In 1975, Miles Davis put down his trumpet and retired. Davis was famous for his dramatic silences in performance: the notes he chose not to play were almost as meaningful as those he did. But this silence would last for nearly five years, during which he all but disappeared into his Upper West Side brownstone. Visitors evoked a macabre dungeon swarming with prostitutes, drug dealers, hangers-on, and corpulent roaches. Davis, who styled himself as jazz’s “Prince of Darkness,” later confirmed the rumors with unabashed relish in his 1989 autobiography, Miles, written with the poet Quincy Troupe.
Yet for all this decadence, there was a noble, almost monastic aura to Davis’s retirement at forty-nine, after one of the most extraordinary careers in postwar music. Davis had taken part in almost every phase in jazz’s evolution since the mid-1940s. Born in 1926 into a prosperous black family just outside East St. Louis, he arrived in late 1944 in New York. His official reason was to attend Juilliard, but this was a smokescreen to placate his father, an oral surgeon who owned a three-hundred-acre farm. His real reason was to follow his idols, the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who were revolutionizing jazz at clubs in Harlem and on West 52nd Street. Parker, whose appetite for music was exceeded only by his appetite for heroin, taught Davis bebop, a form of small-group improvisation characterized by extreme velocity and complex chord progressions, and warned him to stay away from the needle—advice Davis ignored to his lasting regret. He was a classic bohemian rebel, irresistibly drawn to the sound, and the forbidden pleasures, of the street.
Davis, who died of a stroke in 1991, played on some of Parker’s finest sessions, but he was a somewhat tentative, even ambivalent bopper, because he couldn’t play as high or as fast as Gillespie. He was searching for a mellower, less frenetic approach to bop, and found it in “cool” jazz, a style he developed in the late 1940s with the Canadian-born orchestrator Gil Evans. So fervently did he believe in his own vision that, at twenty-three, he turned down an offer from Duke Ellington.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Davis assembled bands that were notable for their startling contrasts of personnel, like the pairing in his late 1950s sextet of John Coltrane, a tenor saxophonist with a furiously probing, gnarled style, and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, a buoyant, sweet-toned alto player who always sounded as if he’d just gotten out of church.
Davis became known as “the sorcerer” because of his alchemical flair for transforming the humblest of materials—a Tin Pan Alley song, a simple bass line, even another musician’s wrong note—into an exalted form of expression. Shy to the point…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.