Miles Davis

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About Miles Davis

Miles Davis had a story about a big dinner he went to at the White House in the late ‘80s. Lots of powerful people, almost none of them Black. A politician’s wife—he didn't say who—asked if he thought America truly values jazz. There’s a back-and-forth. But the gist, Davis explained, was that white Americans were too stubborn and proud to ever let Black people win. The woman bristled. What’d he do that was so great to get invited to dinner at the White House anyway, she asked. He changed music five or six times, he said—what had she ever done other than be white? True or not (his autobiography is filled with this stuff), it speaks to Davis’ conception of his legacy. Tender, vicious, understated, or relentlessly confrontational, his music captures a life in constant creative flux, from the cool of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s (Birth of the Cool), through the bop and modal experiments of the ‘50s (Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue); the electric density of the ‘70s (A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Agartha) to the almost-pop of the ‘80s (You’re Under Arrest). He could pitch jazz as self-consciously sophisticated as orchestral music (Sketches of Spain) and as direct and colloquial as funk (On the Corner). He was born in 1926 and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, the son of a dentist and a music teacher—solidly middle-class professions that Davis, who came up though the dissipated, supposedly alleviated racism of the Jim Crow era, never let people forget. (Studying at the Institute of Musical Arts, later known as Julliard, Davis corrected a white music history professor who said that Black people played the blues because they were poor and had to pick cotton, saying that his dad was rich and didn’t have to pick cotton a day in his life, and he still played the blues—what about that?) If his band members changed music in their own rights—John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans—it’s in part because Davis prized individual expression above all. Asked in 1986 about some of the foundational songs in jazz—“I Got Rhythm”, “Body and Soul”—he said they were done at the right time and the right place by the right people, but that was over now—same goes for “Kind of Blue” or “So What”. What he had was better: the present.

Alton, IL, United States
26 May 1926
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