A jazz legend and pioneer, American trumpet player Miles Davis enjoyed a brilliant and inspired career spanning 50 years. Innovation and an uncompromising penchant for perfection were his calling cards. Miles was a fearless innovator: each of the musical phases that distinguished his career corresponds to a defining chapter in the history of contemporary music. Miles was also a perfectionist: his lofty expectations drove him to explore new musical frontiers. He could also be hard on his musicians. With his cool jazz style, Miles Davis was an inspiration to a generation of musicians. Everything's been said about this great musician-now it's time the Festival weighed in...
In 1992, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal paid a fitting tribute to the artist almost a year after his death. That summer, reminiscence was the watchword. Ten years earlier, the daily Le Soleil featured the caption "Miles in Montreal: The Flight of the Phoenix" on the eve of the trumpet player's debut performance at the Festival. Another three visits would follow, as would three sold-out concerts at the Spectrum in February 1990.
Each of these visits to Montreal was significant for Davis. In 1983, he recorded two songs at the Festival for his album Decoy, and in 1985 the trumpet player used his appearance at the Festival to record a laser disk video for distribution in Japan.
Three years later, the musician showed he was a man of many talents, as Davis, the painter, produced a pastel self-portrait that would serve as the official poster for the Festival's ninth edition. It was an unexpected gesture of collaboration by a man described by some as arrogant and inaccessible. Miles, the musician, capped off the ninth edition of the Festival with a dazzling performance that was both high-spirited and generous.
Miles Davis remained an enigmatic figure. Certainly no stranger to controversy and extravagance, he was often given a rough ride by the critics. For the Festival, however, the name Miles Davis conjures the memory of a privileged relationship with a musical genius with rare charisma.
A storied career
Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 25, 1926. The son of a dentist, he grew up and went to school in St. Louis, Missouri. On his 13th birthday his father gave him a trumpet. Like many musicians at the time, Miles played in the college orchestra. He was also a big fan of Bobby Hackett.
In 1945, his father sent Miles to New York to study at the famed Juilliard School (then called the Institute of Musical Art). Miles was no model student, however, preferring to spend his time on a then-thriving 52nd Street, where Charlie Parker was king. The two, it was later said, were destined to meet, and Davis soon left school to play with Parker's quintet. His tenure lasted until 1948.
In 1949, Davis took the helm of a groundbreaking ensemble. At a time when be-bop was just starting to gain acceptance, the trumpet player put out a series of albums that contrasted sharply with the breathless tempo and rhythms of Parker, Gillespie and Monk.
The mood was calm, all of the edges smoothed out by such legendary arrangers and instrumentalists Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis. The musicians themselves took an easy, carefully measured approach to the music, with vibrato all but forbidden.
Cool is born
This innovative West Coast jazz approach was evidenced on the album Birth of the Cool, recorded in a mere three sessions in 1949-1950. Some of its tracks-Jéru, Boplicity, Israel and Godchild-would eventually become standards. This stylistic novelty soon attracted legions of young musicians, with Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Art Pepper among its most eloquent proponents until the 1980s.
In 1955, Miles Davis marked a new career phase, once again setting out on his own to form a group featuring John Coltrane.
The music, again, was eminently different; like none other before it, it seemed to come out of nothing.
This second career phase culminated in the release of the album Kind of Blue (1959), featuring such gems as So What, Freddie Freeloader, and above all, All Blues-which may have been Miles' way of saying he was done with the genre. Davis would later be quoted as saying: "Leave the blues to white people. They have the blues, let them keep it! We'll play something else."
In 1963, the face of the band once again changed, with the likes of Shorter, Hancock, Jarrett, DeJohnette, Williams, Carter and McLaughlin all making appearances. While Miles Davis' instrumental play was still marked by the same restraint and economy of style, the rhythmic form, increasingly, was electric, the mood more anguished. Now, a sharp rhythmic regularity cut through the sonic envelope enclosing the music.
The albums On The Corner, Bitches Brew and Live at The Fillmore bore witness to this new approach. An enforced break-attributed to a vehicle accident-marked yet another career phase for Davis. The seven-year silence that followed was vintage Davis. By the time he emerged again, the 1980s were upon us.
Miles marks a comeback
During his final decade of activity, the artist honoured the Festival with his presence on a few occasions. During his second appearance at the Festival in 1983, some of his collaborators were asked to describe their relationship with the master.
Double bassist Ron Carter: "My experience with Miles? Fabulous. It was the biggest turning point in my career, even my entire life."
Drummer Billy Cobham: "Playing with Miles was highly educational-there was never a dull moment."
Pianist Chick Corea: "I learned melodic discipline with Miles. That's really what I remember most about working with him. I learned to shape a melody, to play more logically. I also learned what not to do."
Bassist Marcus Miller: "With Miles, it was quite difficult, since you have to serve, penetrate and respect a given mood at a given moment. Of course, because he was a genius at telling his ‘musical stories' and all we had to do is hop on the train."
Percussionist Mino Cinelu: "Miles, in fact, is a long story you have to love in its entirety. And it's far from over."
Some ten years later, in 1992, the Festival paid Miles Davis a posthumous tribute, saying that "each appearance by the ‘prince' on Montreal soil was a major event." From Kind of Blue to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Tutu, the trumpet player surprised, shocked and... conquered. While Miles Davis left a towering musical legacy to the world, Quebecers will also remember his very special relationship with the Festival and the city.