In the last half of the 1950s, Miles Davis rose from the ranks of the jazz scene to become a major cultural star, transcending the limits of genre or generation, creating a run of innovative recordings that served as a signpost to the next phases of improvised music. Much of it had to do with his band—the famous quintet and sextet that featured future jazz legends John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Cannonball Adderley. For the rest of his career, Miles would recruit sidemen destined to become major headliners in their own right, but none would compare with the impact of players who grew from his lineup during these years.
Signing to the major label Columbia in 1955 was the other factor. At the time, Columbia—part of CBS Records—was considered the Tiffany of recording companies. CBS created the popular 33-1/3rpm LP format in 1948, and was known for releasing high-fidelity albums by peerless talent, representing a range of styles: Broadway productions and foreign songs. Popular standards and classical performances. Country music and jazz.
George Avakian was Columbia’s A&R man in charge of album production at the time, and it was he who signed Miles in 1955. He summed up the label’s genre-blind approach that served as a booster rocket to the trumpeter’s career: “Jazz was never thought about as being something that, ‘Well, it’s not going to sell a whole lot, we won’t pay that much attention.’ We treated jazz as part of the entire album output, it got the same attention, the same kind of advertising and promotion that everything else did.”
In Miles’ first years at Columbia, Avakian’s approach was a simple one: secure the trumpeter’s hard bop fans with albums featuring his road band, and expand his imprint to larger, more carefully arranged projects—the kind that The Birth of the Cool idea had suggested. So, through this period, Miles’ releases largely followed the same pattern: Small group, Big band. Small group, Big band…amounting to six studio albums that continue to stand the test of time.