My history hero: Miles Davis (1926–91)

“I was inspired by someone who was not only a musician but was brave enough to present their life in evolution through music”: Musician Courtney Pine chooses jazz legend Miles Davis

Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis, shown here in 1969, was central to the story of jazz. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Miles Davis was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer. He adopted a variety of musical styles that kept him at the forefront of the jazz world through his career, but is best known for Kind of Blue (1959), which remains the biggest-selling jazz album of all time. He was buried in New York with one of his trumpets.

When did you first hear about Miles Davis?

In the late 1970s, when I was in my teens. I had no real idea what jazz music was – I was more into reggae at the time – but I just liked the idea of it. It didn’t seem to matter what instrument you played, your background or what kind of school you went to, you were able to speak with this very human form of expression. I was just beginning to explore being a musician myself, and the more I read about this thing called jazz, the more intrigued I became by it – and by Miles Davis, because he seemed so central to the story.

What kind of person was he?

Unlike a lot of jazz musicians, Miles came from a comfortable middle-class background. He was schooled on classical music, like me. But Charlie Parker [the jazz saxophonist] breezed through town one night, and that was it – Miles decided he wanted to be a jazz musician. He went to study at the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed the Juilliard School) in New York, but spent much of his time there at jazz sessions, where he did most of his musical discovery. He was intrigued by this form of music that was about instant creation and invention, and that fuelled his creativity.

What made him a hero?

He put his trumpet where his mouth was – he didn’t want to chat, he wanted to make music. In terms of musical innovation, he was able to see the bigger picture as a musician and band leader. He looked at jazz orchestrally and fused jazz with classical and elements of modern-day music. He also gave his music space to breathe. He remained adventurous right to the end – his last album, Doo-Bop, (1992), released posthumously, was recorded with a hip-hop producer.

What was Davis’s finest hour?

The album Amandla (1989), which he made with a young producer, Marcus Miller, and released quite late in his career. He embraced modern-day sounds – the sort of music that I was hearing at raves – and once again created music that had never been heard before. Amandla was an album that spoke to my generation. I think a lot of his later music is just as good as his earlier work.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Yes. He took drugs, as anyone who’s seen the biopic Miles Ahead (2015) will know, but that was really only five minutes in the life of Miles Davis. Taken in totality, the good outweighed the bad.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I was inspired by someone who was not only a musician but was brave enough to present their life in evolution through music. Similarly, I’m always looking to the future – I don’t want to be playing the same music that I played in 1987. My life’s changed and I want my music to change. Miles showed me that was possible.

What do you think he would make of today’s jazz scene?

I think he’d love it, particularly the UK jazz scene, because so many of today’s musicians are still willing to take chances.

If you could meet Davis, what would you ask him?

I very nearly met Miles once: he and his band walked past me in a hotel lobby, but that was the closest I ever got. If we’d had the chance to talk, I’d have asked him how he came to be so brave.

Courtney Pine was talking to York Membery. Courtney Pine is one of Britain’s leading jazz musicians. His latest album, Black Notes from the Deep, is out now. He is touring the album until December (courtney-pine.com)

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Hear Adrian Utley discuss Miles Davis on Radio 4’s Great Lives: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09z4k9z