Eight of the Best Miles Davis Songs to Learn on Trumpet

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What comes to mind when you hear the name Miles Davis? Bebop? Cool jazz? Fusion? It could be all that and more. Davis is one of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century and deserves the accolades attached to his name. Miles Davis’ trumpet improvisations are legendary, as are his musical experimentations that pushed the boundaries of jazz.

Fortunately for trumpet players today, a wealth of Miles Davis trumpet songs are ready to be studied and performed. Whether you prefer early Davis tunes from his jam sessions or later compositions from his "electric period," you can find the perfect repertoire for your enjoyment.

Who Was Miles Davis?

Born in Alton, Illinois in 1926, Miles Dewey Davis III grew up in a middle-class home in East St. Louis. His musical mother encouraged his musical interests, while St. Louis provided a rich musical environment. He heard country, blues, swing, and classical music regularly.

He received his first trumpet at age 12 and began to play by imitating everything he heard around him. He studied privately with local musicians and played in his school band as well as community bands. In 1944, he graduated from high school and passed the audition to attend Juilliard in New York City.

In New York, he began playing with such greats as Charlie Parker and Benny Carter and dropped out of Juilliard after three semesters to pursue a full-time jazz musician career. He was soon co-leading bands of his own and making jazz recordings on important record labels.

Why Is Miles Davis Important?

Davis was much more than just another talented trumpet player. He was constantly exploring and learning about new musical styles. He would integrate what he learned into his music, creating genre mashups that were previously inconceivable. His work has given us modern modal jazz and jazz fusion as well as influencing countless other genres.

The hallmarks of Davis' style include:

  • Sans vibrato: Despite the prevailing performance practice of the time, Davis learned to play without vibrato. This is partly what gives his tone a smoother, cooler sound that allows for greater emotional content.
  • Simple melodies: Davis preferred slower, simpler songs. His improvisations were less flashy and more polished.
  • Innovative experimentation: He dipped his toes into just about every genre he could, including funk, jazz fusion, African rhythms, rock, and electronics. 

All of these elements have been tremendously influential and have helped to form jazz and other genres well into the 21st century.

What Are the Best Miles Davis Songs To Play?

Of course, any list of songs is going to be somewhat subjective, but some Miles Davis trumpet songs are universally lauded. Start your musical explorations with these great tunes.

1. 'Agitation'

This uptempo tune will let you show off your skills. Need a tonguing or lip trills workout? It's all right here. As usual, there's plenty of room for improvisation. You will benefit from having an outstanding pianist on hand to lend you harmonic support. Take style cues from either the 1965 studio recording or the live concert from Sweden in 1967.

2. 'So What'

This is a Miles Davis classic. Cool and detached, you can really focus on your tone with this one. Strive for that pure, sans vibrato sound that is so iconic. Smooth eighth-note runs are imperative and will test your stamina. You can also practice different tonguing techniques for a variety of tone attacks.

3. 'Four'

If you're looking for something a little more low-key and traditional jazz in style, this is the right tune for you. This gentle song leaves plenty of space for your interpretation and additions. The more moderate range makes it a good choice for trumpet players who are early in their studies.

4. 'Bitches Brew'

An entire dissertation could be written about "Bitches Brew," both the album and the song. They are pivotal works in the development of Miles' own personal style and jazz in general. This song is wildly experimental and full of advanced performance techniques. Not for beginning trumpet players, it is a rewarding creative journey for players ready to tackle it.

5. 'Filles de Kilimanjaro'

This song and the album it comes from represent a transitional period for Miles. He was exploring the possibility of using electronic instruments in jazz instead of the more typical acoustic instruments. This song features some of the dance rhythms and electronic elements that will come into play later with Miles' jazz fusion.

6. 'Freddie Freeloader'

Another cool, laid-back tune, "Freddie Freeloader" is an early Davis song dating from his 1959 album, "Kind of Blue." As such, there is an appealing directness and simplicity to it. Work on tone quality and style. Trumpet players just learning jazz style should take a look at this song.

7. 'Circle'

This song features Miles' interest in modal harmonic structures and rhythmically free song forms. If you're ready for the challenges of shaping expressive content within an organic form, give this song a try. It requires advanced musicianship and artistry.

8. 'Miles'

From the album "Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet," this eponymous tune is chill and sweet. It dates to 1956, which means it is less complicated than Davis' later, more exploratory works. Trumpet players of all levels can find something to enjoy here. Beginners can work on rhythms and tone quality, while advanced players can tackle improvisational licks.

How Do I Learn a Miles Davis Trumpet Song?

The first step is to listen to Miles himself. Take a deep dive into his recordings and the videos of his concerts. You need to absorb his style aurally. If you can, find a jazz trumpet teacher who can help you work through the technical difficulties. If you can't do that, don't worry; there is much you can learn on your own.

Check out the offering of Miles Davis trumpet songs on Musicnotes. There are songs for all levels of players. Meticulously work through the fast passages at a slow tempo, making sure you nail every pitch. When you can play the notes on the page accurately, you may begin to improvise. Don't hesitate to make the music your own. Miles would approve.