Fifteen years ago, as his 60th birthday approached, Miles Davis sat on a couch in his spacious New York apartment one sunny afternoon sipping herbal tea and telling this visitor: "I know what I've done for music, but don't call me a legend."
He had been reflecting on his life and his career as one of the pivotal figures in modern jazz. And he was still the charming, frustrating enigma -- blessed with one of the sweetest tones ever heard on trumpet and dogged by a "Prince of Darkness" persona that was as much a buffer guarding his private space as it was a mystique.
What did he mean? What was he saying?
So I threw the question back at him, asking what he preferred to be called.
He looked up from his doodling with colored markers on a sketchpad -- because his restlessness fueled art as well as music -- and rasped: "Just call me Miles Davis."
On the eve of what would have been his 75th birthday this May 26, I still ponder the meaning of his answer, with the sense that much of what he did or said was either pointing the way for others or throwing us a creative curveball.
Perhaps he wanted to be known as "Miles Davis" without hyperbole or labels -- because he was one man doing what life's cards dealt him and muses inspired. Skeptics and critics might argue -- as they have about so often about his career choices -- that he felt he was a category unto himself.
Both theories are plausible. And that's one more delicious irony about Davis and his musical legacy.
A look back at his fertile career, with its ups, downs and changes over the course of 45 years, reveals that the trumpeter was one of the most adventurous explorers in contemporary music. He was not interested in the status quo or the past. And he shunned being predictable.
As he matured as a composer and musician, Davis developed a style of underplaying that became his trademark. It blended sound and silence to create a teasing, tension-building music on the belief that what you don't play is just as important as what you do.
Through each phase, his use of space in a melody and his comfort zone in the middle register of his Harmon-muted trumpet had an indelible impact on jazz and, much later, on pop music. As a bandleader, he always pushed his sidemen to play beyond what they knew in order to discover more possibilities for themselves . . . and to carry forward his vision.
His restlessness -- the need to move, change and grow -- fueled his musical explorations. When the frenetic excesses of bebop were transforming modern jazz in the late 1940s, Davis was in the thick of it, learning from and working with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
But he changed direction quickly, teaming up with Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan in the more intricately arranged "Birth of the Cool" sessions in 1949 and 1950 that inspired a West Coast jazz sound.
By the late 1950s, Davis's modal playing, in which compositions were based on scales rather than repeated variations of chord structures, spawned his "Kind of Blue" recording, which remains one of the all-time "must buy" albums for jazz fans and romantics. Then came orchestral jazz collaborations with Evans that produced his lush and poignant Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain sessions.
With his second classic quintet with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, Davis shifted in the mid-1960s to a driving "hard bop" sound that flirted with free jazz and took his creativity to new heights. Before the decade was done, he was pointing the way towards jazz-rock fusion with his definitive electric album Bitches Brew. Many followed but few matched the intensity or the excellence.
On and off, through various creative periods, Davis was also enamored of pop music. Melodies would get inside his head -- and stay there until he discovered new facets to reveal and share with his fans. He made "Some Day My Prince Will Come," the waltz sung by Snow White in the famous Walt Disney film, a jazz standard.
Boiling a ballad down to its melodic essence seemed a constant. His fascination with "My Funny Valentine" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" in the '50s set the tone for his versions of the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" as concert staples in the 1980s.
His final bands teamed his acoustic trumpet sound with fiery saxophonists and teams of percussionists and synthesizer players. Davis was blending orchestral lines and exotic rhythms for pop audiences. He enjoyed the pop star trappings, and didn't care that he had alienated many early fans who preferred his pure acoustic music. That was their problem, not his.
By 1990, Davis was in poor health and knew it. Too many years of excessive living had worn his body out. He still toured, making strong music and showcasing another passionate talent as a visual artist.
But quite in character, he one final another stylistic surprise up his designer sleeves. Davis agreed to Quincy Jones's request that he participate in a reunion concert at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1991, less than two months after his 65th birthday to perform the classic jazz material that he had shunned 20 years earlier. A similar concert with other old bandmates was held in Paris a week later.
In September 1991, less than eight weeks after those historic concerts, he died in a southern California hospital of pneumonia and heart failure.
The distinctive lyricism of his trumpet lives on through some of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time. The labels that Davis was affiliated with through the years have reissued just about everything available from his multi-faceted career.
For those who like their music in tidy packages and taking up little shelf space, Columbia Legacy has provided a 75th birthday present for Davis fans. It's a two-disc set called The Essential Miles Davis, which pulls together key chronological works he recorded for seven different labels bet ween 1945 and 1986. From his first days in New York with Charlie Parker to his synthesizer-laden pop and funk band of the '80s, it's all Miles Davis.
And for that, Miles might smile.
Ken Franckling is a writer and photographer, based in Providence, Rhode Island. UPI posted this article May 22, 2001.