Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Donald Macleod explores the compositions of the most influential jazz musician of the 20th century.



He looks at Davis's earliest works, written for his collaborations with Charlie Parker, and his partnership with Gil Evans, which led to the groundbreaking Birth of the Cool.


By the early 1950s Davis was in the grip of a heroin addiction that threatened to destroy him. But in a supreme act of will he rid himself of the drug and relaunched his career with a new quintet which featured saxophone colossus John Coltrane


During the 1950s Miles was changing the nature of jazz composition. For Louis Malle's French film Lift to the Scaffold, he improvised the score to his soundtrack, using small fragments of melodic ideas to construct entire pieces. He also pioneered modal jazz with Milestones, a stepping stone towards the seminal album Kind of Blue.


The departure of John Coltrane spurred Miles on to a new challenge, and he set about recruiting a new quintet featuring such illustrious names as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter. The group's stylistic range, playing Miles' own pieces, was extraordinary, from the dawn of jazz rock on Eighty-One to the abstract freedom of Agitation.

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Miles's later years were plagued by ill health, yet his experiments with fusion, which began with the 1969 Bitches Brew album, once again changed the direction of jazz and pointed the way for a new generation.