Miles Dewey Davis III was a musician who let nothing stand in his way. The late 1950’s were an especially fertile time in his recording career. For the first half of the decade, Miles was under recording contract with Prestige records. His reputation grew, as well as his ambition. Prestige was sometimes known as the “junkies” recording label, because of its willingness to let musician’s walk in, spontaneously record, and get paid cash on the spot. For those players with drug addiction problems, this was a splendid business arrangement. Miles himself finally beat his heroin troubles in 1954, and made a notable appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.
It was at the Newport Jazz Festival that Miles finally agreed, in principle, to signing with Columbia Records. George Avakian at Columbia had long wanted Miles at his company, but Davis was under contract with Prestige until 1956. Davis was ambitious, and wanted the resources of the larger company at his disposal. Avakian had negotiated to try to buy out the Prestige contract, but failed to come to an agreement. This situation led to one of the oddest “compromises” in music history.
The folks at Prestige knew that Miles was leaving at the end of his contract. They agreed to let him start recording with Colombia concurrently with the last six months of his Prestige commitment, provided he give them the four albums they were owed. Miles had a new working band, and he fulfilled the letter of his contract, if not the spirit.
The new group would eventually become known as the First Great Miles Davis Quintet. The group consisted of Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. With this new quintet, Miles was itching to record for Columbia. To finish his earlier commitment with Prestige, he took the group into the studio on two separate occasions for marathon recording sessions. One occurred on May 11, 1956, and the second on October 26, 1956. There were no such thing as second takes at these sessions, and the musicians knew it. They played every tune and standard in their book, one right after the other, with long spaces for players to solo. This kept everyone on edge, as none of the band wanted to sound bad on record, but knew they were only going to get one shot at it. Miles wanted to escape from Prestige, and was determined to finish his work in these two days.
Enough material was banked up for the four albums that Davis owed his old company. Prestige slowly released them in the years 1957 to 1961, under the generic titles “Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, “Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, “Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, and “Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”. This was quality music, put out by great musicians, even if it was a couple of years old by the time it was released. Prestige actually benefited from the publicity machine at Columbia. As Columbia was promoting the quintet and Davis, Prestige could piggyback their releases at the same time. During the late 1950’s, Columbia released such great albums as “‘Round About Midnight”, “Milestones”, and the legendary sextet album “Kind of Blue”. During the same period, the great collaboration albums Miles recorded with Gil Evans’ arrangements were put out by Columbia. This included “Miles Ahead”, “Porgy and Bess”, and “Sketches of Spain”. All told, Miles Davis released over 13 albums on two different labels between 1957 and 1961. And this doesn’t even reach the halfway point of his recording career.
When you look up the word “prolific” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Miles Davis smiling all the way to the bank.
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