Miles Davis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a mother. When he died last week, 65 years old and long ailing, there was nobody, absolutely nobody, who wouldn’t have called him a giant of jazz, a titan of the trumpet, a founder of contemporary American music, or many other boilerplate articles of praise — all ringing true as the extraordinary notes he conjured out of his horn for 46 years.
As a jazz trumpet player, Davis was as great as they come. Beyond that, he was an innovator, instrumental in nearly every important jazz idiom between the ”cool” style of the late ’40s and the jazz-rock fusion of the late ’60s and ’70s. He was an unparalleled bandleader, able to inspire his ensembles to heights of group improvisation. And finally, as a mentor to younger musicians he had no peer, giving an important boost over the years to well, pick a name. John Coltrane, one of the few giants who might be called Davis’ equal? Herbie Hancock, sometime pop star and a leading jazz light of the generations after Davis? Wayne Shorter? John McLaughlin? Chick Corea? All of them got key early exposure and experience in Miles Davis’ bands.
But somehow none of these easily catalogued achievements even begins to tell the real story. Davis, right at the start, defied one mythical jazz stereotype: He was born, not into poverty but, the son of a dentist and gentleman farmer, into a respectable middle-class family. He didn’t learn trumpet from (to ride the myth for all it’s worth) a boozy elder in a whorehouse band: His father gave him his first horn for his 13th birthday, even though his mother wanted him to have a violin. He wore Brooks Brothers suits and, with another famous St. Louis’ trumpeter, Clark Terry, stayed out all night at furious jam sessions — with his dad’s permission. After high school he even moved to New York to study classical trumpet at the Juilliard School of Music.
And then the jazz took over: As he later recalled, ”I spent my first week in New York and my first month’s allowance looking for Charlie Parker.” Along with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker was a fountainhead of the then obscure, wildly angular, challenging style known as bebop, which would emerge from the undergrowth to replace the relaxed swing of the Depression era and the war years, and open new possibilities for jazz. He became Davis’ mentor, and by 1945 Davis, all of 19, was playing on the historic first recordings Parker made as a leader of his own ensemble.
Music, though, wasn’t all Davis learned. Parker, like many bebop musicians, was addicted to heroin, and in its grip may have been more irresponsible than most: He was notorious for arriving at gigs too messed up to function, and often disappeared with his musicians’ pay. Davis, too, hit bottom in a bout with heroin, but again he proved very out of the ordinary. When he threw off drugs, he rode a wave of brilliant recordings to become, by the late ’50s, much more than a star trumpeter: Signing with Columbia Records, he became a full-fledged culture hero, surrounded by a mystique that began with his Ferrari and extended to his clothes and to the elegant women who might have been chosen to match the car.