Written by Bernie Brink

We always love to highlight great jazz artists on their birthdays, but May is an especially noteworthy month as we celebrate one of the greatest icons of jazz, Miles Davis. Born May 26, 1926 outside of St. Louis, Miles was the son of a dentist and a music teacher, though as a youngster he learned music from his older sister, Dorothy.

While Miles’ image became the epitome of “cool” in the 1950s, he was on the cutting edge of jazz music for the entirety of his 45+ year career. At the start, he was a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet in the 1940’s, helping lay the groundwork of Bebop and modern jazz. He cut his first sides as a leader in 1949 with a colorful nonet, later released as Birth of the Cool, one of the earliest Cool jazz recordings. He would later reunite with one of his collaborators from those sessions, Gil Evans, to record some of the finest large ensemble recordings ever made, including the iconic Sketches of Spain in 1960.

A gifted bandleader, Miles organized not one, but two quintets of such legendary stature that they are referred to as the First Great Quintet and the Second Great Quintet. The First, active through much of the 1950s, featured a young John Coltrane on tenor sax, with the rhythm unit of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. It was one of the elite Hard Bop ensembles, defining standard practices for decades to follow. Later, the group was augmented by the addition of Cannonball Adderley, and you can hear them at the peak of their powers on 1958’s Milestones.

Miles’ Second Great Quintet of the 1960s also featured an outstanding young tenor, Wayne Shorter, backed by a handpicked rhythm section of young lions with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (just 17 years old when he joined the band!). That quintet pioneered the Post Bop sound and aesthetics that defined many great records of the decade. The band is already in fine form on their first album, 1965’s E.S.P., but check out the title track from Nefertiti a few years later: the quintet turns the standard model on its head, and the horn players play an accompanying role by intoning a repeated melody throughout, making the tune a platform to highlight the improvisational prowess of the rhythm section.

An early adopter of rock styles, Miles was also an innovator in jazz-rock fusion. These records are a real treat as they envelop the listener in colorful, shifting, kaleidoscopic sounds and orchestration. Don’t listen for melody, but instead listen for the combinations of instruments and funky grooves, and how the band works together to shift in new directions. The most famous album from this period is 1970’s Bitches Brew, but we also recommend Live-Evil and the Isle of Wight live concert.

For more on this distinctive artist, check out Ian Carr’s Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, a wonderful volume that lives up to its name. As we celebrate the birthday of this monumental figure, you can hear Miles Davis throughout the month of May and all year long on Jazz 93.5!

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