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miles davis . american jazz musician . b 1926 . d 1991 

Miles Davis once said that music was "a curse" for him because he thought of nothing else while he was awake. Music was his life. But it wasn't always the passion of his life. At first, Miles wanted to be a baseball player and than a doctor, like his father, who was a dentist. But after his father gave him his first trumpet, at the age of 11, all young Miles wanted to do was learn to play the golden horn better. He practiced for hours everyday and when he entered Lincoln High School, in East St. Louis, Illinois, where he grew up, he became the trumpet star of the band. East St. Louis is on the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, Missouri and riverboats use to travel from New Orleans, up to St. Louis carrying people like trains and airplanes do today. These riverboats employed great jazz musicians to play for their passengers, and when the boats docked in St. Louis, Miles, after he became a musician would travel across the river to hear and meet many of them.

          After graduating from high school, in 1944, Miles met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in St. Louis and decided he wanted to become a jazz musician and live in New York City. At the age of 18, Miles moved to "The Big Apple" to study at the Juilliard School of Music, one of the best music schools in the world. But at night, Miles ran the streets, playing music with the greats of bebop like Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk. During the day, Miles studied classical music at Juilliard and played jazz at night. This created a tension in young Miles between learning European notated, classical music and playing the more improvisational approaches of African-American jazz. His answer was to combine the two, not favoring one over the other. One day at Julliard, a white female teacher told the class that black people played the blues because they "were poor and had to pick cotton". Miles immediately raised his hand and said that he grew up wealthy, never picked cotton and that he played the blues. Always outspoken, Miles soon dropped out of Juilliard to devote himself to playing jazz music full time. But he always admitted that the classical training he received at Julliard helped him to better understand music and become a better musician.

          When Miles Davis recorded and released "Birth of the Cool", in 1950, it made him a leader and a "star" in the music world. Because of his "cool" attitude and the beautiful, sharp, up-to-date clothes that he wore, Miles also became a leader of both style and music. People copied the way he acted and dressed, while musicians tried to play with his air of "cool" detachment. As he became more successful, Miles bought and drove sleek, fast sports cars like Lamborghini's and Ferrari's. One evening, while playing at Birdland, in New York City, at the height of his fame, Miles walked a white, female friend, the famous newspaper columnist, Dorothy Kilgallen, out of the club to get a cab. A white, male policeman, seeing a black man with a white woman, became angry and after a few words with Miles, hit him in the head with his nightstick and took him, bleeding to jail. Miles sued the city of New York but lost the settlement on a technicality. This incident caused him to never trust policemen for the rest of his life.

          In later years, Miles played his trumpet with his back to the audience. This confused and angered some people who thought he did it because he was arrogant. But the real reason Miles played this way was because it made it easier for him to give cues and signals - when to play and what to play - to his band. He once told a newspaper reporter who asked him why he played this way: "nobody ever asks classical orchestra conductors why they have their backs to the audience. The reason is that they're telling the orchestra what to play and when. You don't criticize them for doing it, so why do you criticize me for doing the very same thing." In the end, Miles was a man of few words, never speaking to the audience or announcing what he was playing. He thought that music was his language, and musical notes his words, that his trumpet and compositions should do all the talking for him, and they did. Miles Davis was famous for his low, growling, speaking voice and his sweet, haunting, ballad style of playing his trademark blue or red trumpets in the lower registers. He could play fast but preferred playing in medium tempo. He once said that he played this way because it was the way he heard music, and because he was trying to imitate the trains and speaking voices of old men and women that he had heard when he was growing up. In later years, he also imitated the wah-wah sound of the electrical guitar in his trumpet playing.

          The musical career of Miles Davis spanned over forty-five years and during all but five of those years he was a "star", the most successful jazz artist of his time, having recorded and released over 100 albums, including "Birth of the Cool," "Kind of Blue," "Workin," "Relaxin," "Steamin," "Sketches of Spain," "Bitches Brew," "On the Corner and Live at the Plugged Nickel, " all land mark, ground breaking albums. He dated beautiful and famous women, was a style setter in both music and fashion and was idolized by both musicians and music fans as a musical innovator. When he died of a stroke, in 1991, at the age of sixty-five, he was working on an album with young, black rappers that became "Doo Bop" when it was released in 1992. The record just proved that up until the very end, Miles Davis was always trying to keep up and set new standards in music.

Quincy Troupe

Biography copyright Mason Editions 2000 and Quincy Troupe. Biography may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of Mason Editions.

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