Miles Davis: Photos of a Jazz Giant in 1958

Picture of Miles Davis, close-up, in color, 1958.
Robert W. Kelley—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. For a 1958 TIME magazine profile, Davis explained the birth of his playing style, beginning with a local instructor in his hometown of East St. Louis, Ill.: " 'Play without any vibrato,' he used to tell us. 'You're gonna get old anyway and start shaking.' That's how I tried to play -- fast and light and no vibrato."
Celebrity
'50s

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. [NOTE: A comment below cites research that places Davis and his band at New York's Cafe Bohemia on that night. — Ed.]

At this pivotal moment in his career, Davis was cementing a new iteration of his sextet, with John Coltrane, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and pianist Bill Evans. Less than two weeks after these pictures were made, that astonishing lineup would begin recording 1958 Miles, and by the following March they were at work on the best-selling—and arguably the single most influential—jazz album of all time: Kind of Blue.

Even artists outside of jazz—rockers like Duane Allman and Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright, for example—have cited Kind of Blue as inspiration. Davis’ friend Quincy Jones, meanwhile, has said: “I play Kind of Blue every day. It’s my orange juice.”

Maybe Kelley’s 1958 photos never ran in LIFE because 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. Maybe pictures of a groundbreaking young master of the art weren’t something to get worked up about.

But six decades later, 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as one of the genuine titans of 20th century music, it’s hard not to get excited by the opportunity to see previously unpublished pictures of the man and the rest of his legendary sextet.
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