Miles Davis

Known by many as “The Picasso of Jazz,” Davis, a composer and trumpeter, consistently revised and expanded his own approach, style, and image. He was the creation of no public relations department; he made himself.

Davis is famous both for the extraordinary range and diversity of his work (the official Columbia Records website requires no less than five different time periods to summarize him) and for a single breathtaking achievement: 1959's Kind of Blue, often cited as the greatest jazz recording of all time. The album is one of the few twentieth-century American achievements in music—perhaps the only one—that has won, and held on to, virtually unanimous popular and critical agreement on its greatness. Kind of Blue is, perhaps, the easiest jazz album of all time to fall in love with.

Having begun his professional career accompanying the incomparable saxophonist Charlie Parker, Davis embarked on a solo career in the late 1940s. Despite winning recognition from fellow musicians for his immense talent, Davis didn't hit his stride until 1954, when he overcame a heroin addiction.

On the March

To learn more about Miles Davis, visit, and check out Kind of Blue (Columbia).

From that point forward, he occupied himself with a campaign of relentless musical experimentation and self-invention that won attention and commercial success that most jazz players could only dream of. Uneasy about labels, Davis would spend most of his career attempting to transcend them; for nearly half a century, he pursued an elegant, innovative approach to playing and composing that was both highly influential and accessible to those not familiar with the intricacies of jazz. He managed, in other words, to be both a pacesetter and (by jazz standards, anyway) a populist.

In 1959, the year of Kind of Blue, Davis was relaxing between sets outside the most celebrated jazz venue in the world: New York City's Birdland. A passing policeman, apparently uneasy at the sight of a black man standing his own ground, began to harass him. Davis, a fiercely proud man, talked back—and received a beating at the hands of New York's finest. Davis's attempts to bring legal proceedings came to nothing, and the already hard-bitten musician became even more cynical than he had been about race relations in America. On tour in Europe, by contrast, Davis consistently found that he was treated as what he was: one of the great geniuses of the century.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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