Miles Davis, Newport 1955: the day of a sensational comeback

<span>Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

By March, the year 1955 looked to be going down in the jazz chronicles as one of the darkest in the music’s short history. Saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose wild imagination had transformed the syntax of jazz with the 1940s bebop movement, was dead at only 34, defeated by years of mental turmoil, music biz exploitation, self-neglect and heroin use.

But four months later, a young trumpeter whose career had already been sidelined by a similar lifestyle, to the minds of many, made a sensational comeback on a short set at the Newport Jazz festival. It kickstarted Miles Davis’s faltering career, and announced the arrival of a restless genius who would shape and reshape jazz for the next 30 years.

Davis had already packed plenty into the previous decade – dropping out of New York’s revered Juilliard music school to hang in Harlem with Charlie Parker and the bebop pioneers, and becoming a key figure in the 1948 Birth of the Cool coterie, bringing the sound of ensemble jazz closer to chamber music. But, like many of the beboppers under Parker’s spell, Davis’s focus was undermined by a heroin habit, and by the early 50s he was prowling late-night jam sessions, struggling for work and respect. The jazz business was giving him a wide berth, but by the time the 1955 Newport Jazz festival opened, Davis had kicked the habit for a year, and his mind was already racing with ideas for a different kind of small jazz band, loosely allied to bebop, but with a lot more space between the notes – it was just that the fans, promoters and media who had given up on him didn’t know that yet.

By midway through the Sunday evening of 17 July 1955, they did. A 29-year-old Davis – dapper, rejuvenated and implacably handsome in a sharp white jacket with a black bow tie, and an even sharper mood to get down to business – had left the Newport Jazz festival stage in Rhode Island’s Freebody Park to a standing ovation, after an appearance of little more than 20 minutes in a stopgap sextet including pianist Thelonious Monk and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, filling in for the stage-shift between shows by Count Basie and Dave Brubeck.

Davis’s appearance with the band was a complete surprise to the crowd and the jazz press, because Newport boss George Wein had only just regained faith in the trumpeter’s reliability, and put him on the bill at the last minute. But in dazzling improvisations on the set’s three tunes (two by Monk, one by Parker) a sure-footed and purposeful Davis introduced a fresh grace and storytelling framework to bebop’s ingenious detours, and brought a seductive intimacy to ballad-playing on Monk’s famous ’Round Midnight that suggested modern jazz could regain a mainstream audience beyond the fence patrolled by the cognoscenti.

Sign him. Did you hear what he played? Best thing in the whole festival!

Aram Avakian to his brother, Columbia Records producer George

The set began with a joshing commentary on jazz modernism from guest MC Duke Ellington, referencing cartoon sci-fi adventurer Buck Rogers – “I have another listing here of a group that’s coming up, it looks like these gentlemen live in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach” – after which the band, joining Davis with Cool School sax stars Mulligan and Zoot Sims and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s rhythm section of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, rocked into what sounded like a hastily sussed account of Thelonious Monk’s typically staccato and exclamatory swinger, Hackensack.

After the call-and-response opening, Davis took off into a rhythmically sublime solo balancing short phrases and curling long lines bounced off Heath’s and Kay’s discreet swing groove, threaded with talkative figures that even hinted at the early bluesiness of Louis Armstrong. The Newport crowd greeted it warmly, but the best was yet to come. On ’Round Midnight, he brought the bell of his trumpet whisper-close to the microphone (in a response to the shortcomings of the fledgling Newport festival’s outdoor sound system), and with only Monk for accompaniment, unwrapped what many considered to be the solo of the festival. Interspersing the smokily tender melody with light, dancing fills, silvery upward glides, sighing descents, and preoccupied arrhythmic sidebars as if he were drifting into a different tune, Davis confirmed just how much new music he could spontaneously conjure from a single succinct piece.

Miles Davis returning to Newport Jazz festival in 1969.
Miles Davis returning to Newport Jazz festival in 1969. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

The band signed off with a tribute to 1955’s departed giant, opening the classic Charlie Parker bebop blues Now’s the Time as a counterpoint between Mulligan and Sims, and featuring a skittish mid-tempo improvisation by Davis in deft double-time lines and whimsical phrases scattered casually across the beat.

Miles Davis’s life and music were on the rise before the set was even over. Columbia Records producer George Avakian was at the show with his jazz-sussed photographer brother Aram, who said: “Don’t hesitate. Sign him. Did you hear what he played? Best thing in the whole festival!” George Avakian was on his way backstage during Now’s the Time, fixed lunch with Davis for the following week, and signed him for a record deal unheard of in jazz, only marginally less generous than Columbia star Doris Day’s.

A stream of groundbreaking albums followed – 1957’s Miles Ahead (with Birth of the Cool composer Gil Evans), the vivaciously mode-based Milestones, with John Coltrane, and its legendary 1959 successor, Kind of Blue. They heralded a sensational 1960s for Miles Davis in which he would lead one of the all-time great acoustic jazz bands including saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, and take jazz into previously uncharted electronic and rock-oriented outlands by the end of that decade.

For his part, Miles Davis took those game-changing 23 minutes on the Newport stage in 1955 in his stride. As his biographer Ian Carr related, his reaction to the music press’s adulation after that landmark was simply: “What are they talking about? I just played the way I always play.”