The Final Years and Death of an Icon — Rolling Stone

You can almost compare the last years of Miles Davis’ life with those of Henri Matisse, probably the greatest French artist of the 20th century with Pablo Picasso. In the mid-1940s, when Matisse was already over 70, the painter and sculptor worked on a collection of paper cutouts. Technology made artistic work easier for the seriously ill and physically disabled man. Inspired by the improvisation, the result was appropriately named “Jazz”. At the end of his life, he once again took new paths, explored the limits of his expression and pushed them back until the end. What was initially considered a less successful work is now one of the most valuable works in modern art history.

Miles Davis 1969

When Miles Davis returned from musical exile in 1981, he too was marked by illness. In 1975, after a concert in St. Louis, he had to be hospitalized with bleeding stomach ulcers; a short time later, 18 polyps were removed from his larynx. In the following six years he hardly touched an instrument and consumed more alcohol and cocaine. Davis was caught between addiction and artistic burnout because he no longer had any say on the trumpet.

Between Grammys and Verissen

Miles Davis was picked up by Cicely Tyson, actress, his lover in the 60s and his wife from 1981. He began working again and recorded “The Man with the Horn” with Marcus Miller and Bill Evans. The album met with lukewarm reactions. People turned up their noses at the clear influence of rock, pop and funk, although Miles Davis himself returned to a more traditional trumpet style. The excessive use of effects on his instrument, which we were already used to, was now a thing of the past. He suffered additional setbacks due to his ongoing physical deterioration. A stroke in 1982, a hip operation and pneumonia the following year.

Miles Davis with Cicely Tyson 1983.

But Miles Davis was undeterred. He continued to experiment on “Star People” (1983) and “Decoy” (1984), on the latter mainly with electronic sounds. Guitarist John Scofield had now joined his band, and a little later Darryl Jones on bass, who would replace Bill Wyman in the Rolling Stones in 1993. It was a time of contrasts. And the transition. On the one hand, Miles Davis won a Grammy in 1983 for the live album “We Want Miles”, on the other hand, after “Decoy” he parted ways with his long-time producer Teo Macero, while the album was torn apart by critics. On Decoy, Miles Davis increasingly handed over much of the creative process to younger musicians whom he encouraged. He paid a high price for this in public.

“You’re Under Arrest” (1985) was ultimately the essence of the supposed contradiction between harsh criticism from the features section and extremely successful sales figures. Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” were two interpretations of pop songs on the album that were disapproved of by particularly stubborn jazz purists. Miles Davis replied dryly that many jazz standards were nothing more than pop versions of Broadway pieces.

Darryl Jones and Miles Davis

Miles Davis says goodbye to Columbia Records

After “You’re Under Arrest” there was a break with Columbia Records. The aggressive promotion of the young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis displeased the vain Davis, who also had to put up with Marsalis’ accusation that, despite all the experiments, his music was no longer “real jazz”. Columbia’s lack of interest in “Aura,” an album that was made in 1984 but was only released five years later by Warner Bros., was the last straw for Miles Davis. At Warner Bros. he continued his consistent reinvention.

Superficial Harmony: Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis 1985.

“Tutu” (1986), the first album on the new label, was the first time that programmed synthesizers, drum machines and samples were featured on a Miles Davis album. Something like a “now especially” towards the hardliners of “real jazz”, one might think. Winning another Grammy spoke for itself.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is that at first glance, “Tutu” is almost entirely attributable to Marcus Miller, who played most of the instruments, wrote six of the eight songs, arranged and co-produced the pieces. Miller, however, said he would never have written the songs the way they did if they hadn’t been for Miles Davis, who completed them with his trumpet. Once again, the representatives of the unwritten jazz conventions came from the corners who could not gain anything from playing prefabricated tracks. They quickly forgot that Davis had already worked in the same way with Gil Evans in the ’50s, albeit with acoustic instruments.

1951: Miles Davis recording in New York

Going against the grain right from the start

Not doing what everyone else is doing was an early lesson in Miles Davis’ life. The son of a dentist and a music teacher, he grew up in wealthy circumstances, particularly for an African-American household in the deeply racist America of the early and mid-20th century. The family lived in East St. Louis, Illinois. A comparatively liberal spot on the brown map of the USA at that time. It wasn’t until high school that Miles Davis came into substantial contact with racist resentment for the first time. The cliché of the starving jazz musician doesn’t work for him.

There was certainly nothing he could do for his family other than diligently implementing the advice he received as a teenager from his trumpet teacher, Elwood Buchanan. Not placing so much emphasis on vibrato in his playing shaped the young Miles Davis and set him apart from the usual trumpet style of the 30s and 40s.

Miles Davis 1959

Get out of the tight spot

In 1944 he went to New York. Superficially to study at the Juilliard School of Music, but actually he was looking for Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the city’s clubs. He soon gave up his studies, and also for reasons that would have a decisive impact on his entire life: it was too narrow, too influenced by supposed dogmas and too “white”. Davis biographer Quincy Troupe quotes him as saying:

“I still remember taking a course in music history. The teacher was white. She stood in front of the class and explained that black people play the blues because they are poor and have to pick cotton. That’s why they’re sad and that’s where the blues come from, from their sadness. My hand shot up like lightning, I stood up and said, ‘I’m from East St. Louis and I have a rich dad, he’s a dentist. But I also play the blues. My father never picked cotton in his life and I woke up this morning not a bit sad and then played some blues. There’s a little more to it than that.” The aunt turned really green in the face and didn’t say another word. Man, what she told us came from a book that must have been written by someone who had no idea what he was talking about.”

Miles Davis’ cause of death

This constant exploration of what is possible, the redefinition of tastes and habits are the essential legacies of Miles Davis for jazz and music in general. As a hearing person, you can only be grateful to him for that. The comparison with the great Matisse is therefore not amiss, because defying expectations at an advanced stage in their careers unites both in their work. The almost childlike return to trying things out gives us some of the most exciting records of the 80s today, even if their creator sometimes burned his fingers on them. What is more impressive than the results themselves is the following of instinct on the way to artistic satisfaction.

Miles Davis (1926 - 1991)
Miles Davis (1926-1991)

What Miles Davis would have accomplished in a longer life remains speculation. On August 25, 1991, he played his last concert in Los Angeles before being examined at the hospital in Santa Monica at the beginning of September due to his numerous complaints. The attending doctor, with whom Davis got into a heated argument, also noticed that he could be an extremely unpleasant person – opinionated, mean, moody. He suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. On September 28, his family finally decided to have the life support machines turned off. Miles Davis was 65 years old.

David Redfern Redferns

Images Press Getty Images

Paul Bergen Redfern

Paul Natkin Getty Images

Metronomes Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives

John Bulmer Getty Images