Section from chapter 1991: Farewell, Prince of Darkness   [ return to introduction ]

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By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
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Miles Davis at New York’s JVC Jazz Festival in June 1987. [ view larger image ] (Corbis-Bettmann/UPI)
Miles Davis: Death of a Legend

On 8 July 1991, a visibly frail Miles Davis took the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival, backed by a 50-piece orchestra under the direction of Quincy Jones, and played a tribute to his onetime collaborator, Gil Evans. Two days later, the sixty-five-year-old trumpeter was in Paris to receive the title Commander of Arts and Letters from the Ministry of Culture and play a reunion gig with former sidemen Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland. On 19 July he visited London for the last time and appeared at the Royal Festival Hall. A little over two months later, in California, the combination of pneumonia and a stroke took his life.

Davis probably accomplished more in his forty-seven-year career--an unusually long period of sustained activity for a jazz musician--than any other performer. As fellow trumpeter Ian Carr has recently put it, "his creativity and his influence as both player and conceptualist were sustained for more than four decades, an example which introduced the idea of permanent conceptual development into the jazz life. That is why he has been an inspirational figure for successive generations of musicians since the 1940s."

Born in East St. Louis, Davis moved to New York in 1944 to take up a place at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. However, he quickly grew disillusioned with the school’s stifling environment and preferred to gain practical jazz experience by seeking out Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker on 52nd Street and in Harlem. Davis later explained, "We was all trying to get our master’s degrees and Ph.D.s from Minton’s University of Bebop under the tutelage of Professors Bird and Diz."

By the close of 1945 he had begun recording with Parker and was serving a thorough apprenticeship in the bop style. Somewhat limited in playing technique, Davis was unable to compete with Gillespie’s pyrotechnics (for his remarks on this situation) (• p. 219), and in 1948 first asserted his stylistic individuality by forming with Gil Evans the celebrated nonet that initiated the cool school (• p. 120). Although he continued to work with Evans in large-ensemble ventures, Davis spent much of the 1950s and 1960s developing a refined form of hard bop while experimenting with novel modal techniques (• p. 146).

His canny initiation of the jazz-rock fusion movement in 1968-69 was sudden, unpredictable and hugely successful (• p. 170), and earned him an international status akin to that of a high-profile pop star. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he later collaborated with pop singers, such as Sting and Prince. But in the jazz sphere Davis’s personal and health problems, coupled with an inability to sustain development of his own stylistic innovations, meant that his work in the 1970s and 1980s did not match up to the quality of performances by younger talents, many of whom had been nurtured in his own bands years before.

Davis’s distinctive manner of trumpet playing was widely imitated, but not to everyone’s taste. The poet and highly conservative jazz critic Philip Larkin, jazz reviewer for the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s, wrote of the trumpeter’s "new inhumanity," and declared that Davis had "several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, and the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all."