Miles Davis and John Coltrane

Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
both born in 1926.
Very different backgrounds.
Miles came from a priviledged family — father was a dentist and landowner.
Coltrane came from a working class family. His dad was a tailor and had a little dry cleaning and pressing shop. His two grandfathers were Methodist ministers in North Carolina.

Miles was a child prodigy. He started playing trumpet in middle school, and was playing professionally – with Eddie Randle and His Blue Devils – by the time he was in high school.

He also got married and had kids while he was in high school. Then left St. Louis at age 18 to enroll at Julliard in NYC.

Coltrane didn’t start with music until he was 13. During that year, his dad died, his uncle died and his grandparents died. He was devastated and turned to music. His dad had played clarinet and ukelele – and John took up the clarinet. Broke, his mom and her sister decided to leave North Carolina and head to Philadelphia in 1942 -shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941.

Philly was necessary for Coltrane to become Coltrane.
New York was necessary for Miles to become Miles.

Miles dropped out of Julliard. At age 18 he replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band. No small challenge. But he rose to the occasion – if not immediately, he figured out what was needed – and fast. Miles was pretty much a sheltered kid, and small. He needed to grow up fast and quickly added a tough exterior. Boxing and cursing. He mastered those forms too.

Coltrane was down the road in Philly, taking his time. A late starter and not a prodigy. But worked his behind off. He was fascinated with music theory – the way all the chords relate to each other and the numerical values. Einstein was one of his heroes. I think he could have been a great mathematician. He didn’t sound great at first. And just about the time Miles was with Parker, Coltrane joined the navy and was stationed in Hawaii. The first known recording of him playing – on alto – -and striving to sound like Bird – was made as private session with Navy colleagues.

By the mid 50’s — closer to the time they were 30 – each was established as a major talent -and Miles hired Coltrane. Each of them had drug problems. And this was slowing them down. Miles fired Coltrane — as did Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. He was, to be blunt, a mess. In 1958 Coltrane went cold turkey in his Mom’s house in Philadelphia and then his real essence began to emerge. A year later, in 1959 he recorded Kind of Blue with Miles, New York New York with theory master George Russell, and his own Giant Steps — not bad for a year off of dope.

Miles let Coltrane go that year, shortly after Kind of Blue was recorded — and they went on very different paths during the 60’s.

more on that later.

Steve Rowland

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