Miles Davis: The Early Years

Jazz as we know it wouldn’t be quite the same without the indispensable impact of Miles Davis. He wasn’t just one of the most influential musicians of his era. He also continues to inspire modern musicians today. At the side of every great man is a loyal companion. At the end of the day, when he put down his trumpet, Davis had a trusty watch on his wrist.

Davis was born and raised in Alton, Illinois. His father was a dental surgeon as well as a music teacher. He instilled a passion for music in his son at an early age. Davis was thirteen when he began playing the trumpet, and it was clear he had a natural gift. Soon, he started studying under the director of the local music school. His instruction was unique in that it emphasized playing the trumpet without a vibrato, which many famous trumpeters like Louis Armstrong used. This proved to be instrumental in developing Davis’s unique style of play.

Miles Davis

His First Big Break

Davis began playing professionally in high school. At seventeen, he got his first big break: he was invited to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker when their trumpet player fell ill. Soon after, Davis relocated to New York City to attend the Institute of Musical Art, now known as the Julliard School. He maintained a relationship with Parker, who helped Davis land gigs at local nightclubs. It was here Davis began connecting with a network of musicians. This group would later develop bebop, the fast, improvisational style of jazz than came to define the genre in the modern era. After only a year in school, Davis decided to drop out to pursue his musical career full time.

In his late twenties, Davis developed an addiction to heroin, which notably impacted his burgeoning career. However, he was fortunate to overcome his vice quickly. Shortly after getting clean and sober, he made a life changing performance of “Round Midnight” at the Newport Jazz Festival. This landed him a contract with Columbia Records.

Kind of Blue is Released

At the age of 33 in 1959, Davis released the album Kind of Blue. To this day, it’s credited as the highest-selling jazz album of all time, selling more than two million copies. It also continues to be considered one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded.

miles davis

The next decade brought about the rise of jazz fusion, or the fusion of jazz and rock. Davis released his album Bitches Brew shortly after the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, and the world took notice. He won a Grammy Award and landed the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. This made him the first jazz musician to be recognized in mainstream pop culture in decades. It was that same year that Davis found his steadfast companion: his Breitling Navitimer.

The Later Years

Soon after, Davis fell victim to addiction once again and took a five-year hiatus from music. He made a comeback in the 1980s, continuing to record and experiment with incorporating different styles. Proving his ability to constantly reinvent himself, Davis released another revolutionary album in 1986 called Tutu. It incorporated synthesizers, drum loops, and samples and won him another Grammy. Just four years later, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

A year later in 1991, Davis played what would be his last performance. He took the stage with Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Here he performed a retrospective of his work, some of which he hadn’t played in over twenty years. Several months later, he passed away from complications of pneumonia. His last recordings with Jones would earn him his final, posthumous Grammy in 1993.

The Watch

Miles Davis

Davis was captured wearing his trusty Navitimer for nearly 30 years. In some of the most famous photos of the iconic jazzman, he’s seen wearing the distinctive timepiece. However, to this day, no one knows what became of the watch. So, for now, it will continue to go down in history as one of the great missing timepieces.

Check out more “Profiles in Time,” like Bruce Springsteen

Editor’s Note: This article was updated in July 2019 for clarity and material

Written by

Caitlyn is the founder of Grey Ghost, a New York City-based boutique content marketing agency with a passion for artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups. She believes in quality over quantity, creative thinking, and, above all, using language as powerful tool to build lasting connections.

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  • photos of Miles davis wearing a patek chronograph have appeared in watch magagazines and the new york times ran a large photo of bruce springsteen wearing a speedmaster professional.