Jazz orchestra where Davis sat alongside Dizzy Gillespie

in the mid 20th century not only had established a traditional form
of music such as the prominent New Orleans jazz style made popular by Louis
Armstrong. But had also begun to development new and never before heard styles
that included cool, hard bop and modal jazz. The two musicians that pioneered
these new styles were Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Two of the most influential
and innovative jazz musicians of their generation. Davis’s contribution
involved the rethinking of major jazz elements such as harmony, melody, rhythm,
and instrumentation to develop cool and hard bop jazz. While Coltrane would become
the most adventurous explorer of modal jazz and a cultural-ethical leader of
avant-garde jazz in the 1960s. Though their paths would eventually diverge
musically, both became the civil-rights-era black man that were self-reliant,
outspoken, and confident. Using the medium of jazz to speak to their audiences
about the importance of equality and human rights not only in the United States
but around the globe.

Davis was born on May 26th, 1926 to a wealthy black family in Alton,
Illinois that would later move to East St. Louis when he turned a year older. He
began learning to play trumpet in school and in 1944 he attended Billy
Eckstine’s orchestra where Davis sat alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie
Parker. Dizzy Gillespie told Davis to pursue learning the piano and harmonies. He
soon left for New York City to study at the Juilliard School taking piano
lessons. Davis soon dropped out to focus on his real goal of learning and
working with Charlie Parker. During his time with Parker, Davis began to
develop his own sound focusing on the middle register rather than higher notes
as well as timbre and melody, playing fewer longer notes. By 1949, Davis had
broken away from Parker and traveled to Paris for the first Festival
International de Jazz. Which was a showcase of young up and coming jazz musicians
around the world. His jazz solos were becoming more recognized for his rhythmic
and emotional touch. Europe also showed Davis a new perspective of race and enlightened
him on the harsh realities in the United States. He finally had succumbed to
the use of narcotics and became addicted to Heroin. By 1954, Davis had beaten
his addiction and signed to Prestige Records where he would join Horace Silver,
Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke, introducing hard bop jazz to the world. Davis
soon released “Walkin”, a powerful and innovative performance that put jazz
back in the forefront with blues driven improvisation. He coined a new device called
the Harmon mute, a metal mute that is held in place by a cork ring producing a
thin humming sound. This technique would become a staple of Davis’s sound as it
captured his intensity on the trumpet. At a jazz festival in Rhode Island he
showed off his new Harmon mute that landed him a contract to Columbia Records. His
debut Columbia Records album, “Round About Midnight” (1955), included the likes
of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers,
and drummer Philly Joe Jones. By 1959, Miles Davis began to make strides in the
jazz world by experimenting with modal jazz. It focused on fewer chords and
less harmonies, specifically scales that override harmonies. The term modal
stems from the principle that modes or scales provide available pitches for improvisers.
Scalar organization allowed Davis a prompt to be more creative in his music.
During an interview in 1958, he said, “All chords, after all, are relative to
scales and certain chords make certain scales.” He continued,” When you go on
this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you
can do more with the line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive
you are.”1
Miles Davis would soon release “Kind of Blue” in 1959 and it would go on to be
the best-selling jazz recording of the LP era. Thus, popularized modality and
changed the nature of improvisation.

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John Coltrane would also play a key role in the development of modal and avant
garde jazz. Unlike Miles Davis’s early year in a wealthy and prominent black
family in the Illinois. John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet,
North Carolina. He grew up in a racist southern community that placed many
hardships on his family. His family’s situation only grew worse when Coltrane’s
father died when he was twelve years old. At a young age, he practiced the alto
saxophone while taking odd jobs like shining shoes to support his family.
Coltrane’s first musical training came in 1943 when he moved to Philadelphia
and began attending the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studios. He became
fascinated with scales, the early beginnings of his modal jazz influence. In
1949, Coltrane moved to New York City and switched to tenor saxophone. He began
to experiment with a rapid-fire technique in which he would play an attack that
included every note in every chord. Miles Davis hired him in 1955 for his
distinct sound he had formed. He was a part of the debut album “Round About
Midnight”, but Davis fired him soon after due to drug and alcohol addiction. By
1957, Coltrane had undergone a religious experience that turned his life around
devoting his life to music and defeating his addictions. Davis decided once
again to hire Coltrane in 1958. The tenor saxophonist played with authority and
virtuosity. His blinding flurries of notes and far faster tempo coined “sheets
of sound” by Ira Gitler put him back into the spotlight. He was involved in the
two most famous jazz albums ever made representing contrasting approaches.
Davis’s “Kind of Blues” and Coltrane’s own “Giant Steps”. “Giant Steps” would
become a staple for jazz musicians. Coltrane had finally developed a style
absent of harmonic movement that would linger from note to note and concentrate
on rhythm2.
In 1964, Coltrane recorded “A Love Supreme”, a four-part autobiographical piece
in an avant garde style that would highlight his career and his own life
journey moving from harmonic stability to chromatic freedom.   

jazz musicians may have diverged in musical style, however they used the medium
of jazz music to speak up against the racism and tyranny that existed towards
African-Americans during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Miles Davis’s later
recordings reflected social and world issues along with cultural diversity. The
jazz fusion album “You’re Under Arrest” is a collection of tunes littered with
political and justice statements regarding racism, pollution, and war in the
United States. “One Phone Call/Street Scenes” incorporated handcuff and police
sounds performed by Miles Davis to illustrated the institutionalized racism
within the police force.3
John Coltrane during the same time was involved with the civil rights movement
as well and shared many of Malcom X’s views regarding black consciousness. In
1963, he wrote a song called “Alabama” in response to a church bombing in
Birmingham that took the lives of four girls. He once spoke about what his
music and the civil rights movement had in common saying, Coltrane replied,
“Well, I think music, being an expression of the human heart, of the human
being, itself, does express just what is happening.” 4

conclusion, Miles Davis and John Coltrane are considered to be among the most influential
musicians in jazz. There contributions spanned over five decades in music
producing some of the most well-known jazz recordings ever. Davis changed the major
jazz elements such as harmony, melody, rhythm, and instrumentation to develop cool
and hard bop jazz. While Coltrane would become the most adventurous explorer of
modal jazz and a cultural-ethical leader of avant-garde jazz in the 1960s by
learning from Davis and setting his own path. They used jazz as a medium to
speak their beliefs and bring about racial change in the 1960’s during the
civil rights movement.


1 Waters, Keith. The Studio Recordings
of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014, pg.

2 Porter, Lewis. “Coltrane,
John.” Grove Music Online. 3 Jan. 2018.

3 Henry, Clarence Bernard . Miles
Davis: A Research and Information Guide. 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017,
pg. 19

4 Wright-Mendoza, Jessie. “How
Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement Came Together in the 1960s.” Blank on
Blank. April 18, 2016. Accessed January 03, 2018.