In the first half of 1955 Miles Davis was in a much better shape than he was for a long time. After kicking his heroin habit at his father’s house in 1953, he came back to New York City a more complete musician. His tone on the trumpet improved and so his ability to lead groups of musicians at recording sessions and in clubs.
The quality of his 1954 studio output for Prestige exceeded most of his early 1950s recordings and yielded some of the best records in his career thus far: Walkin’, Bag’s Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. He was ready to move on to the next stage of his career, gain wider recognition and prestige than what his current label (Prestige, ironically) could give him and no less important – make more money. Two factors in his professional life were lacking and prevented him from reaching his goals – a bigger, nationwide record label, and a stable working band of excellent musicians. But starting in June 1955 events started unfolding at an accelerated pace for Miles. This is the story of his first classic quintet and the recordings they made in 1955 and 1956, including some of the most revered albums in jazz history.
On June 7, 1955 Miles Davis went into Rudy van Gelder’s Studio in Hackensack, NJ to record a session for Prestige. This was a quartet date, significant for being the first session with pianist Red Garland. Miles knew Garland for a couple of years, after the pianist moved to New York City from his home state of Texas. The two shared a love for boxing, Garland being a former professional boxer who went eight rounds against Sugar Ray Robinson in 1942. More importantly, Miles saw in Garland someone who could bring into his band the style of Ahmad Jamal, what Miles called that ‘melodic understatement and lightness’. Miles was a big fan of Jamal, and the session included two tracks that were favorites in Jamal’s repertoire: Will You Still Be Mine and A Gal In Galico. Garland complied with Miles’ request to “give me Ahmad’s sound, because Red played his best when he played like that.” The experience of playing some of Jamal’s repertoire and applying his style had an important influence on Garland, who later got a trio feature on one of his sessions with Miles Davis and played Jamal’s composition Ahmad’s Blues.
That trio feature impressed Prestige Records manager Bob Weinstock enough to get Garland his own recording contract with Prestige, a fruitful relationship that yielded about twenty records for the label over the next decade. The standout track on Miles’ quartet session from June 1955, which was released as The Musings Of Miles, is I See Your Face Before Me, a ballad featuring Miles on the Harmon mute and an excellent playing by Red Garland. That tune sounds very much like the music Davis will soon be making with the quintet. But we have a few more months until that takes shape.
The following month, on July 17, 1955, Miles took the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival with an all-star band sandwiched between performances by Count Basie’s band and Dave Brubeck’s quartet. The group included Zoot Sims on tenor, Gerry Mulligan on baritone, Thelonious Monk on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums. Miles was brought in at the last minute and his name was not even on the program. But his performance on Monk’s‘Round Midnight was a pivotal moment in his career. In his autobiography Miles recalled the event: “When I got off the bandstand, everybody was looking at me like I was a king or something – people were running up to me offering me record deals. All the musicians there were treating me like I was a god… It was something else, man, looking out at all those people and then seeing them suddenly standing up and applauding what I had done.” At the time though, Miles said nonchalantly in an interview “What’s all the fuss? I always play that way”. I seem to agree with him. While his performance is indeed great, Miles had many solos on his recent albums no less significant than the one at Newport. Maybe people finally noticed him in the festival setting. Nevertheless, that performance got him his biggest career boost, courtesy of Columbia Records executive and producer George Avakian.
Avakian was a jazz aficionado and scholar, but he also had an ear for popular music and the taste of the wider audience at large. That same year he signed Johnny Mathis, then only 20 years old. He saw something in Miles that could take him to new audiences: “What struck me was that Miles was the best ballad player since Louis Armstrong. I was convinced that his ballad playing would appeal to the public on a very large scale. While his bebop playing had established his reputation among musicians and jazz bands, I knew bebop would never connect on a large scale. It was ingenious music but far too complicated for the average ear and too hard for the mass market to follow the melodies. It’s really Miles’ melodic playing that put him across with the public on a wide scale.” Within weeks of his Newport performance, Avakian offered Miles a lucrative contract (for a black jazz musician) but had to make a concession to Bob Weinstock. Miles owed his current label five more albums, and Avakian agreed not to release any material by Miles until all his recording obligations to Prestige were fulfilled. However realizing that the trumpeter is at a great point in his musical career, Avakian made sure that there was no stipulation that prevented Miles from recording for Columbia during that period. This is the reason why the first classic quintet recording was for Columbia in October of 1955, but the material for that session was released only in 1957, when the quintet stopped recording and was about to fold.
Miles Davis’ first recording session with Philly Joe Jones was in 1953 at a session for Prestige that became famous for its inclusion of Charlie Parker who appears on the credits with the pseudo name of Charlie Chan, as he was under an exclusive contract with Mercury. By that point Parker replaced Heroin with alcohol and was gulping vodka like it was soda pop, making him less than a productive partner on that date. The session was aborted at some point and Miles had to complete that session three years later with a different group. The tracks from the two sessions were combined on the album Collectors’ Items. At the time of the first session Philly Joe Jones (nicknamed Philly for his hometown and to avoid confusion with Count Basie’s drummer Papa Jo Jones) and Miles were hanging buddies, both also Heroin junkies. In 1954, after Miles stopped using, they were doing a lot of live session work together with various groups of musicians. Their next studio session together was that quartet with Red Garland in 1955. Miles had a special place in his musical heart for drummers, and Philly Joe Jones – at least for that period of time – was the ideal drummer for him: “Philly Joe was the fire that was making a lot of shit happen. See, he knew everything I was going to do, everything I was going to play. He anticipated me, felt what I was thinking.” Joe Jones had a style all of his own which Miles just felt comfortable with. Aside from Tony Williams, Joe Jones is the drummer Miles talks about the most in his autobiography: “Sometimes I used to tell him not to do that lick of his with me, but after me. And so that thing that he used to do after I played something – that rim shot – became known as the ‘Philly lick’, and it made him famous, took him right to the top of the drumming world. After he started doing it with me, guys in other bands would be telling their drummers, ‘Man, give me the Philly lick after I do my thing’.” His best compliment to the drummer is in this short sentence: “Even after he left I would listen to a little of Philly Joe in all the drummers I had later.”
One more piece in the quintet’s puzzle fell into place as Miles Davis was starting to rehearse a band for a booked engagement at the Cafe Bohemia. At the recommendation of Jackie McLean he was introduced to a newcomer in New York City, a young bass player named Paul Chambers, 20 years old at the time. Chambers was playing with J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding and gaining a lot of respect within the jazz circles. Miles summarized his first impression upon hearing Chambers as only he can: “When I first heard him I knew he was a bad motherfucker.” Years later when Coltrane was reflecting on his period with the quintet he said of Chambers: “A bassist of Paul Chambers’ stature is hard to find in New York because he understands the junction: he hears the piano and the drums, and all his work consists in improvising in the service of these instruments. His melodic line is kind of a result of the melodic lines of the two other musicians.”
Miles Davis needed one more musician, a horn player, to complete the lineup for a new quintet. But that role proved to be the most difficult to fill. His natural choice was Sonny Rollins, whom he started playing and recording with early in the 1950s. He got Rollins to play those booked Cafe Bohemia gigs in July 1955 and started lining up more gigs in other clubs. But then Rollins disappeared without a word, having gone to Lexington, Kentucky to kick his own Heroin habit. That proved a turning point for Rollins, who in 1956, after successfully getting off the harmful drug, made a huge comeback with his albums Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus. Davis then set his eyes on Cannonball Adderley who was playing with Oscar Pettiford, but the alto sax big man had a teaching gig in Florida. Next in line was john Gilmore, the odd one in the horn player nominees list. Gilmore played with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, a great band but maybe not the best fit in style and vibe for what Miles was after. Avakian summarized it well in his liner notes to ‘Round About Midnight, the first album Miles recorded for Columbia: “Gilmore, like a handful of other younger saxophonists, had been pushing the horn to new limits….Tenor saxophones, especially, were able to honk, howl scream, cry, pop, growl, and tongue-slap tones, and Gilmore had taken the horn further in this direction than anyone else at the time. But he was not what Davis was looking for.” Jackie McLean was also a possibility, having a long history with Miles. But at a Prestige session on August 5, 1955 the two had a fall out and never played together gain.
The final piece fell into place at the recommendation of Philly Joe Jones, who reminded Miles of a musician he knew from his hometown of Philadelphia, one John Coltrane. Miles knew the tenor player from early gigs they did together at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and was not impressed at the time. Sonny Rollins, who also played those gigs, had a different impression: “Coltrane and I first met in 1950 in New York, where we worked together for a few memorable gigs with Miles Davis. I really had to listen carefully to him. I often wondered, what was he doing, where was he going? I didn’t think it would be proper to ask, but I listened harder, and eventually I began to understand his music. Later, we became good friends. Good enough friends for me to borrow money from him, and Coltrane and Monk were the only two people I would ever ask for a loan.” Red Garland said of Coltrane: “I’ve always been struck by the continuity of his ideas and by his unique way of handling changes. He can start a chord in the strangest place. The average cat may start on the seventh, but Coltrane can begin on a flatted fifth. And he has the damnest way of breaking chords down, but I have no trouble accompanying him because of that sense of continuity.”
In September 1955 Coltrane was playing in Philadelphia as part of organist Jimmy Smith’s trio. Miles met Coltrane and noticed a big improvement in Coltrane’s playing, but they did not click at first. Miles, rarely providing instructions to the musicians in his band, found Coltrane’s quest for knowledge irritating. It is interesting to compare the two giant musicians’ recollection of that situation. Coltrane, politely: “After I joined Miles in 1955, I found that he wouldn’t talk much and will rarely discuss his music. He’s completely unpredictable. Sometimes he’d walk off stage after just playing a few notes, not even completing one chorus. If I asked him something about his music, I never knew how he was going to take it.” Davis, colorfully: “Trane liked to ask all these motherfucking questions about what he should or shouldn’t play. Man, fuck that shit. To me he was a professional musician and I have always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music. So my silence and evil looks probably turned him off.” After their meeting Coltrane went back to play with Jimmy Smith, and Miles, with a looming gig in Baltimore on September 28, 1955, had to beg the horn player to come back and join them. It was a practical proposition: Coltrane was simply the only one he could think of who knew all the tunes. Necessity is the mother of invention, and what an invention that was: the classic Miles Davis quintet of the 1950s, one of the finest jazz ensembles in the history of the genre, was born.
Miles realized the power of the group early on. This was no run of the mill group with random jazz musicians booked for a single recording session or a few club gigs. With the money coming to him from Columbia and higher fees he was asking from the clubs that booked him, Miles was able to maintain the group as a steady working band. Miles remembers: “Now we had Trane on sax, Philly Joe on drums, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and myself on trumpet. And faster than I could have imagined, the music that we had been playing together was just unbelievable. It was so bad that it used to send chills through me at night, and it did the same thing to the audiences, too. Man, the shit we were playing in a short time was scary, so scary that I used to pinch myself to see if I was really there.” The band performed at clubs in Baltimore, Detroit and New York City before going into their first recording session on October 26, 1955 for Columbia. They attempted 5 pieces through 31 takes, obviously not yet honing their skill to play together as a group in the studio. Ah-Leu-Cha, a piece written by Charlie Parker back in 1948, is a good showcase of the band at that point, a month after being formed. On one of the band’s gigs that was broadcasted on radio from the Peacock Alley Lounge in St. Louis early in 1957 Miles introduced the song. Davis: “… called ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’.” The radio host asked: “Is that a foreign language?” Davis replied: “Charlie Parker’s language.”
On November 16, 1955, a few weeks after the Columbia session, the quintet went into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to record their first session for Prestige. A favorite tune from this session is The Theme, a quick and short club performance set closer, here getting a full arrangement with a fine bass solo by Paul Chambers. Prestige got a full album worth out of that session and released it as Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet. It shows a group coming into its own, but as Miles said: “This record for Prestige was nice, but nothing like what we were going to do for them in our next sessions.” One album down, he now had to deliver four more albums to Prestige.
1956 rolled in with a very busy schedule for the quintet. This was the prime time to watch the group live as it gelled during a hectic performance schedule that went almost non-stop between October 1955 and July 1956. The band played New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and other cities. This was the era when travelling jazz bands got one or two week engagements in clubs, playing multiple sets each night. They got progressively better, and the recording sessions they managed to squeeze in that year prove it well. On May 11, 1956 the quintet went into Rudy van Gelder’s Studio for its second session for Prestige. Bob Weinstock had booked two sessions in 1956 to record enough material for the four remaining albums Davis owed him. Davis knew he could not waste time in the studio on failed or multiple takes, so he basically ran his live set in the studio, song after song as if the band was playing a club date. On that single session the band completed thirteen pieces in fourteen takes (The Theme was the only one requiring a second take). Given the astonishing quality of the material they recorded in this session and the following one for Prestige in October that year, these sessions count as historical recording events in my book.
The session starts with Dave Brubeck’s beautiful tune In Your Own Sweet Way. Coltrane has a fine solo on this tune, and the airy interludes between the choruses add a nice mood to the piece. A few tunes into the session the band starts to get into it with Trane’s Blues, a Miles Davis original he recorded earlier under a different name. The solos are great, and I could listen to that ride cymbal by Philly Joe Jones all day long.
Random studio chatter was recorded during the sessions and Weinstock decided to keep some of it on the released albums. In Ira Gitler’s sleeve notes to Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet he noted that this made the performances “a bit more personal and you are thereish”. At the end of the band’s take on Woody’n You, the tune Dizzy Gillespie’s wrote for Woody Herman, you can hear this exchange: Miles: “OK?” Weinstock (joking): “Do that one over.” Davis: “Why?” Coltrane: “Could I have the beer opener?”.
It is difficult to pick only a few highlights from these sessions, so I’ll stick with a couple of personal favorites. Surrey with the Fringe on Top, a lovely and less performed melody by Rodgers and Hammerstein that was covered by Ahmad Jamal in the early 1950s. A great example of a shtick the band used many times, where after a delicate opening by Miles Davis, usually on a muted trumpet, Coltrane comes out from behind in full force to lift the piece to a new level of energy. You can actually hear Coltrane’s horn moving forward when he starts playing, probably stepping to the microphone at the last minute.
It Never Entered My Mind is my favorite tune from this session. Miles covered the Rodgers and Hart standard from the musical Higher and Higher two years earlier with Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on Bass and Art Blakey on drums in a session for Blue Note Records. I find the classic quintet recording more mature and delicate, and a large part of the credit goes to Red Garland who shines on this tune, playing a repeated four-note pattern over Chambers’ bass pedal-point during the muted trumpet melody. Garland also gets the only solo, a masterful showcase of ballad playing in which he sticks in a 10-second quote from Country Gardens at 3:58. The ending is unique with the same pattern played in double-time, a bowed bass and Coltrane’s only contribution to the song – the last two notes.
A funny episode related to It Never Entered My Mind took place on November 17, 1955 when the band was the musical guest on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen, who had this exchange with Miles before introducing the tune: “A lot of folks who probably like Guy Lombardo, as a great many of us do for that matter, might have been puzzled by what you just played. What was the name of it? Davis: ‘Max is Makin’ Wax’. Allen: ‘Max is Makin’ Wax’… That doesn’t clear up a great deal, but at least now you know what you didn’t know about. Ah, however, now as a kind of a little exercise, uh, to see how clearly you can follow the chord changes, uh, whaddya say we take something slow and old and familiar like ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ and, uh, you wanna play it fairly straight for the first few bars just to tease them into thinking they know what’s going to happen, and then, then be my guest. Here it is…”
In between the two marathon sessions for Prestige the group managed to squeeze two sessions at Columbia’s 30th Street studio. The pressure to produce a large amount of tracks did not exist in these sessions, and Miles could afford rehearsals and multiple takes to get the perfect performance for each tune. The session on June 5, 1956 yielded a nice ensemble version of Dear Old Stockholm, a tune Miles performed many times in his career.
On September 10, 1956 the band played its last session for the album that became ‘Round Midnight on Columbia. The obvious standout track from this session is a great version of Thelonious Monk’s title track. There are thousands of covers of this tune in the world of jazz, and this one, completed by the band in a single take, is definitely up there with the best of them.
During that session the quintet also recorded the track Sweet Sue, Just You for Leonard Bernstein’s educational record What Is Jazz that was released one month later, in October 1956. It is the only Miles Davis track released on Columbia during his contract with Prestige, and a note on the back cover of the album says “Miles Davis appears in this album by special arrangement with Prestige Records.” It was also the first time Teo Macero, who arranged the tune, worked with Miles. This will prove to be the beginning of a very productive relationship between the two on many legendary Columbia recordings to follow.
Unrelated to the topic of this article but worth mentioning due to its uniqueness in the Miles Davis recording catalog from this period is a set of two sessions Miles did with Columbia in October 1956. Miles always appreciated the repertoire of classical music, and in the mid-1950s looked closely at developments in the music world such as the third stream, that tried to bring classical and jazz music together. Gunther Schuller was a main figure in this field and his composition Symphony for Brass and Percussion was recorded by Avakian for Columbia, on an album that was never released in North America called Music for Brass. Miles participated in sessions for other pieces on that album. His main contribution was on a piece called Three Little Feelings by John Lewis, a composition demonstrating the concepts of the third stream movement, and one that hints towards the direction Miles will take with Gil Evans the following year. Davis plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and solos on both instruments.
A few days later on October 26, 1956 the quintet recorded its final session for Prestige, again a marathon session that yielded 15 takes and 12 completed tracks. The first track was If I Were A Bell, composed by Frank Loesser for the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls. It opens with one of the most famous studio chatter in jazz, with Miles telling Bob Weinstock “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later” and snapping his fingers on two and four to count the band in. Red Garland adds a nice touch with the Big Ben chimes intro on piano.
The band follows with an energetic take on Monk’s Well You Needn’t, unique for its arrangement of the two horns in the opening melody statement, a great piano solo on the low register and a bowed bass solo by chambers. A tour de force by all musicians.
More studio chatter can be heard in the beginning of You’re My Everything. Davis: “‘You’re My Everything’, Red… Hold it, ev — you, when you see a red light on, everybody’s supposed to be quiet.” Van Gelder: “Here we go, Miles.” Davis: “All right.” False start. Davis: “Play some block chords, Red. All right, Rudy? Block chords, Red…” Miles plays a great solo, and if you listen carefully you can hear the floor creaks as he shifts his position during his solo.
Just how spontaneous the session was can be gleaned from the chatter just before the band embarks on their version of the Sonny Rollins composition Oleo. Chambers: “What is it?” Davis: “Newk’s number one.” Chambers: “Number one… Just like we do it at work?” Davis: “Yeah, watch your tempo, Paul, willya?” Jones: “Yeah, let’s keep it up there.” Davis: “There you go.” Newk was Sonny Rollins’ nickname, and the tune was first recorded by Miles Davis for the Bag’s Groove album in 1954. There is an interesting section here where Davis and Chambers are the only players, a seldom occurrence of trumpet and bass duo.
The last piece the band recorded in this final session for Prestige became a mainstay at Miles Davis performances for about ten years and has great interpretations by his second great quintet of the 1960s. Here he plays My Funny Valentine with his muted trumpet to a great effect in a quartet setting, as Coltrane had the habit of staying out on some of the more quiet ballads. A great tune to conclude his recorded output for Prestige.
That last session for Prestige proved to be the last studio recording for the band. After a break in activity when Miles went on the Birdland All-Stars in Europe tour, the band kept on touring in early 1957. But things were not the same anymore. Paul Chambers was drinking heavily, and much worse was Philly Joe Jones and Coltrane’s Heroin addiction. Miles remembers that period: “I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand. I told them I couldn’t tolerate that.” Specifically about Trane: “If it had been some other player I would have fired him after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did. Trane was a beautiful person, a real sweet kind of guy. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him.” Even worse was the situation with Joe Jones, who was the more active one in finding dealers to supply him and Coltrane with the addictive substance: “Sometimes Philly Joe would be so sick up on the bandstand he would whisper to me: ‘Miles, play a ballad, I’m getting ready to throw up so I gotta go to the bathroom’. He’d leave the stage and go throw up and come back like nothing had happened.” Coltrane had the same ability to function at a very high level musically while on drugs. Trumpet player Ray Copeland recalls: “In 1957 I was on a record date with Coltrane, and he was definitely high on junk. We were sitting near the rhythm section while the leader was taking a long piano solo. It was almost time for Coltrane’s solo, and as I turned to look at him I noticed that he was nodding out, holding his horn to his lap. Before I could do anything, the leader happened to look out from the piano, saw Trane’s condition and screamed ‘Coltrane… Coltrane!’ What happened next was so amazing I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Trane was suddenly on his feet, playing in perfect cadence and following the piano solo as if nothing had happened. He played a pretty good solo, and when he was finished he sat down again and went back to nodding out.”
During one of the shows the band played at Cafe Bohemia in April of 1957 Miles had enough and fired John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. That was the end of his classic 1950s quintet, a band that lasted 18 months and recorded the magnificent studio material for Prestige and Columbia, six albums worth, all within a 12-month period to the date (October 26, 1955 to October 26, 1956). Bob Weinstock released only one album, Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, while the band was active and started caching in on most of that recorded output only after the band was no more. He released four albums, all of them now an essential part of any jazz aficionado collection: Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet – August 1957, Relaxin’ – February 1958, Workin’ – February 1960, and Steamin’ – August 1961. But Miles was on to bigger things with Columbia. The difference in the marketing reach between the two labels is clear from the simple fact that all the five albums Prestige got out of that band did not come close in sales to the single album Columbia released, ‘Round Midnight. The cover photo of that album was taken at the Cafe Bohemia. John Coltrane took that incident at the Cafe Bohemia to heart, went back to Philadelphia and got clean. That summer he was invited by Thelonious Monk to join his quartet, a turning point in Coltrane’s development after which all of his music to follow had that spiritual side to it. Miles also moved on to great things, and only a month after the group disbanded he recorded a number of sessions for Columba with Gil Evans to what would be released as the masterpiece Miles Ahead album. The quintet’s rhythm section all became sought-after musicians after the band split up, and at least for a while performed on numerous recordings under their own name and as side men for all the major jazz labels.
I can’t think of a better way to conclude this article than quoting an elegy about the band from the back cover of Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, where Ira Gitler wrote: “It is said that all good things come to an end. One did in the spring of 1957 when the Miles Davis Quintet was dissolved. I say the Miles Davis Quintet because in their nearly two years together, Miles, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones achieved a particular kind of unity. They were not just the Miles Davis Quintet; to me, and many others, they were the group — the best small combo in modern jazz.”