Listening to the History of Jazz: Miles Davis, Pre-Electric (1947-57)

By KMHD Radio’s Mark Montesano

Charlie Parker & Miles Davis

Miles Davis was one of the most compelling figures in 20th century music. The range of his influence is amazingly broad: his trumpet style, his compositions, his gift for spotting and nurturing young talent, his personal style. His musical career was a story of restless change and innovation. As an eager young man barely out of his teens, beginning to play with Charlie Parker; to the birth of cool jazz; to the development of hard bop; to his flirtation with free jazz; to incorporating rock, funk, and hip hop. Miles was on the cutting edge of music during his entire 45 year career. I will use this two-part blog to explore that first 20 years phase of Miles’ creative output ‘before’ he ‘went electric’. Here are the first 10 years…

In the mid-40’s, Miles convinced his father to send him to Julliard School of Music in New York City. He spent his first weeks and his entire allowance to find Charlie Parker and gain entrance to the inner circle of the bebop revolutionHere are two examples from the wonderful group Parker had with Davis.

Though he was just over 20, notice his controlled and deliberate lyricism that would become his trademark. He sings a song, rather than runs scales on “My Old Flame”:

Miles deliberately chose to play without vibrato and in the middle range of his horn. Because of this he was accused of not being very skillful, but he was in the process of establishing a style of his own. Check it out in “Ornithology”:

Davis always had an interest in advanced harmonies. In the late 40’s and early 50’s, he worked with like-minded musicians, composers and arrangers to produce some of the earliest cool jazz. The music had complex orchestrations and even, light rhythms and tones. Though the band didn’t play in public much, it was highly influential in what became known as “West Coast” or “Cool jazz”. Here’s a couple of good examples from the album “The Birth of the Cool”:



In reaction to the emotional restraint of cool jazz many musicians and fans called for a return to the blues and soul origins of jazz. Just coming off his heroin addiction, he was considered, at 27, a has-been. Miles began to collaborate with some of the younger, more roots-based musicians like Horace Silver to initiate a new kind of jazz called ‘hard bop’. Miles was back in town.

Here’s a sample of his work from 1954. Though Miles’ playing is still rather cool and laid back, Silver’s piano introduces some funky and simple blues phrases into his playing in the track “Lazy Susan”:

Walkin’” is an example of a song Miles recorded with an all-star group. Listen to the simple blues phrases in the melody and many of the solos. Miles used this song to help launch a whole new version called ‘hard bop’.

After his recovery from heroin, Miles needed a regular working band. He found, first, Philly Joe Jones, then Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and the journeyman tenor player John Coltrane (who many thought was not up to Miles’ standards). They played often and jelled into what is known as Miles Davis’ “First Great Quintet”. You can hear how Miles’ playing was energized to a whole new and more aggressive manner, playing with these musicians. Here are two songs from their marathon recording sessions for Prestige designed to fulfill his contract and move on to Columbia records.

A Sonny Rollins tune, “Airegin”:, and the ballad he favored, “My Funny Valentine”:

Next month hear examples of the next 10 years of Miles Davis’ musical journey.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.