200 Years of Illinois: Miles to East St. Louis

The world changed on May 26, 1926, for on that day Miles Davis entered the world in Alton. The Davises initially lived at 1112 Milnor Street. When Miles was two, they moved to East St. Louis, at the time a center of racial unrest and only nine years removed from the infamous 1917 race riots.

Miles came from an accomplished professional family. Though musicians featured prominently in his ancestry, his immediate family had eschewed the calling as disreputable. His father was a dentist with a thriving practice that allowed him to buy a house—pointedly, in a white neighborhood—and a 200-acre ranch where Miles enjoyed horseback riding, hunting, and fishing.

As the Scottish trumpet player Ian Carr wrote in his biography of the musician:

He inherited his mother’s good looks—the large, luminous eyes, the straight, finely chiseled nose, and the delicate jawline—and he also felt that his artistic talent, sense of style, and love of clothes came from her.

His early relationship with her was deeply affected by the racial and social situation. As the wife of a dental surgeon, Miles’s mother was aware that her family had an important place in local society, and she strove to uphold that position. After Emancipation, it was the professional men and ministers of the church who were the heads of the new black society, and they were at pains to get rid of any customs, habits, or mannerisms that were too “negroid” or which harked back to slavery. It often happened that leading black citizens became the most fanatical imitators of white society.

That attitude found expression when Miles began to express interest in music. His mother wanted him to take up the violin, an instrument she herself played, and one prominent in the genteel, tasteful music played in the Davis household. Yet, unknown to Miles or almost anyone else, his mother also played blues piano, and played it well. Davis would not learn of it until the 1950s. She allowed Miles and his siblings to visit his grandparents in Arkansas, where Miles became steeped in guitar-centric blues, gospel, and work songs.

In time Miles received a trumpet against his mother’s wishes, and by age sixteen started earning his own money in bands. His parents, intent on him pursuing a professional career, insisted on college. Thus began Davis’s time at Juilliard, his introduction to the New York City jazz scene, and his journey toward a new sound that helped redefine both jazz and American music.