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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Jazz Trumpeter Miles Davis, the Personification of Cool

"It's always been a gift with me, hearing music the way I do. I don't know where it comes from, it's just there and I don't question it." – MILES DAVIS

It was 1966, and Keith Murphy was just 12 years old when Miles Davis, wearing his trademark dark shades, strolled into Ed Murphy's Supper Club in Washington, D.C.

"It was like seeing musical royalty," Keith Murphy recalled about meeting the famed trumpeter inside the popular Georgia Avenue nightspot once owned by Keith's father. "He moved through the club almost majestically, a sort of glide, like not touching the ground."

Davis was invited to the club's bandstand to sit in for a set, Murphy said, but Davis respectfully declined, preferring instead to sit in solitude and listen to live jazz. Murphy used one word to summarize Davis' impromptu presence: Cool.

For the past 40 years, Murphy has followed Davis' career, playing his music, analyzing Davis' musical evolution and appreciating his contribution to jazz through the world.

Today, Murphy is host and producer of Urban Journal, the XM Satellite radio show, and president of Milwaukee based Conceptz Communications. The XM station, Channel 169 The Power, is owned by Radio One, a black-owned radio conglomerate based in Maryland.

"Listening to Miles play, I was always conscious way before I met him of being that I was in the presence of a great poet, one who constructed great metaphors through the medium of sound," Murphy told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "He was known as a moody guy, but he had an air of confidence, a genius that made him not easy to understand."

Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26th, 1926, in Alton, Illinois to Miles and Cleota Henry Davis. Not long afterwards, the family moved to East Saint Louis, Missouri.

"Davis first picked up the trumpet at age 13 and made his recording debut in 1947. He was renowned for morphing his cool jazz into fusion and experimental sounds that later gave way to jazz funk and hip-hop grooves. His many many legendary albums include 'Round About Midnight,' 'Birth of the Cool' and 'Kind of Blue,'" according to the official Web site of Davis' estate.

"He quickly became enamored of jazz, particularly the new sounds being created by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie," the website said. "Davis' father sent him to Julliard to study music, but Miles didn't spend much time there, dropping out to play with Parker's quintet from 1946 to 1948."

Davis invented a more subtle style that became known as "cool jazz." This style influenced a large group of musicians who played primarily on the West Coast and further explored this style.

"I never thought that the music called 'jazz' was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing, locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic," Davis once said.

Yanick Rice Lamb, editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine and a journalism professor at Howard University, said Davis was truly one of the world's most talented musicians and innovators.

"He was a perfectionist who studied all types of music and literally played by his own rules - sometimes with his back to us as he vibed with other artists on stage," Lamb told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

"He not only helped to shape the roots of jazz, but he also nurtured and grew with them. Miles was never content to stay in one place; he believed in changing with the times and leading the way," Lamb added.

Quincy Troupe, a poet and former professor of American and Caribbean Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, San Diego, wrote "Miles: The Autobiography," the definitive life story of the legendary great, a book that won him the 1990 American Book Award. In the fall of 1998, "Miles and Me: A Memoir of Miles" was published by the University of California Press.

In an interview with African-American Review a few years ago, Troupe said of Davis:

"Miles was a very complex person. He didn't like anybody, black or white, invading his space. He felt that if he wanted to talk to you, he would talk to you. If he was having down time, relaxing at the bar, he didn't want people coming up to him. I remember people from St. Louis were just standing back observing him because we knew, but nobody told this white couple that Miles didn't want to meet them, so they got cursed out.

"Miles did that when I met him. I saw him curse a big black guy out on the street who had come up to him to talk about a movie he was making. He wanted Miles to be in it. That's how he responded to stuff because he didn't know how to navigate that kind of stuff intellectually. The first thing that came into his mind, a lot of the time, that's what he said.

"Miles was a beautiful guy. When you got to know him, he was soft. Not 'soft' soft. He was very sensitive. He was a very shy person. If he liked you a lot, he would do anything for you. He was generous. He would give you money. He was funny. He was a real guy, a human guy. He was always cracking on you, so you had to be ready.

"But I learned to crack back on him. He was childlike. He told me that great artists have to remain close to their childhood in order to let their imaginations flow because, as you grow older, you become victim to all of these rules and regulations. But young children are not encumbered by all that, so their imaginations are free. They can create whatever they want to at that moment."

After conquering years of heroin addiction and experiencing a sometimes violent relationship with his wife, actress Cicely Tyson, Davis died in Santa Monica, California on Sept. 28, 1991, but his music and style continues to influence jazz music and popular culture throughout the world.

"Miles made as much of an impact on the social climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s as he did on music," Murphy told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "Miles represented artistic independence, owning his music and having a clear vision to do so."

Known for maintaining a stage presence that could be aloof, for a while, Davis turned his back on audiences as he played and walked offstage when he was not soloing.

"I turn my back because I play better," he once explained to a writer. "Some notes you get better in a specific spot on the stage. If I play a high note, and don't hear it, I'll move."

Lamb said Davis certainly had issues.

"To say that he had a complex personality and a complicated personal life is putting it mildly," Lamb said. "A number of men and women had a love-hate relationship with him."

Those who knew Davis say he ranged from arrogant, to shy, to understated.

"I know what I've done for music, but don't call me a legend," Davis once told a writer. "Just call me Miles Davis."

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