By 1963, Miles Davis was a bonafide superstar. He was signed to Columbia Records, played to sold out audiences, and headlined festivals. His record sales were good, too, and he was the top-earning musician in jazz.
His discography was growing as well. In addition to his classic, late-‘50s small group recordings, he also released a number of semi-orchestral collaborations with composer/arranger Gil Evans, which included Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain.
But despite that success, Davis didn’t have a regular working group. His sidemen were leaving and forming groups of their own, he was forced to cancel gigs, and even Paul Chambers—the last holdover from the first great quintet—had a foot out the door.
For obvious pragmatic reasons—although he was feeling creatively antsy as well—Davis needed to establish a new permanent lineup.
It took a year to put the pieces in place, but by 1964, Davis was onto something big. In addition to himself, his new quintet featured Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The group was new, young, and Davis was beside himself. “I loved that band, man,” he says in his autobiography. “The way we all played together changed what we were playing each and every night during that time.”
That lineup—dubbed the second great quintet—stayed together until 1968. They toured regularly, recorded six studio albums—in addition to hours of then-unreleased material—and released live recordings as well. Their classic releases include E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. They pushed boundaries and redefined jazz without being inaccessible or avant-garde. But by 1968, as Davis was transitioning to his next, electric phase—experimenting with an expanded lineup, and incorporating rock and funk into his musical vocabulary—his sidemen left to lead bands of their own. Shorter stayed the longest, but by early 1970, he was gone as well.
Post-Davis—and well into the twenty-first century—the surviving members of that lineup continue to perform, record, and tour together. In the late ‘70s they reconvened as V.S.O.P.—with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet in place of Davis—and revisited, albeit with a few twists, the music they pioneered a decade before.
Herbie Hancock was just 23 years old when he joined Davis’ quintet in 1963. He had already signed to Blue Note Records the year before and released his debut, Takin’ Off, which included the somewhat off-kilter and funky, “Watermelon Man.” (Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría covered “Watermelon Man” the next year and it peaked at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.) Hancock continued recording for Blue Note throughout his tenure with Davis—notable releases include Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage.
But change was in the air and in 1968, when Davis was recording his album, Miles in the Sky, he had Hancock record the opening track, “Stuff,” on an electric piano.
And that was all it took.
Hancock, a lifelong fan of gizmos and gadgets, was hooked. Keyboards and synths became a big part of his sound. He used them for the music he wrote for Fat Albert, Bill Cosby’s animated kid’s program, and his solo release Mwandishi. But it was in 1973, when he released Head Hunters and embraced a heavier funk vibe that he garnered significant commercial success (and eventual critical acclaim, despite a few grumbling jazz purists).
Hancock continued to pursue more traditional jazz-flavored projects like V.S.O.P., but his 1983 release, Future Shock, was anything but that. He teamed up with avant-garde bassist/producer Bill Laswell and released a rigid, industrial sounding work that introduced record scratching to the masses. The single, “Rockit” (and accompanying video), cleaned up at that year’s MTV Music Awards and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
Hancock continues to release albums at a steady clip, which are generally well-received. His 2007 release, River: The Joni Letters, won the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year, and is only the second jazz album to do so (the other being Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto in 1965).
Tenor sax player Wayne Shorter joined Davis’ band in 1964. He was the missing link. His presence transformed a good quintet into Davis’ second great quintet. “Getting Wayne made me feel real good,” Davis says in his autobiography. “Because with him I just knew that some great music was to going to happen. And it did—it happened real soon.”
Prior to joining Davis, Shorter had been in Maynard Ferguson’s band—where he met future collaborator and Davis alum Joe Zawinul—and spent four years with Art Blakey, both on tenor and as the group’s musical director. Similar to Hancock, he was signed to Blue Note Records throughout his tenure with Davis and released a steady stream of solo albums in addition to his work with the quintet. Significant releases from this period include JuJu, Speak No Evil, and Soothsayer. He stayed with Davis until early 1970—although the quintet disbanded in 1968—and appears on the post-quintet releases In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
Following Davis, Shorter formed the fusion band Weather Report with Zawinul. Weather Report’s earlier releases are in a similar funky, somewhat adventurous spirit to Davis’ work from that period, but as the ‘70s wore on, and especially with addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report’s music became more accessible—especially with the 1977 release Heavy Weather.
Weather Report broke up in 1986, but Shorter stays busy. In addition to his work as a leader, he is a frequent collaborator and appears on numerous albums with everyone from Joni Mitchell to the Rolling Stones.
Ron Carter, from Detroit, wasn’t destined to play jazz. He studied classical bass at the Eastman School of Music—he graduated in 1959—and earned his masters two years later in New York City from the Manhattan School of Music. He shifted his focus during his senior year at Eastman. “I was working weekends in the house band at a place called the Ridge Crest Inn,” he told All About Jazz in 2016. “We fronted for a number of bands that came in on the train lines that intersected in Rochester on the way to New York City. So I was on the same bandstand as Dizzy Gillespie’s band, Horace Silver’s band, Carmen McRae and her trio, as well as Sonny Stitt. … I hung with Chuck Mangione, Pee Wee Ellis, Roy McCurdy, and others who were young jazz players at the time I was a student at Eastman. And those guys suggested that I move to New York. That’s how I got to be a jazz player.”
In New York, Carter was in demand and worked with people like Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, Thelonious Monk, and many others. In 1963, he was working with Art Farmer—in a group that also included guitarist Jim Hall—when Davis asked him to replace Paul Chambers (on Chambers’ recommendation). Carter’s first recording with Davis is the 1963 release, Seven Steps to Heaven.
Carter’s instrument is the upright, acoustic bass. Davis had him play electric on the albums Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, but that is about the extent of his experience recording with the instrument.
Although, it’s not like sticking with the acoustic has hurt him.
Since leaving Davis in 1968, Carter has appeared on over 2,000 recordings, usually as a sideman. He has also released about one album a year as a leader on various labels.
Tony Williams grew up in Boston and worked with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean before joining Davis—when he was just 17—in 1963. Davis was blown away. “[Tony] just lit a big fire under everyone in the group,” Davis says in his autobiography. “He made me play so much that I forgot about all the pain in my joints, which had been bothering me a lot. I was beginning to realize that Tony and this group could play anything they wanted to. Tony was always the center that the group’s sound revolved around. He was something else, man.”
Williams led sessions for Blue Note while still a member of Davis’ quintet, but it was is post-Davis work—leading the group the Tony Williams Lifetime—that pioneered fusion and inspired legions of rockers to check out jazz. At various points, people like Jack Bruce (Cream), Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, and many others were members of Lifetime and some of their works, like Emergency! and Turn It Over, are genre-defining.
In addition to his work as a leader, Williams also played on hundreds of sessions, which, according to his obituary in the New York Times, included everyone from “pianist Cecil Taylor to the rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose.”
Williams died in 1997 from a heart attack while recovering from gallbladder surgery.