Miles Davis: Beauty and Anger

October 01, 1991

When Miles Davis, the son of an affluent dental surgeon, was growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, his mother wanted him to play the violin. On his 13th birthday, he got a trumpet instead. Two years later he was a card-carrying professional musician performing around St. Louis with Eddie Randall's Blue Devils.

That was the start of Miles Davis' incredibly inventive musical career which was aptly summed up by jazz authority Leonard Feather, "You can really say he turned the whole jazz world around. He just had a guiding principle: move ahead. . . don't do what you were doing yesterday."

Miles Davis, who died Saturday at 65, was an endless innovator. Initially trained in the be-bop tradition, he was one of the originators of the "cool jazz" style. But just a decade after producing such enormously satisfying albums as "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" with Gil Evans, he began experimenting with rock rhythms. After his 1969 rock-fusion albums, "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," jazz was never the same. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever were only a few of the bands that got their inspiration from Miles Davis, who continued to experiment, moving ultimately from rock to funk.

This musical odyssey reflected his own restlessness and rebellion. A one-time heroin addict and self-acknowledged pimp, he seemed determined to live up to his reputation as an anti-hero. He battered women. He talked and dressed to announce that conventional rules did not apply to him. In concerts, he often turned his back to the audience -- or walked off the stage when other musicians were playing solo.

In August, when he was made a chevalier in the French Legion d'Honneur, Culture Minister Jack Lang called him "the Picasso of jazz" who "imposed his law on the world of show business: aesthetic intransigence."

Yes, that was Miles Davis. His trumpet could express lyrical coolness as well as the inner anger he tried to control throughout his life.

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