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Posted at 01:39 PM ET, 05/26/2011

On Miles Davis’s 85th birthday, going back to “The Rebirth of the Cool”


As he became more successful, Davis's reputation as snappish and disrespectful of his audience — he was famous for turning his back to the crowd — became legend, earning him the nickname "The Prince of Darkness." (1958) (Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures)

Today, Miles Davis, who died in 1991, would have been 85. In celebration, Life.com has put photographs online that photographer Robert Kelley snapped at a jazz gig in 1958 that have been in Life’s archives ever since, never published before.

The photos were taken when Davis was still full of life, recording bebop, cool jazz, and then hard bop, as both sideman and leader.

But in 1976, after a performance at Newport Jazz Festival in New York Davis was forced to withdraw from the public eye because of health problems, depression, and alcohol, drug and sex addictions. He composed only intermittently for the next five years, and did not release any recordings.

“The Prince of Darkness” finally returned to the stage on July 5, 1981, playing a much-awaited, sold-out show in Avery Fishery Hall at New York's Kool Jazz Festival. The next day, the Post ran a story called “The Rebirth of the Cool” (a play on Davis’ 1957 compilation album “Birth of the Cool”), in which Leonard Feater described what it was like to talk to the barely-recovered jazz legend. Feater wrote:

The godfather of the trumpet and fluegelhorn played his last public notes in the spring of 1975.... He is still not a well man.

The last time we had talked, in March, Davis had been in no condition to go back to work. “How’ve I been?” he echoed my opening question. “You know how I’ve been — I’ve been screwed up for five years. They split my leg down the middle, you know.”

Recently we talked again, though the phone call was 10 percent words and 90 percent music. Davis could hardly wait to play me the entire album, and as the sounds wafted over long distance, they were punctuated by his guttural, barely audible whisper: “You hear that? . . . What did you think of that? . . . How d'you like that?"

The sounds were somehow different from the heavy funk of his last album (1974). Asked whether he feels he has changed, he said, “I just play more chords. And it's all acoustic horn, nothing amplified except for one track.”

[Davis then said]: “Listen to this number. You hear that rhythm? That’s bossa nova and calypso mixed. You like that? . . . You know I found out if you don’t have nothing to say, just let the rhythm section play. Listen to this part now — the way I use volume for contrast highs and lows; build up and then come way down . . . Hey, my leg is hurting bad — it just started to hurt all over — no warning, nothing. Hold the line a minute.”

Silence. Then more music... “Here's a ballad for you.” ... I was asked how I liked it. It sounded fine.

“Good. I wrote four of the tunes, you know . . . Now write something nice about me.”

As I was about to say goodbye, Miles got in an important postscript under the wire:

“I bought me a brand-new Ferrari. A yellow one.”

Miles Davis is back, in love with life and music and women and Ferraris, not necessarily in that order. Given the length of his absence and the immense loyalty of his admirers, it would seem the reaction when he faced the New York audience last night would have imposed a severe test on the foundations of Avery Fisher Hall.

By and  |  01:39 PM ET, 05/26/2011

 
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