International Jazz Festival 2017: British trumpeter Kevin Davy on what made Miles Davis so special

Prahlad Srihari

Nov 24, 2017 13:23:11 IST

After moving to New York in 1944 to study music at the Juilliard School and dropping out within three semesters, 18-year-old Miles Davis — beguiled by the bebop revolution — tracked down one of the biggest jazz stars at the time, Charlie "Bird" Parker. Although he himself was just 24 years old at the time, Parker helped Davis develop his own style by introducing him to fellow trumpeters like Dizzy Gillespie and taking him on as a sideman. But Davis was too much of a maverick to be under the wing of anybody, even Bird's.

It was this constant desire to experiment and evolve as a musician throughout his career that put Miles at the forefront of almost every major subgenre of jazz at the time: hard-bop, post-bop, modal jazz, orchestral jazz, jazz-rock and jazz-funk. Despite denunciations from critics and fans, he never settled into a singular style and became an elusive yardstick of jazz music for generations.

 International Jazz Festival 2017: British trumpeter Kevin Davy on what made Miles Davis so special

Kevin G Davy plays the trumpet during a jam. Image courtesy:

And every generation of jazz musicians wish to revisit the legacy of Miles in their own way. On Friday, at NCPA International Jazz Festival in Mumbai, the Kevin Davy quintet celebrates the genius of the original Prince of Darkness with a tribute concert. The group, led by renowned British jazz trumpeter and composer Kevin G Davy, includes Marco Quarantotto (drums), Serge Ngando Pondo (bass), Oli Arlotto (tenor saxophone) and Karim Ellaboudi (piano/keys).

When the Saints Go Marching In

For many artists, their musical palate and sensibilities are a direct reflection of their parents. Born in Nottingham, but of Jamaican descent, Kevin Davy’s introduction to music began in similar fashion while thumbing through his parents’ vinyl records and listening to the radiogram — a radio-cum-record player and a near-ubiquitous contrivance in British-Caribbean households at the time. “My parents were keen on a broad range of music from jazz, ska, and bluebeat to rock n roll, blues and gospel,” says Davy. “They collected vinyl records and were basically open to different styles of music.”

A Way of Living - Jazz Short Documentary from Federico Gangemi on Vimeo.

But it was only after watching Louis Armstrong on television and hearing his parents gush over his music that Davy was inspired to take up the bugle and cavalry trumpet in the 2nd Nottingham Boys’ Brigade marching band. “I listened to swing music and Louis Armstrong quite a lot at first. I believe that he was and still is one of the (most) dominant voices in jazz, both for his trumpet playing and for his voice,” says Davy. “Even now, his name looms large in jazz history. I would say that most trumpeters owe Louis Armstrong a lot in the things that he innovated, such as extended solos, expanding the swing and blues language.” From there, Davy progressed to lead trumpeter at the age of 14. Meanwhile, he also performed with dance bands in Nottingham, who played material from the Great American Songbook and swing era further aiding his jazz and swing music education.


In 1986, Davy left Nottingham to pursue a Bachelors of Arts degree in General Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. Though he primarily studied humanities, he developed a keen interest in arts, aesthetics and music. He got his “first serious break” when he enrolled in a jazz improvisation workshop at Manchester’s All Saints Catholic College. The course was headed by Colin Stansfield, who Davy considers his “most important teacher” and “music guru”. Davy talks about the profound impact of Stansfield’s ideas on his general music outlook and development. “His philosophies on music provided guidance for me and affirmed ideas that I had and was searching to expand upon and develop. I liked how he ran his workshops in music and the inclusivity of them.”

Soon, with lessons imbibed and newfound insight, Davis began to establish himself in Manchester’s music scene effervescing with the spontaneity and ferocious improvisation of his more celebrated musical influence, Miles Davis. He became a regular fixture at Manchester's premier jazz venues like Band On The Wall and PJ Bells and even emceed jam sessions at Jazz World Stage at Glastonbury in the 90s.

After relocating to London in 1994, he worked as an actor-musician at the Donmar Warehouse on a production of Bertolt Brecht's classic 1920s musical The Three Penny Opera, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Inspired by Miles’s collaborative projects and drawing on his own experience, Davy began to host four-hour jam sessions with musicians from around the UK. Called Kevin Davy's Monster Jam, he collaborates with hip-hop artists, DJs and avant-garde jazz musicians and these performances continue to receive a positive response from critics and musicians alike. When asked if these kind of collaborations are still alive in the jazz community, Davy affirms, “The collaboration crossing genres and styles do actually flourish today if we have the time to look. Collaborations between poets, spoken word, technology, acoustic, contemporary, fusion and many more possibilities exist.”

'Round about Midnight

Demonstrably, Davy cites Miles as his “biggest influence” as he waxes lyrical about his artistic flair. “Over the decades of his career, he made many changes to his musical approach and innovations. He was a natural leader and a natural collaborator. He has the most identifiable and unique tone and phrasing on the trumpet, especially on the Harmon mute, a sound which he himself pioneered.”

With his edgy sophistication and laid back elegance, Miles continued to break down barriers between musical categories with each album. Some were more accessible than others. Kind of Blue is still perhaps the gateway jazz record for potential jazz listeners and its enduring significance is what has earned it the reputation as the greatest jazz record. The more serious listeners perhaps dig a little deeper into his catalogue, like Bitches Brew for example. His Jimi-Hendrix influenced electric coming out may piss off the jazz purists but Davy insists he loves both albums equally. “Miles Davis paved the way for a lot of experimentation and innovation, including most of the contemporary jazz musicians playing now. Kind of Blue is the biggest selling jazz album in history and Bitches Brew has a massive influence on contemporary sounds. They, to me, are equally valid.”

Miles Davis "Milestones" 1958. Twitter/@TheJazzSoul

Miles Davis "Milestones" 1958. Twitter/@TheJazzSoul

Jazz is often referred to as America’s one true original art form and its story is deeply rooted in the story of slavery in the country. Davy believes that part of what made Miles so good was he acknowledged and connected his African ancestry to his music. “He was very proud and had a strong sense of himself and his African American community, in which there is an ever-present search from the ancestry.”

Other than Miles, Davy cites his other trumpet influences include Freddie Hubbard, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry. Over the years in the UK, Davy's own trumpet virtuosity has been compared with Miles and Hubbard. "I considered those comparisons an honour,” says Davy.

After touring successfully with the Kevin Davy Quintet at Abu Dhabi’s JAZZATTACK and the Colombo Jazz Festival in Sri Lanka earlier this year, NCPA got in touch with Davy about playing a Miles Davis tribute as part of its International Jazz Festival in Mumbai. So, on Friday, the Kevin Davy Quintet will perform Miles Davis compositions from the swing era to the modal and jazz-rock eras before moving on to what Davy calls “the Marcus Miller era.”

The International Jazz Festival will be held at Tata Theatre in NCPA from 24-26 November.

Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 13:50:05 IST