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Miles Davis (Born: 25 May 1926  Died: 28 September 1991)

Born in Illinois, Miles Dewey Davis III is one of the most influential jazz musicians of the modern era. Influenced by Clark Terry, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, his break came when he was invited on stage with Parker and Gillespie to fill in for a sick member of the band. He joined the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1945 before leading his own band, The Miles Davis Sextet in 1946. Davis wanted to exceed the notes available in the jazz orthodoxy and constantly changed musical direction throughout his career taking the genre in new, dynamic directions, moving from improvisation to a more stripped back style. While this approach was much criticized by traditional jazz fans, Davis said: “I never thought jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered artistic.” In 1954, after kicking his heroin addiction, Davis formed The Miles Davis Quintet. It consisted of Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. Davis, an unapologetic innovator, is not only a pivotal figure in the development of jazz, he is also credited with being important in the development of funk, hip hop, trance, electro and dubstep. Among those who have felt his considerable influence are Damon Albarn, John Legend and Kanye West.

Charles Mingus (Born: 22 April 1922  Died: 5 January 1979)

Charles Mingus was a volatile jazz genius. Born in Arizona, Mingus’ music was full of tonal colour and passion making it quite unique. He was considered by many in the jazz world to be the heir apparent to Duke Ellington. Mingus is noted for his love of collective improvisation evoking the New Orleans jazz parades from the birth of the genre. The individual in a collective capacity fascinated Mingus and this led to him selecting musicians not just for their musical skills and abilities but also for their personality traits. Mingus was a force of nature with an explosive temper which gave rise to his nickname, The Angry Man of Jazz.

John Coltrane (Born: 23 September 1926  Died: 17 July 1967)

North Carolina born John Coltrane is one of the most influential and spiritual of jazz musicians. Saxophonist, composer, and band leader, Coltrane helped pioneer modal jazz with Miles Davis. A member of The Miles Davis Quintet, he was kicked out because of his drug addiction. Coltrane quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey and claims to have had a spiritual encounter which would from that point influence the direction and meaning of his work. He said: “My goal is to live a truly religious life, and express it in my music… My music is the spiritual expression of what I am, my faith, my knowledge, my being.” Even after his death Coltrane is kept alive in spirit through his canonization as a saint in the African Orthodox Church – he is St John William Coltrane. Coltrane was a musical explorer, admiring Indian music (especially Ravi Shankar) as well as African music, particularly the drummer Olatunji. Coltane has influenced many popular artists including David Bowie,
Gil Scott-Heron, and MC Rakim.

Oscar Peterson (Born: 15 August 1925  Died: 23 December 2007)

Canadian born Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was a technically brilliant jazz pianist. Often described as the Liszt of Jazz, Peterson was influenced by Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole and Teddy Wilson and was self deprecating, saying: “Technique is something you use to make your ideas listenable.” But he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Miles Davis hated him, but then Davis hated most people and things. Peterson was discovered by Verve impresario, Norman Granz and is famous for his work with The Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. Peterson also performed duets with artists like Herbie Hancock, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie as well as accompanying stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Peterson was considered the master of swing and to Duke Ellington he was quite simply, the Maharaja of the keyboard.

Thelonious Monk (born: 10 October 1917,  died: 27 February 1982)

Jazz pianist Thelonius Sphere Monk was born in North Carolina. His influences included Duke Ellington and James P Johnson. With his distinctive style of berets and sunglasses, he also wrote some of the most challenging music an artist can possibly play. His unorthodox piano techniques coupled with the idiosyncratic themes he composed made Monk unique among jazz artists. Miles Davis found it frustrating when he worked with Monk asking him not to accompany him as he was too difficult to improvise over. Legend has it that the two jazz giants nearly came to blows. Monk’s behavior at times was noted as odd, often erratic and this has been attributed to mental illness that went undiagnosed. Monk was a key influence for Tom Waits and Amy Winehouse.

Duke Ellington (Born: 29 April 1899 Died: 24 May 1974)

 Arguably the greatest jazz composer and bandleader of all time, Edwards Kennedy Ellington or ‘The Duke’ was a true showman, elegant of dress and cocksure. He was sometimes described as the Black Beethoven, but Ellington resisted this insisting “To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparison with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality.” The most prolific jazz composer, Ellington was also the ultimate band leader using its members as a kind of musical laboratory, hot-housing innovative and unique musicians. He came to national recognition through his residency as band leader at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem in the late 1920s. He went on to compose film soundtracks, musicals, several jazz standards and pop orientated music. He has been cited as a major influence in the work of Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King. Lady Gaga also claims to be obsessed with him. The Duke’s last words are fitting and turned out to be true. He said: “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”

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