In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Miles Davis

  • Introduction
  • General Jazz History Overviews and Textbooks
  • Compilations
  • Reference Works
  • Collaborations

Music Miles Davis
Brian Casey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0285


Miles Davis is consistently regarded as one of the most iconic, impactful, and creative innovators in the history of jazz. He is recognized by most jazz historians as being a key player in the development of several of the major subgenres in modern jazz. As a bandleader, Miles Davis repeatedly created some of the most cohesive, integrated, and innovative groups in jazz. Many of the musicians who joined Miles Davis groups became major voices in jazz, both with his groups and as leaders; a short list includes John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea. Born Miles Dewey Davis III on 26 May 1926 in Alton, Illinois, Davis was the son of a dentist and was raised in a middle-class lifestyle, yet one amid the endemic racism of the Midwest in the 1930s. While still in his teens, Davis moved to New York City and almost immediately was playing music with the progenitors of the modern jazz movement. After replacing Dizzy Gillespie in the frontline of Charlie Parker’s quintet, Davis went on to lead his own mid-sized group, the Miles Davis Nonet, which explored a novel approach to modern jazz that was later associated with the cool jazz subgenre. Never willing to compromise and striving for continual development, Davis fought through heroin addiction in the early 1950s and produced music in 1954 associated with the development of yet another subgenre, hard bop. With the critical and popular success of a 1955 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Davis ascended to the highest ranks of jazz stardom, and formed the 1950s Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane, regarded as a model of modern jazz interaction and performance. 1959 saw Davis exploring another new approach termed modal jazz and producing what is commonly regarded as the best-selling record in the history of jazz, Kind of Blue. By 1964, Davis had retooled his quintet to produce the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s (known to many as Davis’s Second Great Quintet), featuring Wayne Shorter, which created an approach to composition and group improvisation subsequently referred to as post bop. Refusing to become static creatively, Davis was innovative in the application of popular and rock music influences to jazz, helping lead the way toward the development of jazz-rock fusion. Davis continued to explore electronic forms of jazz until his death in 1991. This article generally privileges scholarly writing and collections to best aid the Miles Davis researcher.

General Jazz History Overviews and Textbooks

Miles Davis is rightfully a significant part of any volume addressing the history or appreciation of jazz. Because Davis is recognized as an influence in several capacities and throughout several periods, biography and musical analysis will usually appear in multiple locations in the text, whether the volume is organized chronologically or by topic. Publications primarily designed as textbooks (DeVeaux and Giddins 2017, Gridley 2012, and Martin and Waters 2016) or those designed and marketed more specifically for general readership (Berendt and Huesmann 2009, Gioia 2011, and Shipton 2007) often dedicate one or more chapters to the phenomenon of Miles Davis, either singling out his impact, or in context with a collaborator like John Coltrane or Gil Evans. Many other topic-specific jazz histories have extensive index listings for “Miles Davis” that indicate a preponderance of information on Davis throughout the specified historical coverage. Coryell and Friedman 1978, Nicholson 1998, and Fellezs 2011 have been collected here rather than in the section on the Fusion era due to the volume’s general readership. Not specifically for a scholar looking for nuance on specific aspects of Miles Davis’s career, the entries in this section provide excellent context on the role of Davis in the history of jazz and collectively serve to form a balanced view of the many ways in which Davis and his music have impacted the history of jazz. As is the case with this bibliography overall, many worthy volumes are not included here. Cross-referencing published bibliographies included in these volumes will assist the researcher in developing a comprehensive understanding of the depth and breadth of writings in this genre that include valuable references to Miles Davis.

  • Berendt, Joachim-Ernst, and Günther Huesmann. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. 7th ed. Rev. and expanded. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009.

    Miles Davis is featured in several places in this comprehensive book on jazz and is mentioned hundreds of times in all possible contexts. Dedicated sections include an extended feature in “Musicians of Jazz” out of eleven total and several paragraphs with “the Trumpeters.” Davis also has a prominent place in several sections of the “Styles of Jazz” as well as big bands and combo sections. Excellent as a Davis survey.

  • Coryell, Julie, and Laura Friedman. Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music. New York: Delacourt Press, 1978.

    With a dedication to Miles Davis, this was the first book on fusion. The ten-page section dedicated to Davis is a comprehensive biography followed by extended interview excerpts on a variety of topics, many well beyond the concept of fusion. Davis’s thoughts on Ellington, Gillespie, Stockhausen, and Chopin are indicative of the breadth of this material. Significant features of many of Davis’s 1970s sidepeople supplement Davis research.

  • DeVeaux, Scott, and Gary Giddins. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017.

    A distinctive retelling of the history of jazz from a contemporary perspective in a textbook by two of the premier jazz musicologists and critics of the day. While Davis shares only one chapter title with John Coltrane, his presence is pervasive as influential throughout all modern styles and eras: bebop, cool, hard bop, modal, fusion, 1980s. Davis commands three of the seventy-seven listening examples; only matched by Louis Armstrong.

  • Fellezs, Kevin. Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822394389

    A focus on four artists who all have recognized the vast impact Davis had on their lives and their careers; three of the four were integral members of Miles Davis ensembles of the 1960s. Fellezs discusses the role of genre formation and understanding, as well as cultural legitimacy, in the development of jazz-rock fusion, and how Miles Davis was at the center of these factors.

  • Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A clear narrative with an abundance of nuance, both historically and critically, Davis features prominently throughout starting with the beginning of the modern jazz era. Biographical details are enmeshed with the narrative of Davis’s role in the development of most modern styles from cool, 1950s neo-traditional, modal, and fusion. Conspicuous in its absence is hard bop. Significant focus on Davis’s influence on others and their influence on him.

  • Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

    Among the most highly regarded jazz history textbooks, Gridley’s inclusion of Davis in bebop and hard bop sections are more extensive than most other histories. Significant emphasis on Davis’s influence on modern trumpeters. Dedicated chapter on Davis through 1968 includes stylistic analysis, Gil Evans, and the major groups of the 1950s and 1960s. All four modern jazz pianists featured were Davis sidepeople. Coverage in jazz-rock fusion but nothing after 1980.

  • Martin, Henry, and Keith Waters. Jazz: The First Hundred Years. Enhanced 3d ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016.

    Full-color graphics throughout and nuanced perspectives addressing issues in new musicology make this a compelling entry in this category. Davis is handled extensively throughout, with several multipage sections clarifying Davis’s role in the development of several subgenres of modern jazz, including cool, hard bop, modal, post bop, and fusion. Davis is represented in four separate substantive listening guides from 1949 to 1969.

  • Nicholson, Stuart. Jazz Rock: A History. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.

    One of the most advanced book-length projects on fusion as a piece of historical musicology, Davis is at least one of the primary subjects of four out of fifteen chapters. Establishing the Davis primacy in jazz by 1955, Nicholson covers the mid-1960s quintet as a precedent for the fusion Davis was to help break into the mainstream. Complete coverage of Miles Davis’s fusion extends through the end of his career.

  • Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Continuum, 2007.

    Arguably the most comprehensive jazz history in print at over eight hundred pages. Good coverage of many aspects of Davis’s career, with some notable gaps. Starting with 1944 when Davis studied jazz harmony at Monk’s house, Davis mentions are spotty throughout the 1940s until a thorough, dedicated “Early Miles Davis” chapter. Minimal coverage of the mid-1960s quintet and included as bandleader in Coltrane chapter. Lackluster analysis of fusion period.

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