September 1991: Miles Davis, Giant of Jazz, Dies at 65

Remembering the legendary trumpeter and giant of jazz, who passed away on September 28, 1991.
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Warner Records

Lovers of jazz and soul bade farewell to one of its greatest and most towering figures on September 28, 1991: trumpeter Miles Davis, who died in his Santa Monica, California home after a brief illness. He was 65 years old.

The Juilliard dropout revolutionized the sound of jazz countless times since joining his idol Charlie Parker's quintet in 1945. In 1949, two years after his first sessions as a bandleader, Davis cut a series of sessions for Capitol that came to be known as The Birth of the Cool. A revolution in the formation of "cool jazz," these sessions also marked Davis' first collaborations in-studio with arranger Gil Evans. His next decade was initially marked by struggles, including a difficult heroin addiction, but by 1955 he bounced back in a major way, garnering his widest exposure yet on the bill at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival.

From there, Miles was off and running as one of jazz's most cutting-edge bandleaders on the Columbia Records label. His longtime collaborations with saxophonist John Coltrane helped introduce the striking horn player to a larger audience, and 1959's Kind of Blue remains the best-selling jazz album of all time and a cornerstone of any music fan's library. Refusing to adapt to the confines of the genre, he spent the mid-to-late '60s with a new quintet of upstart sidemen (including Herbie Hancock on piano, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams). By the '70s, on albums like 1970's Bitches Brew, he was adding elements of electric rock and funk into his shifting styles - the genesis of what is now known as "fusion."

After a lengthy retirement in the '70s that found him abandoning music entirely, Davis re-emerged as a continued shapeshifter in the '80s, at home on pop covers (Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," Scritti Politti's "Perfect Way") and offbeat guest appearances (the anti-apartheid all-star single "Sun City," a cameo in the Bill Murray holiday comedy Scrooged) in equal measure. Some of his most intriguing musical ventures from this period wouldn't be released in his lifetime: a 1985 session was updated and released in 2019 as Rubberband, and he cameoed on the unreleased Prince track "Can I Play with U?" and a 1987 live set, both of which were unearthed in 2020 for a lavish expansion of the Minneapolis legend's Sign O' the Times album.

A man of striking countenance (his signature whispered voice the result of a ruptured vocal cord following surgery to remove polyps), Miles was known for his inimitable style and lack of filter. In his no-holds-barred Miles: The Autobiography, he recounted an encounter two years before at a White House gala honoring Ray Charles, during which a socialite inquired what secured him an invitation. "I've changed music four or five times," was his icy reply. "What have you done of any importance other than be white?"

But he was not one to rest on his legacy, experimenting with hip-hop influences and learning to paint in his final months. Davis put it best in an interview with trumpeter/critic Mike Zwerin months before his passing: "A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it."

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