Miles Davis' appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival is generally regarded as something of a comeback for the trumpet star. Plagued by a heroin addiction in the early 1950s, Davis dropped off the scene entirely for a couple of years. And while he had gone into the studio in 1954 to record an all-star session for Prestige, resulting in the classic Walkin', his Newport set on Sunday, July 17, marked his return to the public arena in a very real sense. And a triumphant return it was.
As George Wein noted in his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music: "Miles was in better physical shape in 1955 than he had been in recent years. But he didn't have a working group. So I added Miles onto a jam session that already featured Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and Thelonious Monk. Because of his late addition to the festival, Davis' name wasn't even printed in our program book. But his presence was felt that night. The clarity of his sound pierced the air over Newport's Freebody Park like nothing else we heard onstage that year. It was electrifying for the audience out on the grass, the musicians backstage, and the critics - some of whom had opined that Miles' career was already over."
Miles recalls this triumphant set at Newport in his own autobiography: "When I got off the bandstand, everybody was looking at me like I was a king or something - people were running up to me offering me record deals. All the musicians there were treating me like I was a god… It was something else, man, looking out at all those people and then seeing them suddenly standing up and applauding what I had done." Indeed, this single performance at Newport had energized Davis' career and led to a lucrative recording contract with Columbia Records - the beginning of a longstanding relationship that lasted from 1955 to 1985.
On the Sunday evening, Miles Davis and the All-Stars were sandwiched between sets by the Count Basie Reunion Band (featuring Lester Young, Jo Jones, and Jimmy Rushing) and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Following an introduction by master of ceremonies Duke Ellington, who playfully refers to them as "the jazz futurists," Davis and the All-Stars launch into a spirited, swinging take on Monk's "Hackensack." Miles, Zoot, and Mulligan all contribute energized solos here, with Monk offering his inimitable off-kilter piano comping while Heath and Kay swing the proceedings. Next up comes the real galvanizing moment of the set, their stirring performance of Monk's most famous piece, "'Round Midnight." Davis kicks it off with a dramatic trumpet intro before the ensemble settles into the darkly alluring ballad. Sims and Mulligan also contribute potent solos here, but it is Davis who steals the show with his compelling performance, electrifying the audience and all backstage onlookers in the process. Shifting moods, they next jump into a joyful jam on Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time" with Kay's Papa Jo Jones-ish hi-hat rifff setting the proper tone for this bop staple. And Miles tackles the familiar theme with gusto, his golden tones sounding a clarion call for his comeback in no uncertain terms.
This was the first of many Newport Jazz Festival appearances to come for Miles Davis, whose relationship with Wein went back to George's pre-Newport days at his Storyville Club in Boston. And, in retrospect, it was Miles' most important appearance at George's annual clambake. (Milkowski)