“When I’m playing, I’m never through. It’s unfinished. I like to find a place to leave for someone else to finish it. That’s where the high comes in.”
Miles Davis to Richard Cook
2002 interview for The Guardian
Miles Davis was the quintessential American jazz musician, not only in the vanguard of the idiom as it burgeoned in the 1940s, but growing with it, influencing it and shaping it for the next five decades. In the pantheon of historic jazz trumpet players there is Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, with Miles particularly revered for his ability to use space, light and shade like no other.
Though many of today’s fans first came to Miles after hearing his monumental 1970 jazz fusion album, Bitches Brew, he was right in the thick of the American jazz scene soon after his 1945 arrival in New York, playing in saxophonist Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet and playing and recorded with John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Al McKibbin, Billie Holiday and other greats of into the mid-1950s. His performance at the second Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 led to a contract with Columbia Records and a series of later 1950s albums (Kind of Blue, Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, Porgy & Bess) that took him from jazz favorite to leading popular musician.
Miles continued to develop and change into the 1960s and early 70s, influenced by rock and funk, African rhythms and electric music. His popularity and commercial success thrived, but by 1975 personal demons combined with exhaustion to drive Miles underground, and he didn’t record or play in public again until the early 1980s. During this period Columbia Records continued to pay him a stipend, a deal they made with only one other musician, Vladimir Horowitz.
When Miles re-emerged and resumed his career he also resumed the boundless growth of his music, using younger musicians and incorporating pop sounds and new standards in his repertoire. He played with Prince and recorded pop songs like Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, saying, “A standard fits like a thoroughbred. The melody and everything is just right, and every time you hear it you want to hear it some more. And you leave enough of it to know you want to hear it again.” Miles won two Grammys for jazz soloist in the 80s and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
Martin ‘Committee’ horns were coveted by jazz musicians even before Miles’ early career days. The company was founded in 1855 by German immigrant John Heinrich Martin; in 1939 they introduced a trumpet designed with input from an exalted ‘committee’ that quickly became the go-to instrument for jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie. Though other players changed brands over the years, Miles famously stuck with ‘Committee’ trumpets. When the Martin Company was sold (first to Wurlitzer in the 1960s and then Leblanc in 1971) they stopped making the ‘Committee’ model for a while – but continued to make them on a custom basis for Miles. As one writer put it:
Others can copy the tapered tuning slide; the cone-shaped, cornet-like bell; and even the quirky water keys. But nobody has deciphered the magic formula for that unique tone — so smooth, so dusky, so … jazzy. And it’s not just the tone. Some players love them for what a persnickety symphonic type might consider a flaw: They don’t slot well, so it’s easy to slide into and out of notes à la Miles Davis.
Leblanc gave the ‘Committee’ trumpet project to designer and technician Larry Ramirez, a jazz trumpeter himself. Ramirez designed custom instruments like a slide trumpet for Maynard Ferguson and a four-valve for Don Ellis, and was the only one at the factory who fully understood what Miles Davis wanted in his trumpets. At Miles’ request, Ramirez created a red, a black and a blue trumpet with the gilt moon and stars decoration. One was ready just before Miles was to give a major performance in Denver, which happened to be Ramirez’s home town, so Larry was able to hand deliver it to Miles in his Denver hotel room. Miles buried the bell in Larry’s stomach to try the trumpet so as not to wake his wife, Cicely Tyson, asleep in the next room. This was a highlight of Ramirez’s life and a story he told many times.
Blue is a color closely associated with Miles ever since his 1955 album Blue Moods and the 1959 classic Kind of Blue, considered by many the best jazz album of all time. Miles, who had a famously restless creative mind, was a visual artist as well as a musician. Cicely Tyson gave him a sketchbook in 1980 and he was never without one after that, something he credited for helping stay sober.
The Davis family retained the red moon and stars trumpet; Miles is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx – near the grave of Duke Ellington - with the black trumpet at his side. Inscribed on his headstone are a couple bars of his music and Sir Miles Davis, his formal title following his 1988 induction into the Knights of Malta at the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Miles was also known as The Prince of Darkness. But perhaps the best of his monikers was The Picasso of Jazz.
“Don't play what's there, play what's not there.” Miles Davis