The dissolution of the Birth of the Cool nonet – hardly bound together long enough to warrant the use of the term “breakup” – returned Miles to his role as a free agent. He headed into the 1950s burdened with professional upheavals and personal pressures. He was a young father trying to support a wife and children. He developed a heroin habit that would deplete his limited resources and—when made public in Ebony magazine—would impede his burgeoning career. He remained a leader, touring when he could, yet until 1955, he did not fuse a steady group. He began recording for independent record labels like Prestige and Blue Note, with a rotating crew of musicians.
Despite his turmoil, Davis’ recordings from this period— primarily for Prestige– stand the test of time. They reveal him developing a signature trumpet sound that gave as much importance to the notes themselves, as to the space between them. With the help of a mute, his solos took on a pinched, strained quality—exuding inner emotion and vulnerability. His confidence in the studio grew as well during this period, even as his music continued to explore the restraint of Birth of the Cool, while other recordings would serve as harbingers of the next major stylistic shift in jazz. Tracks like “Tune Up,” “Four,” “Solar,” and “Walkin’” helped define and popularize the new Hard Bop sound that was gelling at the time, re-instilling jazz with the blues and gospel that bebop had sacrificed with its fire and precision.
Significantly, Miles’ recordings during his years contracted to Prestige allowed him to take advantage of another new trend: the coming of the Long Player—the 10” and later, 12” LP format. Suddenly, improvisers could extend their solos generously beyond the 3-minute confines of 78rpm discs. Starting in 1951, the year Miles signed to the label, Prestige began releasing LPs that featured lengthy, side-long jams that became a signature of the company’s output.
By the close of this period, Miles rose up to become one of the most identifiable and influential voices in modern jazz, and the proud leader of his first consistent band: the quintet that featured John Coltrane. He was on his way.