Miles Davis

American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer (1926–1991)

Miles Dewey Davis III (May 26, 1926September 28, 1991) was an American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, and composer.

For me, music and life are all about style.


Quotes are arranged in chronological order


  • I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.
    • In Szwed, John (2012). So What: The Life of Miles Davis. Random House. ISBN 9781448106462. , and in many other books
      Sometimes rendered as: I'll play it 'first and tell you what it is later.
    • During a recording session for Prestige, on the album "Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet" (1956).
  • I can't tell... All those white tenor players sound alike to me.
    • Assessing saxophonist Buddy Collette for one of DownBeat's "Blindfold Test" columns, c. 1957, in response to "Cycle," the opening track from Collette's Man of Many Parts; as quoted in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960) by Leonard Feather, p. 478
  • Is that what you wanted, Alfred?
    • Miles Davis asking Blue Note producer Alfred Lion's approval of a recorded performance in Rudy Van Gelder's studio. Miles' was included at the end of "One For Daddy-O" on the Cannonball Adderley album Somethin' Else (March 9, 1958).
    • Quoted in: Jazz Journal International, (1983), p. 12.
  • The music has gotten thick. Guys give me tunes and they're full of chords. I can't play them...I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.
    • About the new modal style. Interviewed by The Jazz Review (1958); Quotes in Paul Maher, ‎Michael K. Dorr (2009) Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis, p. 18.
  • "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." and "I love Pops" (Louis' nickname) … Louis has been through all kinds of styles. That's good tuba, by the way. You know you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played — I mean even modern. I love his approach to the trumpet; he never sounds bad. He plays on the beat — with feeling. That's another phrase for swing. I also love the way he sings.


  • I love Pops, I love the way he sings, the way he plays - everything he does, except when he says something against modern-jazz music.
    • In Playboy to Alex Haley (1962); also in Chambers, Jack (1983). Milestones: The music and times of Miles Davis since 1960. Beech Tree Books. p. 209. ISBN 9780688046460. , Haley, Alex (1993). Fisher, Murray. ed. The Playboy Interviews. Ballantine. p. 15. ISBN 9780345383006. , Carner, Gary (1996). Carner, Gary. ed. The Miles Davis companion: four decades of commentary. Schirmer Books. p. 19. ISBN 9780028646121. , and in Early, Gerald Lyn, ed (2001). Miles Davis and American Culture. Missouri Historical Society Press Series. Missouri History Museum. p. 205. ISBN 9781883982386. 
  • What am I supposed to say to that? That's ridiculous. You see the way they can ____ up music? It's a mismatch. They don't complement each other. Max and Mingus can play together, by themselves. Mingus is a hell of a bass player, and Max is a hell of a drummer. But Duke can't play with them, and they can't play with Duke. Now, how are you going to give a thing like that some stars? Record companies should be kicked in the ___. Somebody should take a picket sign and picket the record company.
    • Assessing the Ellington/Mingus/Roach recording of the Ellington-Tizol composition "Caravan", from Money Jungle; in DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test" (June 18, 1964); reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (1966) by Leonard Feather, p. 29.
  • Take it off! That's some sad ____, man. In the first place, I hear some Charlie Parker cliches. . . . They don't even fit. Is that what the critics are digging? Them critics better stop having coffee. If there ain't nothing to listen to, they might as well admit it. Just to take something like that and say it's great, because there ain't nothing to listen to, that's like going out and getting a prostitute. [Leonard Feather: This man said he was influenced by Duke Ellington.] I don't give a ____! It must be Cecil Taylor. Right? I don't care who he's inspired by. That ____ ain't nothing. In the first place he don't have the - you know, the way you touch a piano. He doesn't have the touch that would make the sound of whatever he thinks of come off. I can tell he's influenced by Duke, but to put the loud pedal on the piano and make a run is very old-fashioned to me. And when the alto player sits up there and plays without no tone . . . That's the reason I don't buy any records.
    • Reviewing "Lena" from Taylor's Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come in DownBeat‍'‍s "Blindfold Test" (June 18, 1964); reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (1966) by Leonard Feather, p. 29.


  • My ego only needs a good rhythm section.
    • In Chambers, Jack (1983). Milestones: The music and times of Miles Davis since 1960. Beech Tree Books. p. 261. ISBN 9780688046460. 
      "My ego only needs a good rhythm section" is also the title of an interview/article by Stephen Davis for The Real Paper (21 March 1973)
    • On being asked what he looked for in musicians.
  • Coleman Hawkins told me never to play with someone older than me, and I never have. With older players, there's no force, no drive. With younger players, it's not that you know it all, or I know it all—it's I'm trying to learn it all.
    • As quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (1978) by Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, p. 40
  • I know what the power of silence is. When I used to play in clubs, everybody was loud; there was a lot of noise. So I would take my mute off the microphone, and I would play something so soft that you could hardly hear it... and you talk about listening. Roy Eldridge did that. He's one of my favorites.
    • As quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music, p. 40
  • The only thing I'm interested in is the music and the musicians. I don't acknowledge applause 'cause I'm giving them something. They're not giving me anything with their applause. Can I write that down?
    • As quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music, p. 40
  • Billie Holiday—she was the nicest woman in the world, you know. All she wanted to do was sing. They picked on her and picked on her to get money out of her. You do drugs 'cause you like to, not 'cause it's a life-style.... They picked on Billie so much. She said, "Miles, come and see me in Long Island." She was in love with one of my kids and his curly hair—he used to ride my bicycle and watch the horse at Aqueduct. She said, "Miles, if they'd just leave me alone; they could have the house—everything." You know the way singers shake their asses now. Billie didn't have to do that. Her mouth was so sensuous; she was pretty and she would say certain words and her mouth would quiver, and she always had this white gardenia and long gloves.
    • As quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music, p. 41


  • If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I'd spend it choking a white man. I'd do it nice and slow.
    • In: Jet (25 March 1985)
    • During an interview, after growing aggravated about questions on the subject of race.
  • He never wasted a melody. He never wasted a phrase. He and Duke Ellington changed the whole sound. There is no way to describe it because there's nobody on this earth that can do that anymore. What he did to the texture of an orchestration, what he did with a pop song is like writing an original piece. Students will discover him. They'll have to take his music apart layer by layer. That's how they'll know what kind of genius he was.
  • For me, music and life are all about style.
    • Miles, the Autobiography (1989) (co-written with Quincy Troupe, p. 398.)
  • I've changed music four or five times. What have you done of any importance other than be white?
    • Miles, the Autobiography (1989) (co-written with Quincy Troupe, p. 371.)
    • At a White House reception in honor of Ray Charles in 1987, this was his reply to a society lady seated next to him who had asked what he had done to be invited.
  • Why'd you put that white bitch on there?
    • In Davis, Miles; Troupe, Quincy (1989). Miles: The Autobiography. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-63504-2. , Kirchner, Bill (1997). Kirchner, Bill. ed. A Miles Davis reader. Smithsonian Readers in American Music. Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 255. , and Giddins, Gary (1998). Visions of Jazz: The First Century. Oxford University Press. p. 347. ISBN 9780199715206. 
    • To George Avakian after seeing the cover chosen by Columbia for Miles Ahead.


  • When you are creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain't the limit.
    • Davis, Miles; Troupe, Quincy (1990). Miles. Simon and Schuster. p. 206. ISBN 9780671725822. ; also in Carner, Gary (1996). Carner, Gary. ed. The Miles Davis companion: four decades of commentary. Schirmer Books. p. 218. ISBN 9780028646121. 
    • Davis was questioning the increasing length of John Coltrane solos, and Trane answered "I don't know how to stop."
  • Don't play what's there, play what's not there.
    • In SPIN (December 1990). p. 30, and in many other sources, but I can't find the original one.
  • A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it.
    • On being called a legend.
      • Quoted in International Herald Tribune (17 July 1991); also in: Shapiro, Fred R., ed (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. p. 189. ISBN 9780300107982. 


  • Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.
    • In Garment, Leonard (2001). Crazy Rhythm: From Brooklyn and Jazz to Nixon's White House, Watergate, and Beyond. Da Capo Press. p. 406. ISBN 9780786752270. , Szwed, John (2012). So What: The Life of Miles Davis. Random House. ISBN 9781448106462. , , and in many other books
  • It's that goddamned motherfucking 'Machine Gun.'
    • Charles R. Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (2005), ISBN 1-4013-0028-6.
    • Davis' response when questioned on what he heard in the music of Jimi Hendrix.
  • He could very well be the Duke Ellington of Rock 'n' Roll.
    • In Werner, Craig Hansen (2006). A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. University of Michigan Press. p. 53. ISBN 9780472031474.  as: he can be the Duke Ellington of our times.
      And in Paul Maher, Michael K. Dorr, ed (2009). Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis. Musicians in Their Own Words Series. Chicago Review Press. p. 262. ISBN 9781556527067.  as: Do you know who Prince kinda reminds me of, particularly as a piano player? Duke! Yeah, he's the Duke Ellington of the eighties to my way of thinking.
    • On Prince

About Miles Davis

  • A lot of Negro style-the style of a man like Miles Davis or Ray Charles or the style of a man like myself is based on a knowledge of what people are really saying and on our refusal to hear it. You pick up on the beat, which is much more truthful than words.
    • 1969 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • Another place I worked a lot was the Open Door, where we used to go to hear Miles. I didn't go to hear Miles; I went to see his wardrobe, because he had gorgeous clothes. He always played into the drapes and showed complete contempt for the audience.
    • 1994 interview in Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara edited by Thabiti Lewis (2017)
  • I would like to hear more of the consummate melodic master, but I feel that big business and his record company have had a corrupting influence on his material. The rock and pop thing certainly draws a wider audience. It happens more and more these days, that unqualified people with executive positions try to tell musicians what is good and what is bad music. It’s tempting for the musician to prejudice his own views when recording opportunities are so infrequent but I for one am determined to resist the temptation.
  • Miles said he looked on his need for constant change as a curse. However, Miles, along with Duke Ellington, in terms of looking for models of how you strategize with a band, have been there constantly in the background for me. Not the Beatles as a construct for a group, not Led Zeppelin, not the Floyd. My guides have always been Miles and Duke.
  • And on one particularly weighty draft he turned in, I told him to go home that night, pour a drink, and listen to some Miles Davis. I told him the thing about Miles Davis is the silences. The notes he doesn’t play. So with that in mind, go take another swing at your draft, find me some silences, and then I’ll get to work.
  • When the world speaks of Miles, the legend, they have no idea who the man really was. The Miles I knew was sensitive and ailing, bruised by the hurts this life metes out. With trembling lips, he told me of the years during his childhood in East St. Louis when he'd been called Blackie by his friends and even some of his family, gazed down upon as a nobody, rendered invisible by his dark hue. He told me of the time, at age thirteen, when he'd been seduced by a grown woman, forced into his first sexual encounter with a friend of a relative. He spoke of the time when his father, a well-to-do dentist, had wanted him to follow in his career path, until a teacher who'd recognized Miles' gift intervened. "Forget it. Little Davis is not going to be any dentist," that teacher told Miles' father. "He's going to be a musician." The first time Miles blew that horn, he'd found his consolation. In playing that trumpet, he did the only thing he knew how, the one thing that made him feel worthy. That is the Miles I knew and, in time, grew to cherish.
    • Cicely Tyson
    • Just As I Am: A Memoir (2021) by Tyson (with Michelle Burford). p. 168
  • I don't excuse Miles' conduct any more than I dismiss my willingness, consciously or unknowingly, to indulge it. We mortals breathe incongruity. That I chose to stay with Miles is still, in many ways, confounding to me. And yet I've come to realize that Miles' behavior felt sorely familiar, a song, blaring and dissonant, that I'd learned in my early years. [...] My father had taught me the music. And my mother, in her own way, had emphasized each measure, hummed along with the clamor even as she railed against it. "Men will be men," she'd sometimes mutter, following a feud with my father, her way of rationalizing his adultery. [...] And in my Upper East Side high-rise, a world away from the slum of my girlhood and yet overlapping with it, Miles would be Miles.
    • Cicely Tyson
    • Just As I Am, pp. 326-327
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