FEW JAZZMEN are ever identified with even one major innovation in the music. Miles Davis, who died Saturday at age 65, was associated with at least four.
In the late '40s, he played as a sideman to Charlie Parker in the midst of the be-bop revolution. In the early-'50s, Davis headed up the nonet that recorded "The Birth of Cool," a series of sessions that were indeed the genesis of the cool-jazz school. In the late-'50s, Davis paved the way for the modal-jazz movement, and in the late-'60s, he led the jazz-rock fusion breakthrough.
It's not that Davis was such a great technical trumpeter; in fact, the late-'50s featured trumpeters like Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Dizzy Gillespie who could blow rings around him. Davis, though, enjoyed the crucial insight that is ultimately more important in jazz than virtuosity.
He created a voice on the horn that sounded like no one else's, and as such served as a vehicle for the most personal emotions.
Davis made many memorable albums in many different styles, but if you want to understand the awe he commanded throughout his 46-year recording career, there's no better place to start than his 1959 album "Kind of Blue."
Consider, for example, "All Blues" from the album. The tune begins with Bill Evans' rolling, trembling piano figure, followed by a relaxed but hypnotic four-note riff repeated again and again by saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
Emerging quietly from the background to take command is the (( sound of a muted trumpet that could have been played by no one but Miles Davis. It's a tender, wounded sound -- a translucent, watercolor smear of sound -- that communicates an intense romanticism like nothing else in jazz.
Realizing that he could never play more on the trumpet than his more technically accomplished colleagues, Davis early in his career decided to play less.
When he pulls the mute out of his trumpet for his second solo on "All Blues," he plays austere, minimalist phrases that never make an unnecessary move. Like the telling silences in a lover's confession, Davis' pauses express as much as his notes.
"All Blues" not only showcases Davis' talent as a soloist but also as a composer, bandleader and innovator. The composition is simple, but the geometry of the trembling piano figure, the bouncy riff and the extended trumpet line works beautifully. As he did with his playing, Davis stripped away all the excess from his compositions and made their irreducible elements stand out all the more elegantly.
Although his 1959 band was probably his greatest, it was typical of the imaginative combinations and high standards Davis sought in his groups. It was a masterstroke to pit the aggressive muscularity of Coltrane and Adderley against the delicate minimalism of Evans and him self.
Over the course of his career, Davis employed the likes of Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, Gil Evans, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Branford Marsalis, Mtume, Airto and the Baltimore saxophonists Gary Bartz and Gary Thomas.
Davis was born the son of a middle-class African-American dentist in Alton, Ill., on May 26, 1926. He grew up in East St. Louis, where he was such a musical prodigy that he acquired his musician's union card at age 15. He arrived in New York in 1944 at age 18 to study at the Juilliard School of Music, but his real education took place late at night, when he shadowed Parker around town, eventually becoming the tragic saxophonist's trumpeter and roommate. His recordings with Parker are inconsistent, but the best ones reveal Davis contrasting himself with his mentor -- already searching for an original voice.
He was also fascinated by the lush, orchestral jazz being played by the Claude Thornhill Band, and in 1949 -- after he'd left Parker's band -- Davis formed an alliance with Thornhill's young arranger, Gil Evans. Together Davis and Evans fashioned the nonet that played on "The Birth of Cool" sessions for Capitol Records and reunited in the mid-'50s for two surprisingly successful experiments with orchestral strings, "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess" for Columbia Records.
In 1954, after kicking a debilitating heroin habit cold turkey, he formed a stable quintet (featuring Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones) that created a most sympathetic environment for Davis' new voice, the intensely romantic minimalist. This group made some superb albums for Prestige Records (such as "Workin' and Steamin'"), and after 1958 (with Adderley added and either Evans or Wynton Kelly replacing Garland on piano) for Columbia Records.
His next important group, formed in 1964 and lasting till '68, featured pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. This band built upon the modal inventions of the Evans/Coltrane group to create an even more distinctive sound, thanks to the rhythm section's emphatic accents, the strong original compositions by Hancock and Shorter and Davis' own expanded sense of harmony. They're at their best on albums like "Nefertiti," "Sorcerer" and "Miles Smiles."
By 1968, though, Davis had grown fascinated by rock 'n' roll acts like Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Booker T & the M.G.s. He gradually tried to integrate rock into jazz, hiring electric pianists Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea and electric guitarist John McLaughlin for "In a Silent Way," and then shaking the world with the fusion landmark, "Bitches Brew."
Not only was it the best-selling album of Davis' career, but it defined the sound of fusion, which dominated jazz for the next dozen years or so. Almost all the important fusion bands were led by Davis alumni: Return to Forever by Corea; the Mahavishnu Orchestra by McLaughlin; Weather Report by Zawinul and Shorter; the Headhunters by Hancock.
I last saw Davis play at the New Orleans Center for the Performing Arts in 1985. The aging but still lean trumpeter wore wrap-around shades, a black sombrero, black leather pants, a black jacket embroidered with a sequin dragon. With a $l transmitter microphone attached to his trumpet, he prowled the stage, often turning his back on the audience. When he stopped, he would curl himself into the shape of a question mark as his back curved around his golden horn.
When he played, however, it was easy to solve the question of his notorious on-stage shyness (or arrogance, depending on the observer).
Even when he played a pop ditty like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" or Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," Davis played with that same wounded tone, that same unmistakable signature sound as he had on "All Blues." When guitarist John Scofield challenged him with a biting, succinct solo, Davis responded with a solo so revealing in its emotional confessions that it's no wonder the trumpeter turned away.
We will not hear his like again.