Follow TV Tropes


Music / Miles Davis

Go To
The Prince of Darkness.

The hanging gardens of Babylon
Miles Davis the black unicorn
I give to you
Grinderman, "The Palaces of Montezuma"

Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991) was an American Jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader, and one of the most famous and important musicians ever to have worked in the genre.

It's impossible to do justice to his long and innovative career, so we're going to try to sum up the highlights. To Make a Long Story Short: he started as a bebop musician playing trumpet with Charlie Parker, before ending up at the forefront of almost every major development in jazz after The '40s, helping pioneer subgenres such as cool jazz, modal jazz, Jazz Fusion and jazz-rock, and by his death he had become one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century. Basically he can be seen as something like the Nirvana of jazz: everybody gets into him at a given moment.

His backing bands have included numerous musicians that would go on to become famous in their own right, such as saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Kenny Garrett; trombonist J. J. Johnson; pianists Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and Keith Jarrett; guitarists John McLaughlin, John Scofield and Mike Stern; bassists Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Dave Holland; and drummers Tony Williams, "Philly Joe" Jones, Billy Cobham, and Jack DeJohnette. He sometimes collaborated with Big Band-leader Gil Evans, and planned collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and Prince were cancelled due to the deaths of Hendrix and Miles himself.

1959's Kind of Blue and 1970's Bitches Brew are often cited as the two top selling jazz albums ever made, with the former also being cited as the best jazz album ever made. His Psychedelic Rock-influenced jazz-fusion material from the 1970s has proved to be very influential among various experimental Progressive Rock and Alternative Rock acts (such as Radiohead, Brian Eno, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Talk Talk, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads, Can), making him probably the most influential jazz musician when it comes to rock. His massive discography (48 studio, 36 live and 35 compilations over the span of 40 years) as a whole can be a frequent source of discontinuities due to containing every style of jazz in existence.

Albums with their own trope page:

Film soundtracks:


  • Anti-Christmas Song: "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)", a 1962 collaboration with vocalist Bob Dorough (of later Schoolhouse Rock! fame).
  • Bookends: Both tracks on In a Silent Way open and close with the first section of the piece repeated in its entirety.
    • Doo-Bop begins and ends with the track "Mystery".
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Not for his output during his music career (which was very productive) but in music school at Juilliard, he got fairly mediocre grades and dropped out after one year.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The young Miles couldn't play as fast as Dizzy Gillespie, so he made a virtue out of playing slow instead.
  • Concept Album
  • Cool Shades: These were part of his image in later years.
  • Epic Rocking: This was frequent with his earlier material, but it really went up to eleven in his fusion era.
    • The examples from his fusion era exceeding 25 minutes:
      • "Wili" (Dark Magus) - 25:05
      • "Moja" (Dark Magus) - 25:08
      • "Tatu" (Dark Magus) - 25:19
      • "Nne" (Dark Magus) - 25:31
      • "Yesternow" (A Tribute to Jack Johnson) - 25:34
      • "Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts" (Live-Evil) - 26:30note 
      • "Right Off" (A Tribute to Jack Johnson) - 26:54
      • "Bitches Brew" (Bitches Brew) - 27:00
      • "Interlude" (Agharta) - 27:10
      • "Great Expectations/Orange Lady" (Big Fun) - 27:23
      • "Go Ahead John" (Big Fun) - 28:26
      • "Calypso Frelimo" (Get Up with It) - 32:05
      • "He Loved Him Madly" (Get Up with It) - 32:13
      • "Prelude" (Agharta) - 32:35
      • "Zimbabwe" (Pangaea) - 41:48
      • "Gondwana" (Pangaea) - 46:51
    • Notably, these tracks were all recorded in an era where it was extremely rare for songs to exceed about 25 minutes due to LP space limitations (not only does the material at the centre of the record have less audio quality due to being spread over less space, which is inevitable the more you put on a record, but anything beyond about 27 minutes in length results in the volume of the record being reduced due to smaller space between the grooves, as well as the amount of dynamic range the recording can contain being reduced for exactly the same reason). Of these, all but the last three took up an entire side of a record; the final three were split up over two sides. Davis routinely exceeded the traditional LP length; each record of the two-record set Get Up with It exceeded an hour in length. To put things in perspective, you couldn't fit three LP sides' worth of material from that album on one CD. That's almost unheard of, and it's common for double albums from the vinyl era to fit on one disc (although I'm not aware of any of Davis's double albums where that was the case). If Get Up with It were reissued on vinyl today it would almost certainly be reissued as a three- or four-LP set with the two longest tracks split up over multiple sides due to vinyl's reputation these days as an audiophile format. Dark Magus also deserves a special mention for every single song exceeding 25 minutes in length (they were split up into two tracks per song for the CD reissue), although it would be less likely for this record to become a 3LP set in a vinyl reissue as that none of them are all that far over 25 minutes.
    • Some of these longer tracks were the result of several tracks, or multiple takes from different recording sessions, being spliced together to sound as if they were a single track. This was very controversial with jazz purists, who felt that it robbed the performance of the authenticity they valued so much, and questioned the validity of an improvisation-based music being tampered with in such a way. Some of them still haven't forgiven him, although some of the fusion albums (especially In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and On the Corner) have been canonised as masterpieces by now. (Note that Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus are live albums, and the material on these is presumably not edited much, if at all; furthermore, much, though not all, of Live-Evil was also recorded live).
  • Genre Shift: So many.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Many of his pianists. Miles built the concept of Kind of Blue around Bill Evans, who had left the group months earlier, but had neglected to inform current pianist Wynton Kelly of the situation until Kelly arrived at the studio to record the album. He also fired Red Garland for quoting one of his solos.
  • Gratuitous Panning: Once his albums started being mixed in stereo in the 60s, typically the piano/guitar/bass would be mixed to the left channel, with drums right and horns middle, as was standard at the time. However, this was turned up to eleven in the 70s fusion era as the songs became weirder and the personnel lists grew, and producer Teo Macero was given free rein to experiment:
    • In a Silent Way: In the left channel is McLaughlin on guitar, Corea on Wurlitzer and Shorter on Soprano Saxophone, center has Davis and Holland on bass, and on the right is Zawinul on Hammond, Hancock on Rhodes, and Williams on Drums.
    • Bitches Brew: Each track has two drummers, two pianists (three on "Pharaoh's Dance" and the title track) two bassists, and two percussionists, all mixed to different channels. In addition, McLaughlin's guitar is mixed to the right, and on the Title Track, Davis's trumpet has an echo effect which switches between left and right.
    • Big Fun has two extreme examples recorded shortly after Bitches Brew:
      • "Great Expectations/Orange Lady" - On left is McLaughlin on guitar (though it has a delayed echo effect panned to center) an electric piano, Moreira on percussion, one bassist, Grossman on sax, and Cobham on drums (except his high-hat, which is panned to the right), in the center is Davis (though his trumpet has an echo that switches between all channels) and another electric piano, and on right is Sharma on tambura and tablas, Balakrishna on electric sitar, Maupin on Clarinet, and another bassist.
      • "Go Ahead John" - DeJohnette's drums and McLaughlin's guitar switch between left and right channel randomly between beats, while everything else is mixed to center (until the bridge, where Davis's trumpet is mixed to center, with reverb mixed to the right and a very delayed echo to the left.) (Notably, this song was used by producer Teo Macero to test out an automatic channel switcher, which would he used increasingly throughout this period)
    • Live-Evil is less extreme than the proceeding albums, but notably Keith Jarrett plays electric piano and organ simultaneously, with both panned to different channels.
    • On the Corner - Everything switches channels all the time.
    • Get Up with It on "He Loved Him Madly", Mtume's congas switch channels constantly, as do the three guitar tracks, which change places so frequently it's difficult to tell which musician is playing.
    • Dark Magus has Cosey's guitar, synthesizer, and percussion all mixed to the left channel; Davis's trumpet and organ and Liebman and Lawrence's saxophones all in center (which makes it difficult to tell which sax is playing) as well as Foster's drums and Henderson's bass, and on the right are Lucas and Gaumont on guitar (and meanwhile, Mtume's percussion switches between channels) (Agharta and Pangea are mixed the same, but omit Lawrence and Gaumont, and replace Liebman with Fortune)
    • The mixing becomes much less extreme in The '80s (even with Macero producing), though typically percussion tracks will still be split between channels, though come Tutu and Amandla (produced by Marcus Miller) there's lots of layered synth patches and percussion programming (and occasionally live instruments) mixed to different channels.
  • Grief Song: "He Loved Him Madly" on Get Up with It is one for Duke Ellington, who had died just a month before. The title comes from Ellington's signature sign-off to his own audiences, "We love you madly."
  • Hair-Trigger Temper
  • Improv
  • Insufferable Genius: To the point that some people were disgusted to be in the room with him.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: Bitches Brew. It's actually a play on words from the Shakespearean "Witches Brew". Nevertheless, for a genre with fans going back to the depression era, it was probably awkward for young jazz fans in 1970 to bring this record (released on the major label of Columbia Records, no less) home to the family.
  • Jazz Rap: Doo-Bop helped legitimize jazz rap, and was a precursor to later, more ambitious jazz rap projects by other rap artists.
  • Jerkass: Miles gained a reputation in The '50s for being distant, cold, and withdrawn and for having a quick temper, and never really lost it. He threw Wynton Marsalis out of a concert when he showed up unannounced, and would regularly kick off band members for small reasons - if there were any.note 
    • For some time, he performed with his back to the audience (although this kind of aloofness was a reasonably big part of the cool jazz ethos). It was also intended to focus audience's attention on the music, not on persona.
    • Many members of his bands regarded him as something of a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, in that he gave a lot of musicians a chance when they weren't very famous or respected (the most famous example being John Coltrane), he encouraged them to experiment and be creative, he was never reluctant to praise his own musicians and he could be very kind and supportive. When Bill Evans left Miles' employment to get his own trio going, Miles helped him with the business side and booked gigs for the group.
  • Leave the Camera Running: "Sanctuary" from Bitches Brew is actually two consecutive takes of the song.
    • On the title track of his 1968 album Nefertiti, written by Wayne Shorter, Miles had the band run through Shorter's tune with the tape running. As they did so, with Shorter and Davis playing the head over and over again, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter began to improvise, and pianist Herbie Hancock joined them. This became the final track: Davis and Shorter don't solo at all, they just play the tune several times while the rhythm section solos underneath them. At one point Davis and Shorter stop playing, but Williams doesn't, so they come in again and play it a few more times before the tune ends, after nearly eight minutes.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When John Coltrane told Davis he never knew how to end his solos, Davis suggested that "taking the horn out of your mouth" might help.
  • New Sound Album: A lot. Starting with bebop in Charlie Parker's band, he went on to...
    • Cool jazz with Birth of the Cool
    • Hard bop with the "first great quintet"
    • Modal jazz with Kind of Blue.
    • Third wave with Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess.
    • A more experimental style of hard bop with the second great quintet
    • Electric instruments and lighter psychedelic rock influences with Miles in the Sky.
    • An avant-garde, overtly psychedelic type of fusion with Bitches Brew
    • A less avant-garde, more hard-rock type of fusion with Jack Johnson
    • More funk influence with Live-Evil
    • An avant-garde mix of free-jazz, Indian instruments, Stockhausen, and funk with On the Corner
    • Proto-ambient with Get Up with It
    • An even more extreme mix of funk, psychedelic rock, free jazz, African percussion, and experimental electronic music on Dark Magus
    • A more commercial style of fusion, incorporating pop elements with The Man with the Horn.
    • Synthesizers and smooth jazz with Decoy.
    • Hip hop and New Jack Swing with Doo-Bop, his final album.
  • Only Known By Their One Name: Somewhat similar to Morrissey's case - he always went by "Miles Davis", but you can just say "Miles", and everybody knows who you're referring to. This was acknowledged in the title of his autobiography, which was simply Miles: The Autobiography.
  • * Old Shame: Late in his life, Davis largely disregarded his cool jazz period (running roughly from Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue). He said this in 1986:
    Miles Davis: What I used to play...we had the energy then and we liked it. But I have no feel for it anymore — it's like warmed-over turkey.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: A young music student from Norway (now a composer), once related how Miles suddenly made a social call to her student`s dorm room in Germany late one night while he was touring there. It seemed he just wanted to chat, and sat with her all night, revealing an utterly lonely and vulnerable man. She recalled later how grateful he was for being able to just sit down and open up, and actually offered her the ability to travel with him, just for the company. Considering the fact that Miles was known to be a MAJOR jerkass, this student never forgot the experience, and later wrote it down.
    • Bonus points for Miles, who revealed why he felt he hed to be such a jerkass. He was quite annoyed over the constant Executive Meddling, and somewhat powerless in that respect. The record company actually dumped young musicians on him, to secure later stardom for them, because they had "played with Miles". That policy led to many clashes because he had to put up with band members chosen for him rather than the ones he preferred himself. Although most of those guys were quite good, none of them actually got close to him.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Miles put together a band to record a soundtrack for the 1958 Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows. Jazz critic Phil Johnson describes the soundtrack well: "The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."
  • Posthumous Collaboration: Because Miles had passed away during the recording sessions of Doo-Bop, album producer Easy Mo Bee was tasked with creating brand new tracks from Miles' then-unreleased "RubberBand" sessions with Prince. "High Speed Chase" and "Fantasy" were the results.
  • Pun-Based Title: Miles Ahead, Milestones
  • Rated G for Gangsta: Miles made it clear when he released albums like On the Corner, You're Under Arrest and Doo-Bop that he was trying to reach the youth audience. Many accused him, especially in The '80s, of Pandering to the Base instead of putting out "real music"; On the Corner in particular is now widely regarded as a classic.
  • Remix Album: Bill Laswell re-edited and remixed several songs from Miles' fusion-era albums, and the result was Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974.
  • Revolving Door Band: Due to the length of his career and constant Genre Shifts within, Davis had a jaw-dropping number of sidemen (even discounting his collaborations with Gil Evans or Aura, where he plays with an orchestra), in particular he replaced his pianists and saxophone players frequently:
    • Pianists - Walter Bishop Jr, Gil Coggins, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus (while primarily known as a bassist, Mingus also played piano), Thelonious Monk , Red Garland, Ray Bryant, Tommy Flanagan, Al Haig, Bill Evans , Wynton Kelly, Victor Feldman, Herbie Hancock , Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Larry Young, Keith Jarrett, Harold Williams, Lonnie Liston Smith, Cedric Lawson, Robert Irving III, Randy Hall, Jason Miles, Adam Holzman, George Duke, Bernard Wright, Joey DeFrancesco, Joe Sample, Deron Johnson, Kei Akagi, John Beasley
    • Sax/Brass/Woodwinds - Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, J. J. Johnson, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Sonny Truitt, Jimmy Heath, Lucky Thompson, Dave Schildkraut, Bennie Green, Charlie Parker, Kai Winding, Junior Collins, Bill Barber, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Sandy Siegelstein, Gunther Schuller, Mike Zwerin, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, Steve Grossman, Gary Bartz, Carlos Garnett, Dave Liebman, Azar Lawrence, Sonny Fortune, Sam Morrison, Bill Evans (no relation), Branford Marsalis, Bob Berg, Kenny Garrett, Rick Margitza
    • Guitar - Joe Beck, George Benson, John McLaughlin , Sonny Sharrock, David Creamer, Reggie Lucas, Pete Cosey, Dominique Gaumont, Barry Finnerty, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Michael Landau, Foley, Jean-Paul Bourelly, John Bigha, Billy Patterson
    • Bass - Tommy Potter, Oscar Pettiford, Percy Heath, Leonard Gaskin, Paul Chambers, Joe Shulman, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Harvey Brooks, Michael Henderson, Marcus Miller, Felton Crews, Tom Barney, Darryl Jones, Benny Rietveld, Richard Patterson
    • Drums - Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Al McKibbon, Connie Kay, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Billy Hart, Al Foster, Vincent Wilburn (Davis' nephew), Ricky Wellman
    • Percussion/other - Milt Jackson, Frank Butler, Don Alias, Juma Santos, Airto Moreira, Khalil Balakrishna, Bihari Sharma, Hermeto Pascoal, Badal Roy, Collin Walcott, Paul Buckmaster, Mtume, Sammy Figueroa, Mino Cinelu, Steve Thornton, Paulinho da Costa, Steve Reid, Omar Hakim, Bashiri Johnson, Marilyn Mazur (notably the only woman to play in Davis’ band), Erin Davis, Munyungo Jackson
  • Sampling: Miles only ever sampled on his final album Doo-Bop, as it was produced by Easy Mo Bee, the hip hop producer who went on to produce half of The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Ready to Die. Miles himself has been sampled hundreds of times, and not just by hip hop artists; Radiohead and Chaka Khan have had their turns sampling his output.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: The partly live album Live-Evil, itself an example, opens out each of its individual LPs with "Savid" and "Selim", respectively.
  • Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: According to his own recollections, Miles spent his 1975–81 "retirement" mostly sitting on his couch, watching TV and occasionally leaving the house to get more drugs. His habits alone would probably make the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like the healthiest kids around. He didn't just do that. He also ordered out for food and hookers.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: He was known for wearing tailored clothes, part of his "cool" image.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: His autobiography can at times be mistaken for an academic study on the various possible uses of the word "motherfucker"..
  • Small Reference Pools: One of the few jazz musicians most non-jazz fans can name offhand.
  • Start My Own: It might actually be shorter to list the number of people who worked with Miles and didn't later go onto notable careers of their own as bandleaders. Several are listed immediately below under Supergroup, and it's not even a complete list. Several performers who worked with Miles were already well on their way to being famous, but working with Miles certainly boosted their fame anyway. In some cases this was essentially a case of an enforced Colbert Bump on the record label's part, much to Miles' annoyance, as explained above (see Out-of-Character Moment).
  • Supergroup: His sextet on Kind of Blue, who were already well-known for their other work.
    • Several of the Bitches Brew sidemen were well-known in their own right: Chick Corea was an established solo artist, Joe Zawinul was famous for having worked with Cannonball Adderley, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were top solo artists aside from having already spent several years with Miles. Furthermore, Zawinul and Shorter went on to found the famed jazz fusion band Weather Report after leaving Davis' group, while Corea went on to form Return to Forever, and guitarist John McLaughlin went on to form Mahavishnu Orchestra.
    • And his so-called "second great quintet", which featured drum phenomenon Tony Williams (he joined the band at 17), Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter (probably the most recorded bass player in jazz history. Heck, he's probably the most recorded bass player in history). At least in retrospect this would have to be the most definitive supergroup of all time.
      • The "Quintet" after that was equally as crazy, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira, and last but not least Wayne Shorter.
  • Uncommon Time: Used occasionally. "Great Expectations" on Big Fun is one example.
  • Ur-Example: No less a source than Brian Eno credited him as being a major influence on ambient music with "He Loved Him Madly", off 1974's Get Up with It.
  • You Have Failed Me: Accompanying musicians were often tossed out - more often than not, without notice, until they noticed they were no longer on the roster.