A Brief Bio of Miles Davis
John J. Dunphy
(This is a revised version of my column “Miles Davis Lived Here,” which was published in the February 16, 2006 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).
Music lovers from across the United States and around the world visit Alton. They want to see the hometown of Miles Davis, the legendary trumpeter and composer whose international reputation has made the river city a destination for jazz aficionados.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, in a small house that still stands at 1112 Milnor Avenue in Alton. His father, also named Miles, was a successful dentist and dental surgeon; his mother, Cleota Mae Henry Davis, was a homemaker. The parents had moved to Alton from Noble Lake, Arkansas, in 1924.
In 1927, Davis moved his family to East St. Louis, where they lived on the second floor of a commercial building at 3 North Fifteenth Street at Broadway. They later moved to 1701 Kansas Avenue, also in East St. Louis. Davis purchased a 160-acre farm near Millstadt, where he raised champion horses and hogs.
When Miles was just nine years old, a friend of his father gave him his first trumpet. At 13, he began taking music lessons from Elwood Buchanan, a teacher at Crispus Attucks Grade School in East St. Louis.
Davis played jazz in nightclubs on both sides of the river while still a student at East St. Louis’s Lincoln High School. In the summer of 1944, he was filling in on trumpet behind Billy Eckstine at St. Louis’s Club Riveria, when he heard Eckstine’s alto saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Davis was deeply impressed.
Not long after moving to New York, Davis sought out Parker, became a member of Parker’s quintet and appeared on Bird’s bebop recordings. When Parker’s heroin addiction began to interfere with his ability to function as a musician, Davis struck out on his own. In the early 1950s, Parker recorded for the Prestige and Blue Note labels and worked with sidemen such as Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus.
It was during this period that Davis became addicted to heroin. He returned to Illinois and locked himself in a guest room at his father’s farmhouse until he had kicked. Unfortunately, it would not be his last encounter with drug addiction.
Davis became a celebrity with his now-legendary performance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. He formed his first jazz quintet that same year. Davis’s 1959 album, “Kind of Blue,” is generally regarded as his masterpiece and remains the best-selling jazz album of all time.
The Alton native’s 1969 two-record album, “Bitches Brew,” pioneered a new musical genre known as fusion, which combined jazz with rock. In order to popularize this radical hybrid, Davis began opening at concerts for prominent rock groups such as Santana and the Grateful Dead. The rockers felt privileged to share the billing with this renowned jazzman. Carlos Santana’s admiration for Davis was such that he said he was the one who should be opening for Miles.
Davis battled cocaine abuse as well as heroin addiction in the 1970s, and there was even speculation that his career might be over. But he rebounded and launched upon a new phase of musical creativity. Davis even experimented with art and produced some paintings. His 1986 album, “Tutu,” received a Grammy.
Davis was married and divorced three times, to dancer Frances Taylor, singer Betty Mabry and actress Cicely Tyson. He had a daughter, Cheryl, and three sons: Gregory, Miles IV and Erin.
He occasionally returned to St. Louis to perform and visited East St. Louis in 1983, to attend ceremonies establishing Miles Davis Elementary School. Davis was profoundly depressed and angered by the decline of the city in which he had spent his childhood.
Jazz’s greatest trumpeter died of pneumonia, respiratory failure and a stroke on September 28, 1991, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Alton was slow to recognize Davis’ fame and celebrate his connection to the city. That changed in 2015, however, with the unveiling and dedication of a statue of Alton’s famous native. The statue was molded from bronze by sculptor Preston Jackson, an Art Institute of Chicago professor emeritus. Davis’ statue, which portrays him leaning back while playing his trumpet, is located on West Third Street in downtown Alton.
John J. Dunphy’s latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” includes interviews with members of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group, whose members apprehended and prosecuted war criminals in postwar Germany.