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Miles Davis: Recruiting the Sixties Quintet

by John Cobley

Tuesday Oct 24th, 2023


In 1960 Miles Davis was on top of the jazz world. With five brilliant albums in the previous three years (three with Gil Evans, Milestones and Kind of Blue), he was in great demand and winning many jazz polls. But life caught up with him; for the next four years he had to deal with problem after problem as he tried to recruit the right musicians for his next band.

The first crisis was the departure of John Coltrane. Although this wasn’t a great surprise to him, Davis took four years to find an acceptable replacement. He tried out at least eight saxophone players (Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Frank Strozier, George Coleman, Rocky Boyd, and Sam Rivers) before getting the right one--Wayne Shorter.

The rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Joe Chambers stayed with him for three more years until the end of 1962, but as jazz was developing into new areas, he became increasingly dissatisfied with their conservative approach. 

Then his private life began to occupy him more. He had to deal with more extra-musical responsibilities when in December 1960 he got married and set up a home. Then his father suddenly died in 1962. Miles had been very close to him. On top of these two crucial events, Miles was dealing with sickle-cell anaemia that caused a lot of pain, and even affected a knuckle on his valve-playing right hand. To deal with this pain Davis resorted to alcohol and cocaine as well as medical painkillers. He became more reclusive, cancelling gigs and sometimes talking of retirement.

But the early years of the 1960s still had some high points, despite not finding the right replacement for Coltrane. His reputation with the public endured, thanks to three good albums, (At the BlackhawkSomeday My Prince Will Comeand Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall). But Miles was noticeably reluctant to do studio recordings. Many critics believe that the dearth of studio recordings in these years was due to his dissatisfaction with his various bands: he did not want to record it for posterity.

His Carnegie Hall concert (May, 1961) had been a great success, a “triumph” according to John S. Wilson, and Miles himself was playing really well. Nevertheless, according to biographer Ian Carr, “Miles was unhappy because he felt in limbo musically.” (179) He was hearing new developments in jazz and wanted to be part of them. 

Everything came to a head at the end of 1962 when two of his faithful rhythm section—Kelly and Chambers—quit. This major loss forced Davis into action. Despite his health and periodic despondency, he clearly wanted to continue leading a quintet. And with a west-coast tour lined up in 1963 he needed to assemble a band.

This task would not be easy, especially since there was little time. At least he still had his drummer Jimmy Cobb and had already signed up altoist Frank Strozier (25yrs) for the tour. His first step was to try to persuade Kelly and Chambers to go on the tour. When he failed, he was forced to postpone the west-coast gig for a week. Next he used Strozier’s Memphis connections to recruit tenor George Coleman (after an audition) and pianist Harold Mabern. So, with two horns recruited, the band for the west coast was to be a sextet. Finally Davis went after a bass player, Ron Carter, who was to become the first member of the Miles Davis Sixties Quintet.

First Recruit: Ron Carter


At 26, with an impressive musical education that earned him an MA from the Manhattan School of Music, Ron Carter was already established on the New York scene. Miles had known him for a long time: “I had met Ron Carter in 1958 when he had come backstage after a show; he knew Paul Chambers from Detroit…. I saw him again in Toronto a few years later.” (Davis, 261-2)

When 22 Carter had joined Chico Hamilton and then had gone on to work with Jaki Byard, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk and Bobby Timmons. He clearly had a bright future in front of him. What was probably most interesting to Davis was Carter’s avant garde work with Eric Dolphy on Out There and on his own first album Where?

So Miles went to check out Carter’s playing with the Art Farmer-Jim Hall Quartet. “I loved what he was doing,” he wrote. (Davis, 262) But when Davis asked the bassist to join his band, Carter turned him down—out of loyalty to Art Farmer, his current employer. Miles did not give up: he approached Farmer who agreed to let Carter join his band for a tryout. According to Carter, “Art graciously released me from his gig, and I joined Miles’ band two days later.” (forbassplayers only.com)

So Miles recruited the first member of the Sixties Quintet with an aggressive approach that came close to poaching. He was fortunate that Art Farmer acted so generously.


Soon after the west-coast engagement at the Black Hawk began, Miles lost his drummer. Jimmy Cobb decided to join Kelly and Chambers in New York. Frank Butler, a west-coast drummer, filled in for the rest of the engagement.

Then another band problem arose: Davis realised that Mabern and Strozier weren’t right for him. So for a recording in Hollywood immediately afterwards (tracks that would be issued on Seven Steps to Heaven) he asked Victor Feldman to play piano and kept George Coleman as his only horn. 

Back home in New York, with just Carter and Coleman on board, Davis still needed a drummer and a pianist, so he invited the two prime candidates—Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock—to his home to rehearse with himself, Coleman and Carter. Davis kept them playing for three days and even invited Philly Joe Jones to check out Williams. Both Williams and Hancock passed the test and joined the Miles band.

Second Recruit: Tony Williams


Tony Williams was only 17 and was currently playing with altoist Jackie McLean. He had grown up in Boston, becoming a child prodigy under the tutoring of Alan Dawson. He earned his first pro job at 13 with Sam Rivers. At age 16 he was brought to New York by Jackie McLean, who had to obtain permission first from the Williams parents. 

In New York Miles went with Philly Joe Jones to hear Williams play. Both were impressed. Then apparently Miles approached Williams, not McLean, to see if Williams could join the band for the San Francisco gig . But Williams turned down Miles because of commitments to McLean. 

Back in New York after his California trip, Miles went after Williams again. It is not clear exactly how he approached Williams’ leader, Jackie McLean, who was a longtime associate of Miles. But he did get permission for the drummer to join Miles. Miles was ecstatic: A drummer like Tony comes along only once in 30 years, Davis told The Washington Post. He was even more enthusiastic in his autobiography: “Man, just hearing [him] made me excited all over again. Trumpet players love to play with great drummers, and I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest [drummers] who had ever played a set of drums. Tony was my first choice.” (Davis, 262) And Williams was happy too: “When Miles asked me to play with him. It felt like the most natural thing in the world for me” (Chambers, 56)

So Miles was able to get his second recruit in much the same way he had signed up Carter: an aggressive approach (presumably) and then a generous agreement from a bandleader.


Third Recruit: Herbie Hancock



The 23-year-old Hancock was another child prodigy. He had grown up in Chicago and was trained in classical piano. Attracted to jazz, he became a protégé of trumpeter Donald Byrd. He continued studying when he went to New York and in 1962 recorded his first album on Blue Note. His “Watermelon Man” quickly brought him fame, and he was soon recording with Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy.

Davis had met him in 1962 when he was invited to play at the Davis home. “Nice touch,” was Davis’s comment (Hancock, 55). Now a year later, Hancock was again invited to Davis’s home, this time to rehearse with Davis’s assembled group. According to Hancock they rehearsed for three consecutive days, after which Davis invited him to record with the group. The result was the second half of Seven Steps to Heaven. After the session, Hancock asked Davis, “So am I in the band now?” The terse reply: “You made the record, didn’t you?” (Hancock, 59) 

The Tenor Chair

Davis now had his rhythm section, but he was not totally happy with his tenor player, George Coleman.

So the recruiting job wasn’t quite finished. George Coleman, although playing brilliantly, Williams said “almost perfectly,” (Davis, 268) wasn’t quite gelling with the new, young rhythm section. Tony Williams especially complained a lot about him. Coleman himself was none too happy because on some dates he had to lead the band because Miles was sick. As well, he wasn’t being paid regularly. Finally he quit.

Fourth Recruit: Wayne Shorter 


Miles had been interested in Wayne Shorter for a long time. The tenor man had originally called Miles for a job back in 1959. And later he had actually recorded with Miles in 1962, when Columbia forced Miles to record a jazzy Christmas song with singer Bob Dorough. The problem for Davis was that Shorter was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. And because of Blakey’s high standing in the jazz world, Miles was reluctant to make a move for him.

Shorter recalls Miles coming to hear him play and staring intently at him. He also recalls a phone call from Miles in 1961, asking if he was happy with Blakey. There were more tentative calls to Shorter until on one occasion Blakey himself answered the phone. “He’s trying to steal my tenor player,” Blakey was reported to have said. 

Just at the time Coleman quit the Davis band, Shorter was appointed musical director of the Jazz Messengers. Thus Shorter became even more firmly entrenched with Blakey. So when Miles needed a horn for an upcoming Japan tour, Tony Williams advocated Eric Dolphy. But Miles didn’t like his playing. Instead he enlisted Sam Rivers, an “outside” player he believed more likely to please his rhythm section.

But Sam Rivers didn’t work out—because of his “irregular phrasing,” it was said. So for an engagement at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles following his Japan tour, Miles was resigned to leading a quartet. But at the last moment, he had a lucky break. He learned that Shorter had quit the Jazz Messengers and was spending the summer writing and resting. Miles immediately got his agent to phone Shorter. As well, Hancock Carter and Williams all phoned Shorter to encourage him to join them. Miles then offered him the job and flew him out to LA first class when he accepted. Although Hancock claims there was one rehearsal before the Hollywood Bowl concert, the story goes that the band was waiting for Shorter backstage at the Hollywood Bowl when he arrived in LA and that he performed at the Hollywood Ball without any rehearsals at all. 

Shorter was with Miles for the next six years. Miles recruiting of Shorter was a little different this time. Although he subtly and not so subtly tried to recruit Shorter, ultimately he did have to make a definitive attempt. Luck helped him avoid having to confront Blakey and ask for Shorter’s release.

The Sixties Quintet was now formed. Jazz was about to enter a new phase.


Works Consulted

Carr, Ian. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. 1998

Chambers, Jack. Milestones II, 1983

Davis, Miles. The Autobiography, 1989

Hancock, Herbie. Possibilities, 2014

Mercer, Michelle. Footprints, 2004

Swed, John. So What, 2002




1 Comment

Jim Main Sunday 4th February 2024

Fascinating! As is your excellent article about Take the A Train. Thank you. Jim

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