With It (1974), Water Babies (1976), and Aura (1985).
Various collections include four packages culled from the respective boxed sets, the single-CD The Best Of Miles Davis & Gil Evans, the double-CD The Best Of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-’68, the single-CD Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Best Of The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961, and the single-CD The Best Of Seven Steps To Heaven; plus Miles Davis Love Songs (a 1999 Valentine’s Day special) and 2003’s Love Songs 2; the 2-CD The Essential Miles Davis; the Miles Davis/Ken Burns JAZZ compilation; Blue Miles; Blue Moods – Music For You; The Best Of Miles Davis; and Miles Davis Jazz Moods – Cool; and Cool And Collected. The Miles Davis Story, the first major documentary to be produced on Miles in nearly 15 years, was issued in 2002 on VHS and interactive DVD formats.
The 8 critically acclaimed box sets of The Miles Davis Series comprise:
- Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (released in 1996), the 6-CD box set which won Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes, and Best Recording Package;
- Miles Davis Quintet 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (February 1998), the 6-CD box set which won the Grammy Award for Best Album Notes;
- The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (October 1998); the 4-CD boxed set which won the Grammy as Best Boxed Recording Package;
- Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961 (February 2000), the 6-CD box set which won Grammy Awards for Best Boxed Recording Package and Best Album Notes;
- The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (September 2001), the 3-CD box set;
- The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (August 2003), the 5-CD box set which won the Grammy Award for Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package;
- Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Miles Davis 1963-1964 (August 2004), the 7-CD box set; and
- The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (September 2005), the 6-CD box set.