Miles Davis gave birth to the cool and to a whole new sound. The impact of Miles Davis on postwar jazz is unsurpassed. For three decades Davis was not only an outstanding figure in nearly every major jazz change, he also had a hand in directing those changes. Throughout a professional career lasting 50 years, Miles Davis played the trumpet in a lyrical, introspective, and melodic style, often employing a stemless harmon mute to make his sound more personal and intimate.
Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois on May 26, 1926. His father, Dr. Miles Henry Davis, was a dentist. In 1927 the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois. They also owned a substantial ranch in northern Arkansas, where Davis learned to ride horses as a boy. Davis' mother, Cleota Mae Davis, wanted her son to learn the piano; she was a capable blues pianist but kept this fact hidden from her son.
Miles Davis' musical studies began at 13, when his father gave him a trumpet and arranged lessons with local musician Elwood Buchanan. Davis later suggested that his father's instrument choice was made largely to irk his wife, who disliked the trumpet's sound. Against the fashion of the time, Buchanan stressed the importance of playing without vibrato; he was reported to have slapped Davis' knuckles every time he started using heavy vibrato.
Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career. He once remarked on its importance to him, saying, "I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle. If I can’t get that sound I can’t play anything."
Davis quickly became enamored of jazz, particularly the new sounds being created by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Davis' father sent him to Juliard to study music, but Miles didn't spend much time there, dropping out to play with Parker's quintet from 1946 to 1948. That proved to be a humbling experience at first, since Miles didn't yet have the chops to keep up with Parker's breakneck tempos and chord substitutions. He learned quickly, though, and grew immensely as a musician during his tenure with Bird.
Davis's early playing was sometimes tentative and not always fully in tune, but his unique, intimate tone and his fertile musical imagination outweighed his technical shortcomings. By the early 1950s Davis had turned his limitations into considerable assets. Rather than emulate the busy, wailing style of such bebop pioneers as Gillespie, Davis explored the trumpet's middle register, experimenting with harmonies and rhythms and varying the phrasing of his improvisations. With the occasional exception of multi-note flurries, his melodic style was direct and unornamented, based on quarter notes and rich with inflections. The deliberation, pacing, and lyricism in his improvisations are striking.
The early 50s were an erratic time for Davis, mostly due to his heroin addiction, and he was a disappointing performer during this time. By the middle of the decade, however, he had cleaned up and formed his first quintet, comprised of Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. This group became very popular and recorded several essential albums for the Prestige label: Cookin', Steamin', Workin', and Relaxin'. When the quintet broke up, Davis spent time collaborating again with arranger Gil Evans, resulting in great albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. He finished the decade out by recording one of the best known jazz albums of all time, Kind of Blue, with a sextet that included Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.