Miles Davis: Photos of a Jazz Giant in 1958

Miles Davis takes a break from performing at a club in New York, 1958.
Robert W. Kelley—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Miles Davis takes a break from performing at a club in New York, 1958. From a TIME Magazine profile of Davis, written in January 1958: "On the bandstand, trumpeter Miles Davis resembles a man who wandered in off the street for a nightcap and decided to stick around for a few licks on a borrowed horn. He will noodle his way through a solo, turn to chat with another player, stroll to a nearby table for a drag on a cigarette. But the relaxed air is deceptive. Davis pays scrupulous attention to the group and individual sounds of his combo, often lies awake nights rehearsing new arrangements in his head."

When LIFE photographer Robert W. Kelley shot a few rolls of film at an intimate jazz gig on May 14, 1958, evidently neither he nor the magazine’s editors were jumping out of their skins with excitement.

Kelley provided scant notes describing the evening: just the date, the city, and the subject’s name, “Miles Davis,” scrawled on the small archival file of the resulting photos. Why the pictures — which capture the great, groundbreaking trumpeter, then just 31 years old, leading his band in an unnamed New York venue — never made it into print remains a mystery to this day.

Maybe seeing and hearing jazz greats on any given night felt so commonplace in New York at the time — the music mecca, Birdland, after all, was just around the corner from the Time-Life Building — that photographs of a groundbreaking young master of the art weren’t something to get worked up about.

But six decades later, at a time when Miles Davis’ star shines brighter than ever and he’s acknowledged as one of the genuine titans of 20th century music, it’s hard not to get excited by the opportunity to see previously unpublished pictures of the man and the rest of his legendary sextet, including John Coltrane, less than a year away from recording the best-selling — and arguably the single most influential — jazz album of all time: Kind of Blue.

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