Style Icons: Miles Davis — Kind of Cool

Some men are hot; they are the man of the hour, the next big thing or that “it” when it comes to music, fashion or film. The only problem with men who tip the temps at extreme heat is the fact they often burn out just as quick as they arrive. In the case of Miles Davis, perhaps the most legendary American musician and by far its most accomplished jazz composer and artist, playing it cool was a style he made famous. Many names and faces come to mind when debating the style of cool but only Miles has the weight of conclusive evidence to back up his place in history among the coolest cats.

Born to a well-to-do family in Illinois and raised in East St. Louis during the 1930’s, Miles would take to music at an early age and was accomplished enough to earn a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City when he was 18. Miles would last less than a year at Juilliard, instead seeking out the company of jazz master Charlie Parker and playing in on gigs at Harlem hotspots including Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s. Here Miles would study jazz firsthand and also bump elbows with other greats including Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro and Max Roach.

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Miles made no secret of his disdain for those in the recording industry who had made fortunes off the sound of black music without ever giving back to the ones who gave birth to the moneymaking machine.

It was in the dingy nightclubs, next to Parker and his ragtag group of beatnik followers that Miles would begin to cultivate his unmistakable style of being cool. Though Miles would emulate Parker to a dangerous degree, even developing his own heroin habit in the hopes of finding the key to Parker’s mystical genius, he cleaned himself up in time to branch out on his own and began forming quintets that brought together jazz greats who would give the 1950’s and 1960’s a soulful soundtrack that continues to awe critics and musicians to this day.

After leaving Parker and joining fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Miles became serious about music and gave birth not only to his signature playing style, but also a no-nonsense character that would not suffer fools or have his compositions questioned by critics Miles dismissed as stupid. He gave the pop scene accessible gems including Birth of the Cool, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet and Porgy & Bess. But it was in 1959 that Miles would establish himself as one of the all-time greats with the release of the incomparable Kind of Blue.

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Sad, contemplative, brilliant and cool, Kind of Blue would become Miles’ masterpiece and set the bar so high for jazz musicians that it made Miles more than just a jazz trumpeter; now he was a legend. Up to this point, Miles kept a smooth profile, outfitted himself in tailored suits and cutting a suave figure with close-cropped hair, his intense gaze and the ubiquitous cigarette. But when the 60’s began Miles’ style would rapidly transform, starting with sunglasses that never came off, outlandish outfits that borrowed from the Haight-Ashbury and Paris fashion scenes, a carefully maintained Afro and the nerve to cruise Manhattan in his yellow Ferrari, often being pulled over by white cops who doubted a black man could own such a car without having done something illegal.

The sound of Miles was reminiscent of his style: cool, intense, quiet at times and occasionally startlingly violent.
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The harassment only fueled Miles’ intensity. While producers claimed the shades were worn because Miles was inside a very shy soul and was nervous performing when people watched him, others said it helped keep his piercing glare from starting fights. Caught in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, Miles made no secret of his disdain for those in the recording industry who had made fortunes from the sound of black music without ever giving back to the ones who gave birth to the moneymaking machine. Miles was not one to play polite or toe the line; part of his character was calling out racism when he saw it and dismissing musicians that just didn’t have the chops to hang in the big leagues.

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The sound of Miles was reminiscent of his style: cool, intense, quiet at times and occasionally startlingly violent. He could breathe softly in gems like “I See your Face Before Me” and echo the mellow sounds of melancholy in the hauntingly beautiful “Blue in Green”. He spanned generations and genres, sharing studios with Dizzy, Bird, Prince, Herbie Hancock and Jimi Hendrix. There was nothing he couldn’t play and no one he couldn’t jam with. He painted, sketched, scored films and even acted a bit. He walked his own path and provided the soundtrack to a man who didn’t need sidekicks or an entourage. Sometimes bitter, occasionally off-center, Miles took chances and embraced change, creating for a legion of followers the jazz version of the I Ching. Where other men need phrases and explanations to sum up their character, Miles’ style is summed up succinctly with one appropriate word: cool.

Written by Kevin McLaughlin for MNSWR Magazine Read the original article on MNSWR.com: http://www.mnswr.com/style-icons-miles-davis-kind-cool/