When his fingers were pressing the valves of his trumpet, they might as well have been on America’s pulse. At every curve in the culture, Davis was there.
Throughout his career, Davis set the trends. He wasn’t yet 20 years old when he made his first recordings in the 1940s, including “Now’s the Time” and other early bebop tunes. Then, in 1949, he made recordings with a nine-piece band that, after their initial release, were reissued under the title Birth of the Cool. 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. With his understated, lyrical playing and charismatic personal style, Davis became known as the embodiment of the “cool” aesthetic.
Davis remained in the forefront of jazz musicians in subsequent decades, with notable forays into jazz-rock fusion and funk. His restless musical exploration sometimes confounded critics and fans, while making him a hero to others. Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time, was recorded in 1959. Notwithstanding its listener-friendly playing, the album represented a formal breakthrough in jazz composing. All of the songs were modal compositions, with each musician improvising around a scale instead of harmonies or chord progressions, resulting in simpler, “thinner” sound than was typical of other jazz styles such as bebop.
Little more than a decade later, Davis made another bold, experimental move by fusing jazz and rock on masterpieces such as In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). On these albums, 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.
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.
“As a musician and as an artist,” Davis wrote in his Autobiography, “I have always wanted to reach as many people as I could through my music.” One of the countless people he reached was the singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell. “Miles,” she once told him as he came off stage, “you played beautifully.” “Never mind that,” he replied. “How’d I look?”
The Miles Davis and Edith Piaf (Forever®) stamps are available online and in Post Offices nationwide.
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.