Newport festival founder George Wein recalls that weeks before the 1955 festival, he ran into Davis at a New York jazz club. Wein had created the first-ever outdoor jazz festival in the Rhode Island seaside resort the year before, and Davis asked if he was going to do it again.
"I said yes, and Miles said, 'You can't have a festival without me,' and he kept repeating that," said Wein, who at 89 is still producing the festival.
But Davis, who had just kicked a heroin habit, didn't have his own band. Wein arranged to add him to an all-star jam session that also included pianist Thelonious Monk and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
"Miles was the hit of the festival," Wein said. "He put his trumpet right into the microphone and it came through loud and clear on `Round Midnight.'"
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Backstage, Columbia Records producer George Avakian asked the trumpeter to sign with the label -- the beginning of a 30-year relationship that saw Davis release classic recordings that changed the direction of jazz.
When Davis next appeared at Newport in 1958 he brought his famed sextet -- with saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and pianist Bill Evans -- that the following spring would record his masterpiece Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz records.
These performances can be heard on Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, a four-CD box set comprised of eight live performances at the Newport festival and spinoff events in Europe and New York, released earlier this month by Columbia/Legacy.
The collection includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material, including complete performances from the 1966 and 1967 festivals with Davis' second great quintet -- with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams -- at their peak.
This year's festival will feature panel discussions focusing on Davis, curated by Grammy-winning jazz historian Ashley Kahn, which will include interviews with Wein and former Davis sidemen, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist Mike Stern, at a new intimate indoor stage named after Wein's former Storyville jazz club in Boston.
DeJohnette performed with Davis at the 1969 festival with a group that included Chick Corea on electric keyboard as the trumpeter was making the transition from acoustic jazz to jazz-rock fusion music. Davis spent the weekend checking out the rock bands on the program such as Sly and the Family Stone and Led Zeppelin, and just weeks later began recording his groundbreaking electronic Bitches Brew album.
"Wayne Shorter was supposed to play that day at Newport, but got delayed and we played as a quartet with Miles really stretching ... and the result was pretty exciting," said DeJohnette, who will be performing this year with his band Made In Chicago. "It was a real open experimental time. Everyone was reaching for different new ways to express their music and break down boundaries."
Wein has also asked the trumpeters on this coming weekend's program -- Chris Botti, Peter Evans, Jon Faddis, Tom Harrell, Arturo Sandoval and Bria Skonberg -- to perform at least one Miles Davis number.
For Botti, it was easy to accommodate Wein's request. He's been opening his shows for the past year with "Concierto de Aranjuez," from Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain.
"Miles is the reason I wanted to become a professional trumpet player," Botti said in an email. "When I first heard his sound on `My Funny Valentine,' it hit me like a lightning bolt about how the emotion of the trumpet can make somebody feel things."
Botti will be headlining Friday night's concert at the Newport Casino. The opening act will be Jon Batiste and Stay Human, recently chosen by Stephen Colbert to be the new house band on "The Late Show."
Evans, whose quintet will be making their Newport debut at Friday's program at Fort Adams State Park dedicated to emerging artists, plans to play "Great Expectations," the opening track on Davis' underrated 1974 album Big Fun, which featured electric sitar and other Indian instruments.
"Miles' albums from the early '70s are one of the precedents for what we do in the quintet as far as combining live electronics and acoustic improvisation," said Evans. "It was way ahead of its time."
Wein considers Davis one of the "aces" in the jazz deck who always rose to the occasion at Newport with some of the most important performances in the festival's history.
"Miles and I had a wonderful relationship banging each other's heads at times and then at the end we became very close friends," Wein said.