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Miles Davis and his Jefferson County Roots

Miles Davis, one of the most influential musicians in the development of jazz music, got his early love for music while spending time at his grandfather’s fish farm in Noble Lake, Arkansas.

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Miles Dewey Davis III was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 26, 1926 to Miles Davis II, a prominent dental surgeon and Cleota Henry Davis, a music teacher and homemaker. Davis grew up in a middle class, racially mixed neighborhood in East St. Louis. Davis’ father was from Noble Lake, Arkansas, just 18 miles south of Pine Bluff, while his mother was from Little Rock, Arkansas. Davis’ paternal grandfather owned a fish farm in Noble Lake, Arkansas where Davis and his siblings spent many of their summers. 

In fact, Davis’ earliest musical memories include the country blues and gospel he heard when visiting his grandfather. In Miles: The Autobiography, he stated, “ I also remember how the music used to sound down there in Arkansas…especially in Saturday night church…I guess I was about six or seven. We’d be walking on those dark country roads at night, and, all of a sudden, this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees…I remember somebody would be playing a guitar the way B.B. King plays. And I remember a man and a woman singing. But I think that kind of stuff stayed with me…That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern…rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas backroads after dark when the owls came out hooting. So when I started taking music lessons I might have already had some idea of what I wanted my music to sound like…It’s hard to pinpoint where it [music] all began for me. But I think some of it had to have started on that Arkansas Road.”

When interviewed for the book, Miles Davis and the American Culture, Davis also stated that at six years old, he heard the disembodied voice of an old black woman hauntingly singing the blues. That experience stayed with him all his life, and it was that voice he was “always trying to get close to when he played a ballad, or the blues, or a love song.”

On his thirteenth birthday, Davis’ father bought him his first trumpet, and he began taking lessons from Elwood Buchanan, a local trumpeter and high school teacher. In 1941, while still in high school, Davis got his first professional music job, when he joined Eddie Randle’s Rhumboogie Orchestra, also known as the Blue Devils. He eventually became Randle’s music director, scheduling rehearsals and hiring musicians. 

In 1944, Davis graduated from Lincoln High School, and his girlfriend gave birth to their first child, Cheryl. In July, Billy Eckstine’s big band, which included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, visited St. Louis. When trumpeter Buddy Anderson was too sick to perform, Davis joined the band and played with them for two weeks at Club Riviera. After this experience, Davis was certain he should move to New York City. He auditioned at Julliard School of Music. In September, he moved to New York, where he sometimes attended his music theory, piano, and diction classes at Julliard during the day, but spent most of his time playing at clubs alongside his musical idol Charlie Parker. In 1945, Davis dropped out of Julliard after three semesters to play music full-time. 

During the late 1940s, arranger-pianist Gil Evans held regular jam sessions in his small apartments featuring saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, and pianist John Lewis. In the summer of 1948, Davis formed a nonet out of this group of musicians. His nonet included a French horn, rarely used in jazz, a tuba, trombone, alto and baritone saxophones, alongside the standard piano, bass, and drum rhythm sections, lending the band its unique harmonic sound. Though the group was short-lived, their singles changed the course of modern jazz and were later released as part of Davis' album Birth of the Cool in 1957.


In the early 1950s, Davis became addicted to heroin which greatly affected his ability to perform. In 1954, he overcame his drug addiction. That year, his performance of “Round Midnight '' at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, earned him a recording contract with Columbia Records. In 1955, he assembled his permanent band, which included John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones, adding Cannonball Adderley in 1958. In 1959, he recorded his most famous album, Kind of Blue. It is considered the greatest selling jazz album of all-time, selling more than 2 million copies. Davis also continued his partnership with Gil Evans, recording four releases in five years: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and Quiet Nights.

In 1964, Davis assembled a band of younger musicians, a quintet which included Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. Many of his band members went on to become the most influential musicians in the jazz fusion era. During this period, Davis’ style began to change as he created more suspense in his music by increasing the space between notes. In 1968, Davis again changed direction, moving toward electric jazz with the release of In a Silent Way. In 1969, with his release of Bitches Brew, the electronic elements and rock rhythms of his music deepened, leading to the jazz fusion movement. In recognition of the Bitches Brew’s success, Davis became the first jazz musician featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

In 1975, Davis became addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and took a five-year hiatus from his career. In 1979, he met actress Cicely Tyson, who helped him overcome his cocaine addiction. They married in 1981, but divorced in 1988. 

Davis spent the 1980s experimenting with different styles. He resumed touring in 1981, attracting new fans. In 1986, Davis reinvented himself with the release of Tutu, incorporating synthesizers, drum loops and samples. Davis won nine Grammy Awards for his music. In 1990, Davis received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. 

On September 28, 1991, Davis succumbed to pneumonia and respiratory failure, dying at the age of 65. 

In 2006, Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by his friend and fellow musician Herbie Hancock.


Yamaguchi, M. (2019). Miles Davis International Edition: New Research on Miles Davis and His Circle. United States: Masaya Music Services.

Davis, M., Troupe, Q. (1990). Miles. United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster.

Miles Davis and American Culture. (2001). United States: Missouri Historical Society Press.

Cunningham, J. (2015). Delta Music and Film: Jefferson County and the Lowlands. United States: Arcadia Publishing. pg. 32.

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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