From Flat 5 to Flat 12 – the music and motors of Miles Davis

To put it simply, Miles Davis is one of the greatest musicians that has ever lived. This is by no means a rash and unsupported statement; it’s an indisputable truth.

He lived his life filled with a passion for doing things differently, breaking the mould, whilst being respectful of all that’s good about the traditional. That’s not to suggest he was perfect, far from it; he was renowned for being aloof, rude and even violent during his lifetime. He was also addicted to heroin for a significant period during his career.

It could also be said that his choice of cars was something of a reflection of his personality, with him driving everything from innovative and exotic Italian marques, to a subtly understated British sportscar and the undeniable coolest of German roadsters.

So just what made Miles Davis such an influential figure in the history of jazz music?

Defining legacy

Having been a fundamental figure in the birth of ‘cool jazz’’ during the late 1940’s, Davis constantly challenged the boundaries of jazz harmony and arrangement throughout his career, as a virtuoso horn player, band leader and a composer, but he constantly craved innovation – a trait that is evident in his musical masterpieces.

Davis’s legacy in jazz music is as influential as Pablo Picasso’s to the world of modern art. Both men were bold, dramatic, sometimes impulsive and highly expressive in their creativity; Davis’s tones and melodies are to jazz, what Picasso’s colours and brush-strokes are to art. Both were also fundamental in creating change – Davis’s cool school and tonal jazz movements and Picasso’s cubist movement, constructed sculpture and (co-inventor of) collage.

One might also draw comparison between Miles Davis and Vincent Van Gogh. Both men were highly prolific in their respective art forms. Both were also highly troubled in their personal lives, which may be an ascription to their creativity, originality and lasting influence. Whatever comparisons we may draw, one thing is certain; Miles Davis is one of the greatest creative artists that’s ever lived.

Breaking the mould

It comes as no surprise then that Davis’s album entitled ‘Birth of the Cool’ is considered seminal in the history of cool jazz. The ‘cool school’ followed a kind of polar-opposite approach to Bebop, which was ‘fast and furious’ (no pun intended) in its tempo and was what some cynics might describe as dissolute, with each part seemingly competing to be heard.

Cool was born from Davis’s wish to break from the mould of the highly frenetic Bebop style, not because it was beyond him exactly; he is acknowledged as one of its most accomplished trumpet players having shared the stage with the (late) great Charlie Parker as part of his quintet. However, having found a kindred spirit in the acclaimed Canadian jazz composer and arranger Gil Evans, Davis helped pave the way for an entirely new direction for Jazz, that arguably influenced the genre for all of time.

Cool jazz embraced a more relaxed tempo and simpler arrangements to Bebop, allowing the music to ‘breathe’, adopting a more lyrical approach. The horn section also tended to play together in unison, creating a more blended sound, instead of each instrument appearing to compete with one another, as could be argued as being true in Bebop.

Moreover, in cool jazz, what one didn’t play was almost as essential as what one did play – knowing what to play and when was a fundamental skill that Davis excelled in.

Miles ahead

Despite the highly positive critical acclaim towards his ‘Birth of the Cool’ album, Davis continued pushing the boundaries, moving into playing Hard Bop (an extension of Bebop, combining the rhythmic influences found in Rhythm and Blues) on his album ‘Walkin’ (recorded in 1954) and the highly acclaimed ‘Miles Ahead’, both released during 1957. The latter saw him collaborate once more with Gil Evans – the first time since their success with the ‘Birth of the cool’ album.

‘Miles Ahead’ was also later chosen as the title of the film directed by and starring Don Cheadle, interpreting Davis’s life and musical compositions.


Never one to stand still, Davis’s next phase saw him pioneer the modal jazz movement. This was perhaps his most radical diversion, because it was conceptually widely removed from the harmonic principles used in jazz up to that point in time.

Modal jazz is based on the harmonic theory crystallised by George Russell, a contemporary and close associate of Miles Davis. Named the ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization’, Russell’s theory adopts the Lydian mode (one of the seven classical Greek musical modes) and challenged the jazz harmony principles of the time, which were based largely on Bach harmony.

As an eighteen-year-old, Davis studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music; he later criticised the school for concentrating too much on a “white” classical European repertoire. Russell’s theories therefore offered something of an antidote and means of expression.

Russell’s theory features the use of a sharpened 4th/11th interval – enharmonically a flattened fifth interval (flat five), which is also referred to as the ‘blue note’. Davis was fascinated with Russell’s theory as it presented an opportunity to cut loose from tonal clichés, whilst upholding an order of moderation – a core element of cool. Inspired by the principles of Russell’s theory, after spending time with the man himself, Davis composed the album ‘Round about midnight’. It has since been referred to as a ‘great path-breaker’ for Davis in his future works, fusing other forms of music into his own veritable and unique style.

Davis’s album entitled ‘Kind of Blue’ was perhaps as seminal as a recording to modal jazz as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ was (to cool jazz) some years earlier. It is still revered today as one of the all-time masterpieces of recorded jazz music, with its sales having achieved quadruple platinum in the U.S. and double platinum in the UK alone. The album arguably also set a new benchmark against which jazz musicians (including himself) were measured against in years to come.

The mentor

Throughout his career Davis attracted many exceptional musicians into his band, with some becoming jazz greats themselves, such as saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, the highly influential pianist Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and drummer Tony Williams.

Later in his career, Davis continued to work with burgeoning artists and producers such as Marcus Miller, whose collaboration on the 1986 album ‘Tutu’ proved inspirational to a new generation of jazz musicians. Unsurprisingly, many of the musicians who played with and were mentored by Davis went on to become revered artists, such as guitarists John McLaughlin, Mike Stern and Robben Ford, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, acknowledged as one of the ‘fathers of jazz-fusion’ after co-founding the highly acclaimed jazz band Weather Report with Wayne Shorter.

Today, Miles Davis’s spirit lives on through all who have been inspired by him.

Exotic taste

Away from music, Miles Davis had a predilection for cars – more specifically exotic European cars, of which he owned various notable models during his lifetime. These included the Lamborghini Miura, Mercedes 190SL and Jaguar’s V12 XJS. He is also known to have had an affinity with Ferrari, having owned a couple. He was even certified (self or otherwise I’m not entirely sure) as something of a Ferrari connoisseur.

His first Ferrari was a 1967 275 GTB/4 (quad-cam), which produced 300 bhp from a 3.3 litre V-12 engine with an estimated top speed of 165 mph. There were less than 300 examples of this model produced, making it a hugely exclusive and desirable car, even by Ferrari’s standards.

A Mercedes-Benz 190 SL was something of a stepdown in terms of power and performance, producing just 109 bhp from a 1.9 litre engine. However, the Mercedes certainly exuded cool in abundance and so perhaps it was the perfect reflection of his less is more approach to jazz.

Mercedes 190SL dash

La Miura

In the early 1970’s Davis owned a Lamborghini Miura; a car that was as innovative as his own musical diversions. The Miura was also seminal in the future development of the ‘super-car’, with its mid-engine layout and aerodynamic body lines. The Miura’s concept would surely have appealed immensely to Miles Davis, as it ‘broke the mould’ for sports car design and created a new benchmark by which all other supercars would be compared. Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it?

Davis was also renowned for being something of an enthusiastic driver – once he even crashed his beloved Lamborghini whilst driving it ‘enthusiastically’ around Manhattan, injuring himself and totalling the car in the process. It’s believed that Luigi Chinetti, a three-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours and later American importer for Ferrari, unsuccessfully attempted to allure Davis into racing. Based on Davis’s exploits with the Miura, perhaps declining was a wise choice on his part.

Towards the end of the seventies, Davis chosen drive was a Jaguar XJ, which may have given the impression he was becoming more conservative in his choice of car. However, with a V12 under the bonnet, the Jag could hit 60mph in around seven and half seconds and top 140 miles per hour.

Pop culture

The arrival of the 1980s brought a change in social culture, with a thriving economy and consumer wealth. Davis’s music began to appeal to an even broader audience with his adoption of electronic instrumentation, sampled drums and funky rhythms. He even recorded instrumental adaptations of pop songs, including beautiful arrangements of Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’. Who would have thought.

Perhaps the car of the decade in the 1980s was the Pininfarina designed Ferrari Testarossa. Sporting a flat twelve 4.9 litre engine producing over 350bhp it was capable of a 5.2 seconds 0-60mph time and a top speed of 180 mph, which is still hugely impressive almost 35 years on.

And so, as you’ve probably guessed, Davis was reunited with the Prancing Horse; owning a vibrant yellow coloured Testarossa in which he could be seen driving (no doubt with some enthusiasm) around the hills of southern California.

In a career that spanned five decades, Miles Davis left an indelible impression on the world of music, just as his favoured car marques have on the history of motoring. His life’s journey took in many things and inspired many more along the way – right up until his death in 1991. One could say he went from flat five to flat twelve in 6.5 decades; and what an amazing journey it was.

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