Miles Davis, the trumpeter whose lyrical playing and ever-changing style made him a touchstone of 20th Century music, has been voted the greatest jazz artist of all time.
The musician beat the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone – all of whom made the top 10.
Votes were cast by listeners of BBC Radio and Jazz FM, and revealed on pop-up radio station BBC Music Jazz.Jazz FM presenter Helen Mayhew called Davis “the epitome of cool”. “Miles was at the forefront of key developments in the sound of jazz through each decade of his long career. “He’s also responsible for recording the biggest-selling and most universally loved jazz album of them all, the 1959 album Kind of Blue.”
The full top 10 – derived from a shortlist of 50 – was:
1 Miles Davis
2 Louis Armstrong
3 Duke Ellington
4 John Coltrane
5 Ella Fitzgerald
6 Charlie Parker
7 Billie Holiday
Thelonious Monk (8=)
Bill Evans (8=)
10 Oscar Peterson
Describing the top 10 as “the best of the best,” Radio 3’s Geoffrey Smith said the first three positions were all occupied by “immortals” of jazz music. He described them as “Duke, the orchestral master; Louis, the father of us all; and Miles, the essence of the ever-changing contemporary spirit.”
Raised in St Louis, Missouri, Davis pioneered several styles of jazz – including cool jazz, hard-bop, modal jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk and the use of electronics.
“To be and stay a great musician. you’ve got to always be open to what’s new, what’s happening at the moment,” he wrote in his autobiography. “You have to be able to absorb it if you’re going to continue to grow and communicate your music.”
The first jazz musician to incorporate the rhythms of rock and roll, he became an inspiration for generations. Among his best-selling albums were the experimental, improvised double set Bitches’ Brew and the meticulous, introspective Birth of the Cool, a compilation that charted his development of the cool jazz sound.
Kind of Blue is known as a jazz record even non-jazz fans will own. It broke new ground as Davis dispensed with chords as the basis for improvisation, instead favouring modal scales and tone centres.
Key to everything was his expressive trumpet playing, which had a voice as distinctive as any of the singers on the BBC Music Top 10. Saxophonist Dave Liebman, who played with Davis in the 1970s, said the musician was the “[Martin] Scorsese and [Francis Ford] Coppola of jazz”. “He knew what you need to do to have a great production – lights, sound, position, script, etc. “Most of us played a certain way with Miles that we never played again. Somehow he got you to do what he needed… and what you wanted.”
The star died in 1991 of pneumonia, respiratory failure and stroke.
I have been a longstanding admirer of Miles since the mid 60s and over the last 50 years bought Kind of Blue, Birth of the Cool, Jack Johnson (vastly underrated), Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew and the classic Friday / Saturday Night at the Blackhawk. However, as much as I admire Davis I would have placed Ellington at number one just ahead of Armstrong.
Ellington kept his band on the road from the 1920s up until his death in 1971, and along the way created a sound that was unique (just listen for the Harry Carney Baritone sax) and incorporated soloists of outstanding talent into the sound of the orchestra (Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonzalves etc). His composing and arranging ability were second to none (often in conjunction with Billy Strayhorn) and he was the Herbert von Karajan of the jazz orchestra. It is unfortunate that his piano playing was often undervalued but when in the mood he could play with a creativity second to none.
So, well done Miles in the poll, but my number one will always be “The Duke” I strongly recommend “The Far East Suite”, “And His Mother Called Him Bill” and one of his later recording “New Orleans Suite”.
Just as a wild card for inclusion in the Top 10 I would have put forward Ornette Coleman and even suggested Albert Ayler simply for his recording of “Spirits Rejoice”