Sunday, 2 May 2010

Essay: The Influence of Miles Davis on the History of Jazz

The history of jazz encompasses a multifaceted mosaic of places, performers and progressions of style. While it is not possible to isolate a singular point of reference for its beginning, there are a number of individuals who stand out and loom large as leading figures. One such luminary is Miles Davis, trumpet player, band leader, musical innovator, and in the words of fellow musician Chico Hamilton, “jazz’s only superstar” (Kart 2004:201). This essay will discuss the influence Miles Davis had on the development of jazz by looking at his involvement at critical junctures in its evolution. In particular, it will focus on the stylistic innovations he brought to jazz, as well as looking at the importance he played in the development of bop, cool, modal and fusion jazz. Furthermore, he will be discussed in relation to how his contribution has been received by music critics and historians.

Davis emerged on the scene of New York in 1944 at the same time a revolution in jazz was underway (Merod 2001:72). Bop (the shorter version of ‘bebop’ or ‘rebop’) was a revolt against the big bands, commercialism, racial injustice, and the restrictive harmonic framework of the jazz that was in style at the time (Kingman 1990:385). In this period he played a significant role in the revolution, not as a pioneer or founding father, but rather as a participant, and worked with such notable figures as Thelonious Monk, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and it was here that he ‘learned bop’s arcane language by imitation, informal tutelage, and constant jamming alongside players whose mastery was superior to his own’ (Merod 2001:72-74).

It was during this time of working with the Parker quintet that Davis perfected his approach to difficult melodic lines and rhythms which were played at breakneck speed (Merod 2001:72). However, at first Davis could not play high, loud or fast, and as he was young and still developing the strength of his lip muscles, he felt more comfortable playing with a light sound (Tanner et al 2001:219). This gave his playing an extraordinary emotional power infusing the sound with stark dramatic explorations of personal inwardness. And it was from this brooding and lyrical intensity that Davis’s trumpet persona emerged; and with it his own language – a heartbreaking plangent poetry of the soul, from which you could hear yourself think (Merod 2001:73; McConnell 1991:617).

In 1948, Davis collaborated with composer and arranger Gil Evans and the Claude Thornhill band who were working with ‘layered harmonic voicings’, and had introduced the french horn and tuba, and played them as ‘melodic rather than…rhythm instrument[s]’ (Merod 2001:86; Sales 1992:163). Dissatisfied at the increasingly virtuoso instrumentalism of bop at the time, the band was a confederation of sympathetic musicians who had been meeting in Evans’s apartment to rehearse and exchange new ideas (Sales 1992:163). Davis took an active leadership and secured a gig for the nine-piece, but most importantly, he secured a contract with Capitol Records.

The twelve sides they recorded between 1949-1950 were collected together for the eventual 1954 album Birth of the Cool, which launched the ‘cool’ sound and pointed the way for the sound of the 1950s (Tanner et al 2001:220). It is interesting to note one cut in particular from the album “Boplicity”, which can be seen as marking the transition from bop to cool. Kingman (1990:388) suggests that while the tempo has been slowed down, it still exhibits particular bop characteristics: the light style of drumming; the importance of the bass in keeping the beat; and that quintessential trademark of bop – the unison playing at the beginning of the piece.

Ironically, having fathered the ‘birth of cool’, Davis was among the first to turn away from it with the recording in 1954 of Walkin’, a twelve-bar blues whose straight-ahead funkiness loomed in contrast to the cerebral restraint of cool (Sales 1992:171). Known as ‘hard bop’, it came at a time when cool was being disdained as ‘white man’s music’, and was embraced as a welcome return to ‘soul’ and represented a return to the roots of jazz, especially its roots in black gospel music (Kingman 1990:389).

It was during this time that Davis emerged as the dominant influence in jazz on a number of levels:
as a trumpet stylist, as a best-selling recording star who broadened the audience for authentic jazz, as a leader with an uncanny gift for launching important new trends, and for introducing innovative musicians who were to help shape the future course of jazz (Sales 1992:176).
Importantly, Davis had also begun to develop the playing style that characterises much of his later work, borrowing the softer tone from his cool era, and slowing down the melodic activity. His phrasing also became fragmented leaving space for the rhythm section, from which he set himself apart by playing scale-oriented, rather than chord-oriented long notes. By 1958, he had freed himself further with the use of modal scales and slower moving harmonies. For example, ‘rather than weave a melody through complex bop or funk harmonies, he suspended his melodies based on early modes, above the harmony’ (Tanner et al 2001:223).

This can be seen in the Milestones recording with standard chord changes being abandoned, instead adopting a series of scales as the framework for improvising. This technique is called ‘modal’ and it had a ‘profound impact on the future of jazz’ (Sales 1992:178). It should also be noted that Davis did not invent modal jazz but popularised it (Sales 1992:180). The work that best exemplifies the sound is Kind of Blue, which was recorded in 1959 and went on to become the highest selling jazz album of all time with over four million copies sold, and is considered his magnus opus (Tanner et al 2001:224). The album is so significant that in 2009, the US House of Representatives voted 409-0, to pass a resolution honouring the album and declaring jazz to be a national treasure (ABC 2009).

Between 1969 and 1975, Davis went through the most productive phase of his career. While this ‘fusion’ period is marked by further experimentation and innovation, the direction he took is the most controversial (Svorinich 2001:91). In the face of the ascendancy of rock and roll, Davis began introducing electronics and a rock aesthetic. He added electric keyboards and a wah-wah effect pedal for his trumpet, and took on musicians with rock experience into his band (Svorinich 2001:100).

Always perceptive to what was in the air, Davis was aware that the use of a rock beat would hold the attention of his audience, regardless of how abstract some of the solos were. He was also evolving his studio technique, and started to adopt the rock method of recording large amounts of material and then editing it on tape and creating albums (Shipton 2001:858). This can be seen on the recordings In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew both recorded in 1969 (Milkowski 2003:29). However, critics were divided with some condemning that his foray into fusion was just a cynical attempt to grab a piece of the rock action. Regardless of whether they were right or not, the fact that the fusion movement remains very much alive today is testimony to the influence he exerted on the next generation (Sales 1991:202).

Through each of his stylistic incarnations, Davis was supported by a cohort of capable musicians, who went on to develop their own styles and forge their own places in the history of jazz. Among these were John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, and Tony Williams. Aside from his legendary trumpet playing, his legacy derives, in part, from his ability to assemble the right musicians at the right time, and from his leadership ability to provoke and extract the best results to augment his own. He insisted that his musicians ‘play beyond themselves, that they reach for more than they know how to execute’ (Merod 2001:80).

There is no doubt that music critics and historians revere Davis as one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, and indeed, American music (McConnell 2001:616). Whether it is his ability to sense new directions, assimilate their attributes, and popularise the new style, he was certainly a maverick amongst musicians (Tanner et al 2001:225). His genius was centred on an ability to construct and manipulate improvisational probabilities, selecting and combining compositions, players, musical styles and other performance parameters (Smith 1995:41).

However, Walser (1993:343) points out that jazz critics and historians have never known how to explain the power and appeal of his playing, and notes that there has been a critical blindness to his actual trumpet playing. In this regard he specifically argues that Davis was ‘infamous for missing more notes than any other major trumpet player.’ But perhaps it was this raggedness and raw primal nature of his playing that characterised his personal style, which was conducive to his very intimate expression. This ‘flawed technique’ supported ‘a glimpse he often gave us of the raw emotional world emanating from his music’ (Tanner et al 2001:225).

The above discussion has provided an outline of the influence Miles Davis had on the development of jazz. In particular, his involvement was charted through the stylistic innovations he brought to jazz and the importance he played in the development of bop, cool, modal and fusion jazz. Ultimately, music critics and jazz historians have been unanimous in their agreement that Miles Davis has been one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, pointing to his musical ability, his sense for change, and gift for bringing together talented musicians who would go on to become trendsetters in their own right. Finally, the legacy of Davis lives on through the way he still speaks to us through his music – through the intimacy of his horn he communicates to us directly, personally and immediately with whispered messages from another universe.

Australian Broadcast Corporation (2009) “US House of Reps Honours Miles Davis Album” (accessed 29 April 2010).

Kart, L. (2004) Jazz in Search of Itself. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kingman, D. (1990) American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition). New York: Schirmer Books.

McConnell, F. (1991) “The Prince of Darkness: Miles Davis R.I.P.” Commonweal, 118 (18): 616-617.

Merod, J. (2001) “The Question of Miles Davis”. Boundary 2, 28 (2): 57-103.

Milkowski, B. (2003) “Fusion: The Vaunted F-word: From Where Did It Come? And More Importantly, Where Is It Going?”. Jazziz, 20 (3):28-31.

Sales, G. (1992) Jazz: America’s Classical Music. New York: Da Capo Press.

Shipton, A. (2001) A New History of Hazz. London and New York: Continuum.

Smith, C. (1995) “A Sense of the Possible: Miles Davis and the Semiotics of Improvised Performance”. The Drama Review, 39 (3): 41-55.

Svorinich, V. (2001) “Electric Miles: A Look at the “In a Silent Way” and “On the Corner Sessions”. Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 11 (2000-2001): 91-107.

Tanner, P. O., Megill, D. W. and Gerow, M. (2001) Jazz (9th edition). New York, London, Sydney: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Walser, R. (1993) “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis”. The Musical Quarterly, 77 (2): 343-365.


  1. Nice writeup, and some good pointers to some music to look out for.
    Only thing I'm not sure of is the stylesheet for the blog with fully-justified paragraphs - I'd prefer a ragged right personally, as the justification has inserted a lot of white space into some lines...

  2. cheers Kai :) how do I do ragged right justification. the format you see here was deliberately chosen by me, but i'm open to advice.

  3. very nice Tim, this ref from (Tanner et al 2001:223). I feel is the most significant - from what I've read and heard of Miles anyways.

  4. Thanks John. Man I wish blogger would send an email when someone comments. Sorry for the delay.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hi there fellas. nice site. I am having research right now to complete my dessertation.
    Thank you for the wonderful topic you got there.

  7. This is a very intelligent assessment. As a lover of jazz, particularly, bebop, I appreciate it. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Arya, forgive the belated reply. It's nice to read a comment that is not spam.

  8. Nice! I was typing a paper about Miles Davis Innovations But I wanted to get rid of sone of his biographical aspects, and.. .. I found this Blog.
    Thank you


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