The Embodiment of Cool: Celebrating Miles Davis

June is African-American Music Appreciation Month, and what better way to celebrate than to look back at the life and career of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Davis was born on May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, and grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. His father, a dentist, and his mother, who was musically inclined, encouraged him to take up an instrument; he played taps and reveille on his horn at Boy Scout camp. At the age of 17, he became a member of Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils, a well-known local band.

In 1944, he heard saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie play together on tour, giving Davis “the greatest feeling I ever had in my life,” as he remembered in his Autobiography (written with Quincy Troupe and published in 1989). In September of that year, Davis went to New York City as a student at the Institute of Musical Art, later the Juilliard School. By day, he studied classical music; nights, he played jazz with musicians such as Parker, who became his roommate, and Gillespie. In the spring of 1945, shortly before his 19th birthday, Davis made his first studio recording, backing a singer called Rubberlegs Williams. The following autumn, he broke off his studies and joined Parker’s band. They soon made some of the earliest bebop recordings, including “Now’s the Time.”

With his understated, lyrical playing and charismatic personal style, Davis became known as the embodiment of the “cool” aesthetic. While bebop is characterized by fast tempos and virtuosic improvisation, “cool” jazz is quieter, more melodic, and gave more emphasis to arranged ensembles as frames for improvised solos. Davis often used a Harmon mute—a device that changed his trumpet’s timbre and reduced its volume—to produce his distinctive sound. In 1949, he made recordings with a nine-piece band that, after their initial release, were reissued under the title Birth of the Cool. As trumpeter Louis Armstrong had dominated the first half of the century with “hot” jazz, Davis would come to dominate the second half with a “cool” alternative.

For decades, Davis was in the forefront of jazz musicians, setting trends and exploring musical styles, with notable forays into jazz-rock fusion and funk. Davis’s restless musical exploration sometimes confounded critics and fans, while making him a hero to others. Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959, contains classic tunes such as “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “All Blues.” Notwithstanding its attractive and highly accessible playing, the album represented a formal breakthrough in jazz composing. All of the songs were modal jazz compositions, with each musician improvising around a scale instead of harmonies or chord progressions, resulting in a simpler, “thinner” sound than would be typical of other jazz styles such as bebop. Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Digital Color Postmark Keepsake (click to order)

Among Davis’s other influential recordings are the orchestral jazz albums Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), and Sketches of Spain (1960), all arranged by Gil Evans. Some listeners refer to this music as “third stream,” denoting a hybrid genre between classical and jazz. Little more than a decade later, Davis made another bold, experimental move by fusing jazz and rock, disappointing some fans but winning new ones. Though his playing remained distinctively brilliant on “fusion” masterpieces such as In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970), electronic instrumentation and studio technology radically changed the character of his music. In another sign of the changing times, the fine suits Davis customarily wore gave way to bellbottom trousers and vests.

He was also a great bandleader, and many important musicians rose to prominence in his bands. In particular, he is known for having assembled two important quintets. The first of these was in the mid-1950s, with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Some ten years later, he formed his “second great quintet” with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Over the course of his career, Davis played with many other noted musicians, including bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianists Chick Corea and Thelonious Monk, and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. Many musicians who played with Davis spoke with gratitude of having learned from him.

Davis could be selfless in his bands, not standing out as the leader, but blending into a cohesive whole. He insisted on being thought of as an artist and paid very little attention to entertaining his audiences. He spoke in a raspy whisper after surgery to remove a growth on his larynx and sometimes concentrated by playing with his back to the audience, adding to his reputation for being difficult. Davis always insisted that this reputation was undeserved. “As a musician and as an artist,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “I have always wanted to reach as many people as I could through my music.”

First Day Covers (click to order)

Later in his career, Davis moved into funk, attempting to win new listeners with works such as On the Corner (1972). He recorded albums such as Tutu (1986) in a layered studio process, playing his solos over pre-recorded backgrounds, again prompting criticism and cries of betrayal from some listeners.

Miles Davis died September 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, California, at age 65. His playing will long be remembered for its profound depth of feeling. By the time of his death, he had won many prizes and honors, including a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 1984, he received Denmark’s prestigious Léonie Sonning Music Prize. In 1989, he was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil by the city of Paris, which was presented to him by Jacques Chirac, then mayor (and later president of France).

The new Miles Davis and Edith Piaf (Forever®) stamps will be issued on June 12 in New York City. You can pre-order these dramatic stamps online now!

Name, image and likeness of Miles Davis with permission from Miles Davis Properties, LLC.

Edith Piaf Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Miles Davis Photograph © 2011, the estate of David Gahr. All rights reserved.