On the River Banks
The flowing waters of the Mighty Mississippi River have washed over artists throughout history as a muse binding music genres together. In 1914, the most popular blues song in history, “St. Louis Blues,” was written by W.C. Handy while sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River. The river carried the familiar Mississippi blues sounds northward to mingle with St. Louis ragtime, forming the ever-popular St. Louis blues. The musical legacy of the Mississippi River flowed into other traditional genres of blues, jazz and R&B with sounds made famous by musical icons such as Chuck Berry, Albert King, Ike & Tina Turner, and Alton’s own Miles Davis.
Alton, Illinois: Birthplace of Cool
Miles Dewey Davis III is unequivocally noted as one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century. He was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 26, 1926. The Davis family lived in a modest home on Milnor Street prior to his father relocating his dental practice and the family to East St. Louis, Illinois in 1927.
Davis’ father, Miles Davis Jr., was a successful dental surgeon, while his mother, Cleota Mae Davis, was a talented blues pianist. Though his mother was a music teacher, it was his father that first introduced Miles to the trumpet at the age of 13. He practiced for hours each day to be a master of the golden horn and was considered the trumpet star of Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. When he was 17 years old, he was already playing professionally with jazz bands in St. Louis. It was then that he met and played with jazz icons Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker for the first time.
In 1944, at the age of 18, Davis made the move to New York City to study music at Julliard School of Music. He spent his first month’s allowance in New York during the first week – looking for Charlie Parker.
His days at Julliard were filled with classical music studies, but at night, he could be found in Harlem nightclubs listening, learning, and playing with Charlie Parker’s band.
“I roomed with Parker for a year and followed him around down to 52th Street. Every night I’d write down chords on matchbook covers. Next day, I’d play these chords all day in the practice rooms at Julliard, instead of going to class,” said Davis.
Their nighttime gigs would eventually lead to the formation of bebop – a fast, improvisational style of instrumental jazz that defined the modern jazz era.
Davis played with Parker’s bands from 1945 to 1948 when he broke away to become the leader of his own nonet, whose 1949 studio recordings, steeped in bebop tradition, later became the album Birth of the Cool – transforming jazz into its next phase.
One of the Legends
Davis’ musical career spanned five decades as a trumpeter, composer, band leader and major force in the jazz world. His distinct style – one of deliberation, pacing, lyricism in improvisations and striking – launched him into the company of the greatest jazz legends of his time. During his career, he was privileged to play with John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderly, and Bill Evans. He is considered to be one of the most successful jazz artists of his time, recording and releasing more than 100 albums and winning nine Grammy Awards. He composed several jazz standards, including “Four,” “Milestones,” and “So What.” Davis’ 1959 album, Kind of Blue, is regarded as the best album of his career, as well as the best-selling jazz album of all time.
Miles Davis continued to play and develop new standards for music, right up until his death on September 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, California.
Evolution of Cool
What is cool? Cool is all about what is happening next. Miles Davis embodied all that was cool from his attitude and fashion to his style of music. He defined cool in his ability to evolve musically during the course of his 50 year career. He began playing in the 1940s and 1950s with the legends of the jazz world. In the late 1960s, he found himself drawn to the electric sounds of artists like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, morphing his music into a jazz-rock fusion. After going underground in the late 1970s, he returned in full force through the 1980s and 1990s, bringing to life a new sound of modern jazz and even giving way to the influences of hip-hop when he released his first Rap/R&B hit single, Doo Bop.
“Miles Dewey Davis III – trumpeter, visionary, and eternal modernist – was a force of nature,” wrote Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. “With an ear that disregarded categories of style, he sought new musical worlds, and generations followed his footsteps.”
PLAN A VISIT:
Miles Davis Memorial
While in Alton, plan a visit to the Miles Davis Memorial Plaza, located on Third Street in Downtown Alton. The Plaza features a bronze statue of Miles Davis created from an iconic photograph of the performer, sculpted by Preston Jackson.
About the Sculptor
Preston Jackson is a professor emeritus of sculpture at the Art Institute in Chicago. Born and raised in Decatur, Illinois, his commissioned works of art can be found all across the country from the streets of Downtown Chicago to sculpture gardens in Hartford, Connecticut. Jackson’s training is in the field of metal fabrication, and his pieces are most often cast in bronze, steel and stainless steel. His appreciation for history is evident in his work as he lends a voice to those no longer with us, revealing the personalities of our past.