MILES DAVIS ONCE SAID THAT “THE history of jazz can be told in four words: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.” Make that six. When Davis, 65, died of pneumonia, respiratory failure and a stroke on Sept. 28 in Santa Monica, Calif., his place on their bandstand had long been assured. He didn’t invent jazz; instead, he constantly reinvented, and albums like Birth of the Cool (1949), Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960) and Bitches Brew (1970) lined his restless passage from bebop to cool, modal and jazz-rock fusion.
Renowned for the intensity of his minimalist, achingly sensitive trumpet playing, Davis also flaunted a defiant hipster’s edge that earned him the sobriquet Prince of Darkness. Brooding and solitary in public, he spurned interviews and seemed to do the same to audiences when he turned his back onstage. Friends say that this was misleading.
“He never did that. He was looking at us,” explains Herbie Hancock, one of a legion of famous protégés—including John Coltrane, Cannon-ball Adderley, John McLaughlin and Keith Jarrett—who learned from master Miles while serving in his bands. “He wouldn’t focus on the audience, he would focus on the band, on the music.”
After decades of forward motion, though, Davis seemed to have finally slowed down in recent years. Wayne Shorter, the sax great who left Davis’s mid-’60s band to cofound Weather Report, performed with his old mentor at last summer’s Montreux International Jazz Festival, where Davis, the artist who never looked back, surprised everyone by sounding a return to his bebop beginnings. Shorter later visited Davis in his dressing room prior to his final concert, at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 25. “He was tired,” Shorter says. “I had a feeling he was going straight to his resting place.”
Raised in East St. Louis, Ill., by his father, a prosperous dentist, and mother, Cleota, an amateur piano player, Miles Dewey Davis III was toying with a trumpet at 10 and studying with his first mentor, a patient of his father’s, at 13. By 18, he had already sat in with bebop founders Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they played St. Louis.
Moving to New York City in 1944, Davis received classical training at the Juilliard School before dropping out to play with Bird and Diz at clubs on 52nd Street. Sharing his apartment and a $40-a-week allowance from home with Parker, he also picked up Bird’s worst habit. A heroin addict at 23, Davis went on to supplement his musician’s income managing a stable of seven hookers before quitting heroin cold turkey by 1954.
His body, though, never recovered, in part because he lived a reckless life that gave it little chance. A chronic insomniac and lifelong chain-smoker, he suffered from sickle-cell anemia, gallstones, cocaine addiction and recurrent complications from a hip injury suffered in a 1969 drive-by shooting. Eloquent as his playing was, his speaking voice was reduced to a hoarse rasp in 1957 when he permanently damaged his vocal cords in a shouting match with a record executive days after throat surgery to remove polyps. In 1972 he broke both legs in a car accident and by 1975 was bedridden with leg infections, pneumonia and bleeding ulcers. Hooked on codeine and morphine painkillers, he became a recluse in his Manhattan brownstone. For years, he said, “I didn’t feel like listening to music. Didn’t want to hear it, see it, smell it, nothing about it.” In 1981 a hit album, The Man with the Horn, revived his career.
Davis credited his relationship with actress Cicely Tyson, his fifth wife, whom he married in 1981, with inspiring his comeback. Davis, who had four children from previous marriages, and Tyson divorced in 1988, and he began spending most of his time at home in Malibu, painting and entertaining friends such as Quincy Jones. Like many who knew Davis well, drum maestro Max Roach, a bandmate from the Bird days, feels “a terrible loss,” but not despair. “He left us with so much beauty,” says Roach, “and so much inspiration.”
HIGH McCARTEN in New York City, ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles