Miles Davis is often referred to as ‘the Picasso of jazz’. Born and raised in Illinois, he moved to New York in 1944, where he joined the bebop quintet of his idol, the saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Following a star turn at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, Davis was offered a long-term contract with Columbia Records. He soon went on to produce a string of critically acclaimed albums — Milestones, Porgy & Bess and Kind of Blue, to name but three. The last of those, recorded in just two sessions in 1959, remains the best-selling jazz album of all time.
Davis continued to record, perform and innovate in the 1960s and early 1970s, absorbing influences from Stockhausen to soul. By 1975, however, a combination of exhaustion, personal demons and drug addiction forced him to take time out. He wouldn’t pick up a musical instrument again in earnest until the early 1980s, which was when the blue-lacquer ‘Moon and Stars’ trumpet — sold for $275,000 on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York — was created for him.
The trumpet was made by the Martin Company, which had been founded in Chicago in 1865 by the German instrument-maker, Johann Heinrich Martin. By the middle of the 20th century, demand for its trumpets was pretty much insatiable. Dizzy Gillespie was a huge fan, Miles Davis was another.
Davis was particularly fond of a model called the Committee. So much so that when the Martin Company was sold to a rival manufacturer in the 1960s — and the production of Committee trumpets officially stopped — they continued to be custom-made for Davis.
The Committee horn auctioned at Christie’s was one of a set of three conceived by designer Larry Ramirez, who was a part-time jazz trumpeter himself. At Davis’s request, one was coloured red, one blue and one black — each of them decorated with a gilt moon and stars, and with the word ‘Miles’ inscribed inside the bell.
Ramirez lived in Denver, which — as good luck would have it — was where Davis was playing one of his first comeback concerts, in the summer of 1981. The designer was able to hand-deliver the first two trumpets he’d finished (the blue and the black) to Davis’s motel room one night.
Ramirez told the story, in later life, of the nerves he’d felt at the moment Davis handed him back one of the horns and said, ‘You play, don’t you?’. He duly played a tentative passage from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and remembers his relief when Davis observed, ‘Man, you play pretty good’.
Davis’s attempts to get his career back on track after his troubles of the late 1970s were recounted in a 2015 movie, Miles Ahead, starring and directed by Don Cheadle. Contemporary jazz star Keyon Harrold was employed to play the trumpet parts.
‘Handling the blue Moon and Stars horn is, for jazz lovers, like handling a holy relic,’ says Harrold in our video above. ‘The design is flawless, and the gold engravings just beautiful.
‘Davis was very detail-oriented when it came to his trumpets, and you can imagine he was heavily involved with the design of this one... It also gives out a beautiful tone when you play it — with very little resistance. Kind of like a free blow. The Committee horns were Miles Davis’s favourite, and any one that once belonged to him is a classic object.’
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The trumpet that came to Christie’s, then, is both a fine piece of craftsmanship and marks a crucial moment in Davis’s career, as he made his long-awaited return to music.
As for the two other ‘Moon and Stars’ horns made at the same time, the red trumpet has remained in the star’s family since his death in 1991, while the black one is buried at Davis’s side in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.