Miles Davis—the Prince of Darkness, the Man With the Horn—was at the forefront of jazz for the duration of his long career. Here's a look back at the life of the original Mr Cool. 

The surgeon's son


Aged 8, before he discovered the trumpet. Image via Pinterest

Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, a city on the Mississippi River in Illinois on May 26, 1926. The Davis were a comfortable family. Miles's father, Miles Davis II was a dental surgeon with three college degrees, while his mother, Cleota Mae was a music teacher.

Miles had a quaint childhood, catching fish and riding horses with his two siblings—older sister Dorothy and younger brother Vernon. He was known as a prankster in school.

 

 

"I knew I wanted to be a musician. That was all I wanted to be"

 

 

He recalls in his biography how “By the age of 12, music had become the most important thing in my life.” His mother, a violinist herself, dearly wanted her son to play the violin. But brass was Miles’s calling, and he remembers arguments between their parents as his dad overruled her to fight his son’s corner.

He received his first trumpet in 1935 and began weekly music lessons with his father’s drinking buddy and his soon to be life-long mentor, Elwood Buchanon.

Talking about his school days, Miles recalled how, “Mr Buchanan was the biggest influence on my life… He was definitely the person who took me all the way into music at that time. I knew I wanted to be a musician. That was all I wanted to be.”

Read more: Blues, jazz and the rise of popular music

 

The Blue Devil


Image via Doug Dawg

When he was 16, Miles met his first serious girlfriend, Irene Birth. Although she was a beautiful young woman in many respects, it was her feet that first attracted Miles to her.

“She had real pretty feet. I was always a sucker for pretty little feet…Outside of her being pretty and hip, with a good body, her feet is what really attracted me.”

At the weekends, Miles and Irene would take the trolley car over the Mississippi River to St Louis to watch movies and go dancing. Although Miles was too shy to really enjoy dancing, he always felt confident when he danced with Irene.

When he turned 17, she dared him to phone Eddie Randal and ask for a job in his band—Eddie Handle’s Blue Devils. It worked. Joining the band was a breakthrough for Miles, and marked the time when he first began to write and arrange music.

It also became a way for him to meet other musicians, including Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, trumpet player Kenny Dorham (who came all the way from Texas just to hear Miles play) and Lester Young.

 

New York, New York

young miles davis new york
At the famous New York Birdland Club in 1949. Image via BirdlandClub

In the mid-40s, Miles’s parents divorced. From this point on, his relationship with his mother turned sour. He blamed her for his brother’s homosexuality (“She always treated Vernon like a girl”).

She also didn’t approve of his relationship with Irene—who had fallen pregnant by this time, something his mother believed would prevent Miles from getting a college education. Though the pair never married, Miles always claimed that he and Irene were “still like man and wife”.

By 1944, Miles had made the decision to move to New York. He passed an audition to study at the Juilliard School for drama, dance and music with flying colours. When he arrived, it was nearly the end of the Second World War and the city was filled with soldiers.

 

 

"Juilliard was only a smokescreen, a stopover, a pretence I used"

 

 

Though he was excited to be living in the Big Apple, away from his family, Miles wasn’t impressed by his studies at Juilliard.

“The shit they was talking about was too white for me. Plus, I was more interested in what was happening in the jazz scene; that's the real reason I wanted to come to New York in the first place, to get into the jazz music scene that was happening around Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, and what was going on down on 52nd Street, which everybody in music called 'The Street.' That's what I was really in New York for, to suck up all I could from those scenes; Juilliard was only a smokescreen, a stopover, a pretence I used.”


Riding to the hospital where he would need 10 stitches to his scalp after receiving a beating from a plain clothed detective. Image via NY Daily News

It wasn’t long until he decided to quit, telling his father, "Listen, Dad. There is something happening in New York. The music is changing; the styles, and I want to be in it. I'm quitting Juilliard because what they're teaching me is white and I'm not interested in that."

What his father told him next would stay in his mind forever. "Miles, you hear that bird outside the window? He's a mockingbird. He don't have a sound of his own. He copies everybody's sound, and you don't want to do that. You want to be your own man, have your own sound. That's what it's really about. So, don't be nobody else but yourself. You know what you got to do and I trust your judgment. And don't worry, I'll keep sending you money until you get on your feet."

 

Passion in Paris


Juliette Greco and Miles Davis in Pairs. Image via Fabrik Photos

With college behind him, Davis began to play professionally, full-time. He performed in several 52nd street clubs and in April 1945 recorded his first ever sessions as a sideman. His break would come only a year later when he played as the leader with the Miles Davis Sextet.

A few years later, in May 1949, Davis took a trip to France for the Paris International Jazz Festival. It was the first time he’d ever been abroad and it made a great impression on him. African Americans were treated far better in general in Paris at the time than in America, and Miles claimed the trip “changed the way I look at things forever.” He spent time with visionaries including Jean Paul Satre and Pablo Picasso.

 

 

"She taught me what it was to love someone other than music"

 

 

It was around this time that he began his love affair with the actress Juliette Greco, who he met at one of his rehearsals.

"Juliette and I used to walk down by the Seine River together, holding hands and kissing, looking into each other's eyes, and kissing some more, and squeezing each other's hands. It was like magic, almost like I had been hypnotised, was in some kind of trance. I had never done this before. I was always so into the music I never had time for any kind of romance."

"Music had been my total life until I met Juliette Greco and she taught me what it was to love someone other than music."

When he returned to America, Miles fell into a depression and a heroin habit that would take him four years to kick.

Read more: 12 Secret places for romantics in Paris

 

The blue period

Miles Davis with Billie Holiday
Having dinner with Billie Holiday in New York, 1958. Image via Morrison Hotel Gallery

When he returned to New York, Davies entered the “blue period”. His relationship with Irene was troubled, and he eventually left her and their three children behind as he toured the country, relying on the help of his friend jazz singer Betty Carter, who moved in with Irene and helped to raise the children.

During one of his tours, with Billie Holiday, he was arrested for heroin possession. Although he was acquitted a matter of months later, the bad press of the incident was enough to see a significant drop in offers of work.

His drug habit later became public in 1953 after a notorious interview with Down Beat magazine and became clear his reliance on substance abuse was beginning to affect his music. Davis also cites his heroin addiction as the cause of his infidelity, saying he began to need women to support him. He was exploiting prostitutes and working as a pimp to support the cost of his addiction.

"What got me strung out [addictied to heroin] was the depression I felt when I got back to America. That and missing Juliette."


The many hands of Miles Davis by Irving Penn. Image via Miles Davis Online

"Shooting heroin changed my whole personality from being a nice, quiet, honest, caring person into someone who was the complete opposite. It was the drive to get the heroin that made me that way. I'd do anything not to be sick, which meant getting and shooting heroin all the time, all day and all night."

 

 

"Shooting heroin changed my whole personality"

 

 

"I started to get money from whores to feed and support my habit. I started to pimp them, even before I realised that this was what I was doing. I was what I used to call a 'professional junkie.' That's all I lived for. I even chose my jobs according to whether it would be easy for me to cop drugs. I turned into one of the best hustlers because I had to get heroin every day, no matter what I had to do."

Later in 1953, Davis committed to kicking his heroin habit, locking himself in his father’s house for eight days, until all the painful withdrawal symptoms were over.

 

Jazz legends


Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. Image via Atlanta Black Star

Despite his personal troubles, the early 50s saw an output of some of Davis’s greatest works. One such recording was Walkin’, an album critics would later credit with creating the hard bop genre.

In 1955, Miles had to undergo an operation to remove polyps from his larynx. Despite strict instructions not to raise his voice post surgery, he soon got into an argument—unsurprising considering his reputation at the time for being quick to anger—and permanently damaged his vocal chords as a result. This incident gave him the raspy voice he’s so well known for.

Listen to his infamous raspy voice:

Around this time Davis began recruiting for the band that would later be crowned his “first great quintet”, with John Coltrane on saxophone.

The quintet would be a mainstay of Miles’s music for the next five years though they evolved through many styles in that time, ranging from high energy solos through to a slower more deliberate style of modal jazz.

As the fifties wore on, Davis began to work with one of his most important collaborators, the composer Gil Evans, who he would later describe as his “best friend”.

"Gil and I hit it off right away. I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music. He didn't care what colour you were. He was one of the first white people I had met that was like this. He was Canadian and maybe that had something to do with how he thought."

 

 

"The question of race never entered; it was always about music"

 

 

"Gil was just the kind of guy you love being around because he would see things nobody else saw. He loved paintings and he would show me things that I wouldn't have ever seen. Or, he would listen to an orchestration and say, 'Miles, listen to the cello right here. How else do you think that he could have played that passage?' He'd make you think about s**t all the time."


Recording with Gil around 1970. Image via NY Times

The pair’s boxset, Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album in 1997.

It was following on from Evans’s influence that Miles created his most critically acclaimed album of all, Kind of Blue, in 1959. It remains the best-selling jazz album of all time and in 2009, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to honour it as a national treasure.

 

The love of his life


Laughing with wife Frances Taylor. Image via Lipstick Alley

In 1960, Miles married the actress Frances Taylor, who gave up her role in West Side Story to be with him. 

"Man, she was a wonderful woman and I loved just being with her," Miles explained in his autobiography. "We were so compatible—I'm a Gemini and she's a Libra. I thought she was just outta sight. She was kind of tall, honey brown, beautiful, soft smooth skin, sensitive, artistic. An elegant, gracious, graceful person. I'm making her sound perfect, right? Well, she damn near was."

Sadly, their relationship was marred by domestic violence, and Frances would often flee the flat they shared together to seek shelter with Gil Evans after one of Miles’s jealous, violent outbursts.

Frances and Davis
The album cover for ESP. Frances left him just weeks after this shoot

The episodes were made worse by his alcoholism, a coping method for the pain of his newly diagnosed sickle cell anaemia. Just weeks after posing for the cover of Davis’s ESP album (above), Frances left him for the final time. The pair officially divorced in 1968.

Looking back on their marriage, Davis said, "Frances was the best wife that I ever had and whoever gets her is a lucky motherf****r. I know that now, and I wish I had known that then."

 

New friends, new sounds

Miles Davis and Betty Mabry
Miles's second wife, Betty Mabry, was a musical legend in her own right. Image via Boing Boing

Davis wasn’t alone for long. He married 23-year-old model and singer Betty Mabry the very same year his divorce from Frances was finalised. He was 42.

During their relationship, he named several songs for her including, Mademoiselle Mabry and Backseat Betty. Friends would often remark that the only reason he married Betty was because she looked like Frances. He didn’t disagree.

Although their marriage lasted only a year, Mabry was responsible for introducing Davis to rock and funk musicians who would greatly influence his sound as well as updating his style to reflect more cutting edge fashions. It was through her that he met Jimi Hendrix (who was "a real nice guy, quiet but intense").

Miles once claimed that if Betty Mabry was a singer today, she’d sound like the female Prince.


Attending the funeral of Jimi Hendrix with Betty Mabry in 1970. Image via Life

Their relationship led to the electric period of Davis’s music and the beginning of his move into jazz fusion. The iconic double album Bitches Brew was released in this time (1970).

He followed this period with a long hiatus, during which he struggled with new additions, brought on by his chronic pain. A new relationship with Cicely Tyson helped him overcome them and rediscover his passion for music. They married in 1981 in a small ceremony in Bill Cosby’s home. He described her as “that type of woman who just gets into you, gets inside your blood and your head.”

For the rest of his life and career, Davis continued to release music to general acclaim, touring around the world and even making appearances in films, including the Bill Murray picture, Scrooged.

 

Death of an icon


Captured backstage at San Francisco’s Winterland Auditorium, in 1971 by legendary jazz photographer Jim Marshall. Image via Record Mecca

In September 1991, Davis checked into hospital for some routine tests, but a disagreement with his doctors led to a cerebral haemorrhage, which left him in a coma. His life support machine was turned off a few days later. He was just 65-years-old.

His New York City funeral was attended by over 500 friends and family, with hundreds of fans standing outside in the rain. He was buried in the Bronx in a wooden coffin alongside his favourite trumpet.  

 

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