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Miles Davis

Miles Davis was one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century. A trumpeter, bandleader and composer, Davis was at the forefront of almost every major development of jazz after World War II. He played on some of the important early bebop records and recorded the first cool jazz records. He was partially responsible for the development of modal jazz, and jazz fusion arose from his work with other musicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Free jazz was the only post-war style not significantly influenced by Davis, although some musicians from his bands later pursued this style. His recordings, along with the live performances of his many influential bands, were vital in jazz's acceptance as music with lasting artistic value. A popularizer as well as an innovator, Davis became famous for his languid, melodic style and his laconic, and at times confrontational, personality. As an increasingly well-paid and fashionably-dressed jazz musician, Davis was also a symbol of jazz music's commercial potential.

Davis was late in a line of jazz trumpeters that started with Buddy Bolden and ran through Joe King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. He has been compared to Duke Ellington as a musical innovator: both were skillful players on their instruments, but were not considered technical virtuosos. Ellington's main strength was as a composer and leader of a large band, while Davis had a talent for drawing together talented musicians in small groups and allowing them space to develop. Many of the major figures in post-war jazz played in one of Davis's groups at some point in their career.

Davis was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in September 2005.

Early life (1926–1945)

Miles Davis III was born into a relatively wealthy African-American family living in Alton, Illinois. His father, Miles Davis II, was a dentist, and in 1927 the family moved to a white neighbourhood in East St. Louis. They also owned a substantial ranch, and Davis learned to ride horses as a boy.

Davis's mother, Cleota, wanted Davis to learn the violin—she was a capable blues pianist, but kept this hidden from her son, feeling that negro music was not sufficiently genteel. At the age of nine, one of Davis's father's friends gave him his first trumpet, but he did not start learning to play seriously until the age of thirteen, when his father gave him a new trumpet and arranged lessons with local trumpeter Elwood Buchanan. Against the fashion of the time, Buchanan stressed the importance of playing without vibrato, and Davis would carry his clear signature tone throughout his career.

Clark Terry was another important early influence and friend of Davis's. By the age of sixteen, Davis was a member of the musician's union and working professionally when not at high school. At seventeen, he spent a year playing in bandleader Eddie Randle's Blue Devils. During this time, Sonny Stitt tried to persuade him to join the Tiny Bradshaw band then passing through town, but Cleota insisted that he finish his final year of high school.

In 1944, the Billy Eckstine band visited East St. Louis. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were members of the band, and Davis was taken on as third trumpet for a couple of weeks because of the illness of Buddy Anderson. When Eckstine's band left Davis behind to complete the tour, the trumpeter's parents were still keen for him to continue formal academic studies.

Bebop and the birth of the cool (1945–1955)

In 1945 Davis moved to New York City, ostensibly to take up a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music. In reality, however, he neglected his studies and immediately set about tracking down Charlie Parker. His first recordings were made in 1945, and he was soon a member of Parker's quintet, appearing on many of Parker's seminal bebop recordings for the Savoy and Dial labels.

By 1948 he had served his apprenticeship as a sideman, both on stage and record, and a recording career of his own was beginning to blossom. Davis began to work with a nonet that featured then-unusual instrumentation such as the french horn and tuba. The nonet featured a young Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. After some gigs at New York's Royal Roost, Davis was signed by Capitol Records. The nonet released several singles in 1949 and 1950, featuring arrangements by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis. This began his collaboration with Evans, with whom he would collaborate on many of his major works over the next twenty years. The sides saw only limited release until 1957, when eleven of the twelve were released as the album Birth of the Cool.

Playing in the jazz clubs of New York, Davis was in frequent contact with users and dealers of illegal drugs, and by 1950, in common with many of his contemporaries, he had developed a serious heroin addiction. For the first part of that decade, although he gigged a great deal and played many sessions, they were mostly uninspired, and it seemed that his talent was going to waste. No one was more aware of this than Davis himself, and in 1954 he returned to East St. Louis and, with the help and encouragement of his father, he kicked heroin, locking himself away from society until the drug was fully out of his system.

Between 1950 and 1955, Davis mainly recorded as a leader for Prestige and Blue Note records in a variety of small group settings. Sidemen included Sonny Rollins, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, J. J. Johnson, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson and Charles Mingus.

After overcoming his heroin addiction, Davis made a series of important recordings for Prestige in 1954: Bag's Groove, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants and Walkin' (these were not the album titles on first issue as 10"LPs). At this time he started to use the Harmon mute to darken and subdue the timbre of his trumpet, and this muted trumpet tone was to be associated with Davis for the rest of his career.

However, his popularity with the jazz public did not catch up until July 1955, when he played a legendary solo on Monk's 'Round Midnight at the Newport Jazz Festival. This solo made Davis a hot commodity, leading to his signing with Columbia and the formation of his first quintet.

First quintet and sextet (1955–1958)

In 1955, Davis formed the first incarnation of the renowned Miles Davis Quintet. This band featured John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Musically, the band picked up where Davis's late 1940s sessions had left off. Eschewing the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of the then-prevalent bebop, Davis was allowed the space to play long, legato, and essentially melodic lines in which he would begin to explore modal music. At the time, Davis was a big fan of pianist Ahmad Jamal, and some of the quintet's music reflects Jamal's influence as well.

The first recordings of this group were made for Columbia Records in 1955, released on 'Round About Midnight. Davis was still under contract to Prestige, but had an agreement that he could make recordings for subsequent releases using his new label. His final recordings for Prestige were the product of two days of recording in 1956, released as Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet and Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet.

Though today it is often regarded as one of the greatest groups in jazz history, Davis's choice of sidemen received some criticism at the time. Additionally, the quintet was never stable; several of the other members used heroin, and the Miles Davis Quintet disbanded in early 1957.

In 1958, the quintet reformed as a sextet, with the addition of Julian Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, and recorded Milestones. Musically, it encompasses both the past and the future of jazz. Davis showed that he could play both blues and bebop (ably assisted by Coltrane), but the centerpiece is the title track, a Davis composition centred on the Dorian and Aeolian modes and featuring the free improvisatory modal style that Davis would make his own. One of the tracks, Billy Boy, features just the rhythm section, without horns—a very unusual feature in itself.

Recordings with Gil Evans (1957–1963)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Davis recorded a series of albums with Gil Evans, often playing flugelhorn as well as trumpet. The first, Miles Ahead (1957), showcased his playing with a jazz big band and a horn section beautifully arranged by Evans. Tunes included Dave Brubeck's The Duke, as well as Léo Delibes's The Maids Of Cadiz, the first piece of European classical music Davis had recorded.

In Davis and Evans's Porgy and Bess, a 1958 arrangement of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the framework of the Gershwin songs provided ample space for Davis to improvise, showing his mastery of variations and expansions on the original themes, as well as his original melodic ideas.

Sketches of Spain (1959–60) featured tunes by contemporary Spanish composers Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla, as well as Gil Evans originals with a Spanish theme. Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (1961) includes Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, along with other tunes recorded at a concert with an orchestra under Evans's direction.

Sessions in 1962 and 1963 resulted in the album Quiet Nights, a short collection of bossa nova tunes which was released against the wishes of both Evans and Davis. An unsuccessful session in 1968 was the last time the two men collaborated.

Kind of Blue (1959–1964)

After recording Milestones, Garland and Jones were replaced by Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb. Davis probably hired Evans for his harmonically sophisticated approach. For various reasons, Evans's stay in the group was relatively brief, and he departed late in 1958, replaced by Wynton Kelly.

In March and April 1959, Davis re-entered the studio with his working sextet and Bill Evans to record what is widely considered his masterpiece, Kind of Blue. The album was planned around Evans's piano style. It was also influenced by concepts that Evans had learned while working with George Russell on the earliest recordings of modal jazz and passed on to the sextet. Kelly only played on Freddie Freeloader, and was not present at the April session. So What and All Blues had been played by the sextet at performances prior to the recording sessions, but for the other three compositions, Davis and Evans prepared skeletal harmonic frameworks which the other musicians saw for the first time on the day of recording, in order to generate a fresh and spontaneous improvisational approach. The resulting album is probably the best-loved and (according to the RIAA) best-selling jazz album ever, and also proved to be a huge influence on other musicians.

The same year, while taking a break outside the famous Birdland night club in New York City, Davis was beaten by the New York police and subsequently arrested. Believing the assault to have been racially motivated, he attempted to pursue the case in the courts, before eventually dropping the proceedings. Such treatment was markedly at odds with his treatment outside the U.S., and especially on his regular European tours, where he was fêted by society.

Coltrane, who had been eager to form his own group, was convinced by Davis to play with the group on one final European tour in the spring of 1960. He then departed to form his classic quartet, although he returned for some of the tracks on the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come. Davis tried various replacement saxophonists, including Sonny Stitt and Hank Mobley. The quintet with Hank Mobley was recorded in the studio and on several live engagements at Carnegie Hall and the Blackhawk supper club in San Francisco. Stitt's playing with the group is found on the Live in Stockholm CD.

In 1963, Davis's long-time rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb departed. He quickly got to work putting together a new group, including tenor saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Ron Carter. Davis, Coleman, Carter and a few other musicians recorded half an album in the spring of 1963. A few weeks later, drummer Tony Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock joined the group, and soon thereafter Davis, Coleman and the young rhythm section recorded the rest of the Seven Steps to Heaven album.

The young rhythm section clicked very quickly with each other and the horns; the group's rapid evolution can be traced through the aforementioned studio album, In Europe (July 1963), My Funny Valentine, and Four and More (both February 1964). The group played essentially the same repertoire of bebop and standards that earlier Davis bands did, but tackled them with increasing structural and rhythmic freedom and (in the case of the up-tempo material) breakneck speed.

Coleman left in the spring of 1964, to be replaced by avant-garde saxophonist Sam Rivers, on the suggestion of Tony Williams. Davis, however, who knew of Rivers's leanings toward free jazz, a genre which Davis disdained, knew that Rivers was not the ideal replacement he was looking for. Rivers remained in the group only briefly, but was recorded live with the quintet in Japan; the group can be heard on In Tokyo (July 1964).

By the end of the summer, Davis had managed to convince Wayne Shorter to quit Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a reluctant decision because Shorter had become musical director of that group. Shorter's arrival completed the trumpeter's Second Great Quintet. Surely enough, Shorter became the principal composer of Miles's quintet, and some of his compositions of this era (Footprints, Nefertiti) are now standards. While on tour in Europe, the group quickly made their first official recording, Miles in Berlin (Fall 1964).

Second quintet (1965–1968)

By the time of E.S.P. (1965) the lineup—Davis's second great quintet, and the last of his acoustic bands—consisted of Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums)

A two-night Chicago gig by this band in late 1965 is captured on the 8-CD set The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965 released in 1995. Unlike the group's studio albums, the live engagement still shows the group playing primarily standards and bebop tunes, albeit with a greater degree of freedom than in previous years.

This was followed by a series of strong studio recordings: Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967), Miles in the Sky (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). The quintet's approach to improvisation came to be known as time no changes, because while they retained a steady pulse, they abandoned the chord-change-based approach of bebop. Through Nefertiti, the studio recordings consisted of primarily originals composed by Wayne Shorter, and to a lesser degree the other sidemen. In 1967, the group began the unusual practice of playing their live concerts in continuous sets, with each tune flowing into the next and only the melody indicating any sort of demarcation; Davis's bands would continue to perform in this way until his retirement in 1975.

Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, on which electric bass, electric piano and guitar were tentatively introduced on some tracks, clearly pointed the way to the subsequent fusion phase in Davis's output. Davis also began experimenting with more rock-oriented rhythms on these records, and by the time the second half of Filles de Kilimanjaro had been recorded, Dave Holland and Chick Corea had replaced Carter and Hancock in the working band, though both Carter and Hancock would contribute to future recording sessions. Davis soon began to take over the compositional duties of his sidemen.

Fusion (1969–1975)

Recent boxed sets have shown that Davis's progression from the free-bop (or postbop) of the Second Quintet to the dense, rhythmic world of fusion was much less abrupt than it seemed initially, when In a Silent Way followed Filles de Kilimanjaro. Miles's influences, widely attributed to the tastes of his future wife Betty Mabry, were the late 1960s acid, funk and rock heroes, namely Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Slightly later, most prominently on 1972's On the Corner, the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen became evident. This transition required that Davis and his band adapt to modern, electric instruments in both live performances and the studio.

By the time In a Silent Way had been recorded in February 1969, Davis had augmented his standard quintet with additional players. Hancock and Joe Zawinul were brought in to assist Corea on electric keyboards, and the young guitarist John McLaughlin made the first of his many appearances with Miles at this time. By this point, Wayne Shorter was also doubling on soprano saxophone. After the recording of this album, Tony Williams left to form his group Lifetime and was replaced by Jack DeJohnette.

Six months later, an even larger group of musicians, including Jack DeJohnette and Bennie Maupin, recorded Bitches Brew. These two records were the first truly successful amalgamations of jazz with rock music, laying the groundwork for the genre that would become known simply as fusion.

Davis's first Gold album.Both Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way feature extended (more than 20 minutes each) compositions which were never actually played straight through by the musicians in the studio. Instead, Miles and producer Teo Macero selected musical motifs of various lengths from recorded extended improvisations and edited them together into a musical whole which only exists in the recorded version. Bitches Brew, in particular, is a case study in the use of electronic effects, multi-tracking, tape loops and other editing techniques.

During this period, Davis toured with the Lost Quintet of Shorter, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette. Though Corea played electric piano and the group occasionally hinted at rock rhythms, the music was edgy, uncompromising post-bop that frequently spilled over into full-blown free jazz. The group's repertoire included material from Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, the 1960s quintet albums, and an occasional standard.

Both records, especially Bitches Brew, proved to be huge sellers for Davis, and he was accused of selling out by many of his former fans, while simultaneously attracting many new fans who listened to Davis alongside the more popular rock acts of the late 1960s.

Davis reached out to new audiences in other ways as well. Starting with Bitches Brew, Davis's albums began to often feature art much more in line with psychedelic or black power movements than with his earlier albums' art. He took significant cuts in his usual performing fees in order to open for rock groups like the Steve Miller Band and Santana. (Carlos Santana has stated that he should have opened concerts for Davis, rather than the other way around.) Several live albums were recorded during the early 1970s at such performances: It's About That Time (March 1970; Shorter's last appearance with the group), Black Beauty (April 1970; Steve Grossman replacing Shorter on saxophones) and At Fillmore (June 1970; Keith Jarrett joining the group as a second keyboardist). In contrast with the Lost Quintet, the music on these albums is funkier and more rock-oriented, with relatively few free jazz tendencies. Corea began to rely heavily on effects like ring modulation, and Dave Holland shifted to the electric bass (having primarily played acoustic bass for the previous year).

By the time of Live-Evil (December 1970; Jarrett as the only keyboardist, Gary Bartz replacing Grossman on saxophones, and Michael Henderson replacing Holland on electric bass), Davis's ensemble had transformed into a much more funk-oriented group. Davis began experimenting with wah-wah effects on his horn. The ensemble with Bartz, Jarrett and Henderson, often referred to as the Cellar Door band (the live portions of Live-Evil were recorded at a club by that name), never recorded in the studio, but is documented extensively by unofficial live recordings from 1970 and 1971.

1970 saw Davis contribute extensively to the soundtrack of a documentary about the great African-American boxer Jack Johnson. A devotee of boxing, Davis drew parallels between Johnson, whose career had been defined by the fruitless search for a Great White Hope to dethrone him, and Davis's own career, in which he felt the establishment had prevented him from receiving the acclaim and rewards that were due him. The resulting album, 1971's A Tribute to Jack Johnson, contained two long pieces that used the talents of many musicians, some of whom were not credited on the record itself, including the guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock. Working with producer Teo Macero, Davis created what many critics regard as his finest electric, rock-influenced album, though its use of editing and studio technology would be fully appreciated only upon the release of the five-CD The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions in 2003.

Davis refused to be confined by the expectations of his audience or music critics, and continued to explore the possibilities of his new band. On The Corner (1972) showed a seemingly effortless grasp of funk without sacrificing the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic nuance that had been present throughout his entire career. The album also channeled the influences of Paul Buckmaster's studio arrangements, Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, and Stockhausen in its layered recording and post-production editing.

After recording On the Corner, Davis put together a new band, with only Michael Henderson and percussionist Mtume returning from the Cellar Door band. This band included guitarist Reggie Lucas, tabla player Badal Roy, sitarist Khalil Balakrishna and drummer Al Foster. The band was unusual in that none of the sidemen were major jazz instrumentalists; as a result, the group's music emphasized rhythmic density and shifting textures instead of individual solos. This group, which recorded in the Philharmonic Hall for the album In Concert ([1972), was unsatisfactory to Davis. Through the first half of 1973, he dropped the tabla and sitar, took over keyboard duties, and added guitarist Pete Cosey to the group. The Davis/Cosey/Lucas/Henderson/Mtume/Foster ensemble would remain virtually intact over the next two years. Initially, Dave Liebman played saxophones and flute with the band; in 1974 he was replaced by Sonny Fortune.

By the mid-1970s, Davis's previous rate of production was falling. Big Fun (1974) was a double album containing four long jams, recorded between 1969 and 1972. Similarly, Get Up With It (1975) collected recordings from the previous five years. Get Up With It included He Loved Him Madly, a tribute to Duke Ellington, as well as one of Davis's most lauded pieces from this era, Calypso Frelimo. Contemporary critics complained that the album had too many underdeveloped ideas.

In 1974 and 1975, Columbia recorded three double-LP live Davis albums: Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea. Dark Magus is a 1974 New York concert; the latter two are recordings of consecutive concerts from the same February 1975 day in Osaka, Japan. At the time, only Agharta was available in the US; Pangaea and Dark Magus were initially released only by CBS/Sony Japan. All three feature at least two electric guitarists (Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, deploying an array of post-Jimi Hendrix electronic distortion devices; Dominique Gaumont is a third guitarist on Dark Magus), electric bass (Davis still relying on the funk-tinged, stripped-down playing of Michael Henderson), drums, reeds, and Davis on trumpet (also electrified) and organ. These albums, documenting the working bands Miles was leading at that point, were the last music he was to record for five years. Troubled by chronic pain and a serious kidney complaint (Davis suffered from an inherited blood disorder, sickle-cell anemia, as well as diabetes, and a renewed dependence on heroin and cocaine) and again at odds with the law, Davis withdrew almost completely from the public eye.

While convalescing, Davis saw the fusion music that he had spearheaded over the past decade firmly enter into the mainstream. Whether played by Davis's many protégés, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Weather Report (founders Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul both spent time in Davis's bands), Davis's influence could be heard everywhere, much as it could after each of his previous revolutionary advances.

Davis's 1970s recordings have in recent years undergone a fairly radical reassessment, and are now seen by many as a significant body of work comparable to that of his earlier periods, and as an extremely interesting mixture of ideas gleaned from jazz, funk and rock music, as well as from experimental, process-oriented European composers. Recently, Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith, Mark Isham, Tim Hagans, Nicholas Payton and others have recorded albums more or less indebted to Davis's electric era.

Davis absented himself from the music industry for five years. For much of this time he was seriously ill, and a serious cocaine addiction was also beginning to take its toll. As Gil Evans said, "His organism is tired. And after all the music he's contributed for 35 years, he needs a rest." However, by the beginning of the 1980s he was back in good health and ready to assemble a new band.

Return to performance (1981–1991)

As always, Miles assembled his bands from among the finest musicians available, including the saxophonist Bill Evans (no relation to the pianist) and a young bass player named Marcus Miller who would become one of Davis's most regular collaborators throughout the decade. Davis's first new studio album, The Man With The Horn (1981), was relatively poorly received. The same year, Davis prepared to tour again, and formed a touring band with largely different members from those who had played on the album. In May, they played two dates as part of the Newport Jazz Festival, and the concerts, as well as the live recording We Want Miles from the ensuing tour, were well reviewed.

By the time of Star People (1983), Davis's band included guitarist John Scofield, with whom Davis worked closely on both Star People and 1984's Decoy, an underdeveloped, experimental mixture of soul music and electronica. Despite the uneven quality of much of his recorded output, live Davis was still capable of moments, and entire concerts, of great inspiration. With a seven-piece band, including Scofield, Evans, drummer Al Foster and bassist Darryl Jones (later of The Rolling Stones), he played a series of European gigs to rapturous receptions. While in Europe, he took part in the recording of Aura, an orchestral tribute to Davis composed by the Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.

Back in the studio, You're Under Arrest (1985) included another stylistic detour: interpretations of contemporary pop songs in Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and Michael Jackson's Human Nature, for which he would receive much criticism in the jazz press, although the record was otherwise well-reviewed. Davis also noted that many accepted jazz standards were in fact pop songs from Broadway theatre, and that he was simply selecting more recent examples of pop songs to perform. You're Under Arrest would also be Davis's final album for Columbia, due to the long-term deterioration of his relationship with the label.

Again demonstrating his eclecticism during this time period, Davis collaborated with a number of figures from the British new wave movement, including Scritti Politti and John Lydon's Public Image Ltd.

Having first taken part in the Artists United Against Apartheid recording, Davis signed with Warner Brothers records and reunited with Marcus Miller. The resulting record, Tutu (1986), would be his first to feature modern studio tools—programmed synthesizers, samples and drum loops—to create an entirely new setting for Davis's playing. Ecstatically reviewed on its release, the album would frequently be described as a modern version of the classic Sketches of Spain, and won a Grammy award in 1987.

He followed Tutu with the soundtracks to two movies, Street Smart and Siesta, with neither the films nor Davis's scores being particularly noteworthy (other than Morgan Freeman's celebrated turn as Fast Black in Street Smart), but he continued to tour with a band of constantly rotating personnel and a critical stock at a level higher than it had been for fifteen years.

He was married to actress Cicely Tyson in 1981, and they were divorced in 1988.

Miles Davis continued to tour and perform regularly through the last years of his life, before succumbing to a stroke in September 28, 1991 at the age of 65. He is interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.


Note: This profile was written in or before 2005.

Miles Davis Facts

Birth NameMiles Dewey Davis III
OccupationMusician, Composer
BirthdayMay 26, 1926
SignGemini
BirthplaceAlton, Illinois, USA
Date of deathSeptember 28, 1991 (Los Angeles, California, USA, age 65)

Selected Filmography

Miles Ahead
Miles Davis: The Miles Davis Story
The Miles Davis Story
Miles Davis: Copenhagen Live 1969
Miles Electric
Miles Davis: That's What Happened
California Passage
Live at Montreux 1991
Miles! Live at Montreux: The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux Collection, 1973-1991
Continue » Find more details on the Miles Davis Movies page