The Father of Cool

The origins of many different styles of music are difficult to trace. But one is unquestionably all American. Jazz is widely credited with having gotten its start in New Orleans, growing out of American blues and ragtime music popular around the turn of the 20th century. While its roots are in the American South, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time got started right here in Illinois.

The great Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 26, 1926. The Davis family lived in a middle-class neighborhood on Milnor Street in Alton before moving to East St. Louis. Miles’ classical musician mother, Cleota, encouraged young Miles to pursue the violin. But he instead chose to take musical advice from his dentist father and went on to learn the trumpet. It was a fateful choice.

Even in his early teens at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis Davis showed a talent that was truly exceptional. He started playing with an East St. Louis band led by local musician Eddie Randall and was influenced by some of the area’s top trumpeters.

Davis was accepted to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York. Arriving in the Big Apple he quickly found his way into the city’s leading jazz clubs where he met up with the most famous names in the industry, stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, as well as his mentor Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.

Parker believed that the best way to see if a young musician had what it took was to throw him straight into the fire. “I wanted to quit every night because Bird would leave me onstage…you would have to play or die up there,” Davis recalled of his early days under Parker’s tutelage. But he passed the test.

Chasing his dream, Davis dropped out of Julliard and joined with a quintet led by Parker in the mid-1940s before making his big breakthrough in 1949 with his album Birth of the Cool, which ushered in the era of cool jazz, a style of jazz with a more relaxed tempo than the faster bebop tunes popular up to that time.

But Davis would not be confined to just one particular type of music. He was an innovator, and for half a century he would be known for always pushing the envelope, always experimenting with new sounds and new compositions. “It had to be fresh, or forget it,” writer Ashley Kahn summarized.

With the coming of the 1950s Davis continued to innovate, combining bebop with traditional blues to create a new sound which came to be known as “hard bop.” He signed with Columbia Records in 1955, a move which brought his music to a broader audience.

But Davis’ career took a detour in the mid-50s. He fought a drug addiction which for a time caused his performances to suffer. Determined to beat the addiction and get back on stage in top form, he left New York and returned to Illinois. Moving back in with his father, one story has it that Davis quit drugs cold turkey and sequestered himself inside his family’s guest house until the withdrawal symptoms had passed, then set to work making a plan to get his life and career back on track.

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He succeeded. His late 1950s albums Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain were tremendous successes, with sales rivaling those of the pop stars of the era. They also introduced many more Americans to jazz. He began using a mute on his trumpet, finding that it gave his sound just the right amount of melancholy he wished to convey. It would remain a fixture of many of his future performances.

Kind of Blue would go down in history as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. In 2002 Kind of Blue was among the compositions chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry and on its 50th anniversary in 2009 it was the subject of a resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives declaring it a national treasure. Kind of Blue became the best-selling jazz album in history and was certified as 4x-platinum in 2008, meaning it had sold over 4 million copies in the United States.

Even with this success Davis still battled demons, including drugs and alcohol. Episodes of domestic violence ended his marriage to Frances Taylor in 1966. He would continue to battle these demons for the rest of his life, and allegations of domestic violence would leave a stain on his legacy. Once again his work went into decline in the mid-1960s, but Davis was never far from the public consciousness, and he was determined to make another comeback.

He continued to collaborate with some of the biggest names in the genre, like John Coletrane and Cannonball Adderley, always looking for a new twist or a new sound to keep his performances fresh and on the cutting edge. He continued to collaborate with leading musicians of the era, and not just jazz musicians. By the late 1960s Davis had pioneered a new genre known as electric jazz which combined traditional jazz with rock and funk for his 1968 album Miles in the Sky. His performances veered from the sounds of James Brown to Jimi Hendrix. Electric jazz, or fusion, bred new sounds and new bands, many of them made up of young musicians who had once shared the stage with Davis.

By the mid-1970s Davis was suffering from a number of ailments and was forced to take a break from performing, one which lasted until 1980. His 1982 album We Want Miles won him a Grammy, one of the eight he won over the course of his career. He kept performing throughout the decade, continuing to innovate and collaborate with a diverse cross-section of artists. In 1990 he received the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

Davis was always looking to the future. “I don’t want you to like me because of Kind of Blue,” he once said. “Like me for what we’re doing now.”

Miles Davis died in 1991, but his music lives on. He recorded over a hundred albums, the last of which, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux, was released in 1993 and featured music he recorded with Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival shortly before he died. Davis was laid to rest in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where jazz great Duke Ellington is buried. Buried with him was one of the trumpets he used to change music forever.

“Miles Davis was the most widely recognized jazz musician of his era, an outspoken social critic and an arbiter of style – in attitude and fashion – as well as music,” says his Rolling Stone biography.

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Davis was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2015 his hometown of Alton dedicated a statue in his memory as part of Miles Davis Plaza along Third Street near the Mississippi River. The statue was created by renowned sculptor Preston Davis of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Though he may be a jazz icon,” his Hall of Fame introduction reads, “Davis’ influence on rock and roll is undeniable. His love of pushing the envelope and experimentation with rock rhythms have influenced punk-funk, grunge and more.”

Kahn put it more succinctly. “Miles Dewey Davis III – trumpeter, visionary and eternal modernist –was a force of nature.”