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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
5 August 1998

The third incarnation of Miles Davis began and ended with "Dingo," his first and last starring role in a feature film.

The airplane carrying Billy Cross/Miles is grounded in the Australian outback. The entire population, about 70, of a mining camp 800 kilometers from Perth comes out to look at the trans-continental jet being repaired. To kill time, Cross takes out his trumpet and the band plays for the people. Ten-year-old John Anderson is transfixed by the music and the musicians. As they board he runs to them. Cross, who lives in Paris, says to look him up if he ever gets there.

Fast cut to last week. In Paris to shoot "Dingo," Miles Davis was lounging in a suite fit for an African king in the Concorde Lafayette hotel. A hostess escorts you up to the VIP floor to open the elevator door with an electronic key-card. You wonder if you're locked out or he's locked in.

The royal hermit - a.k.a. "The Prince of Silence" - took his castle with him when he traveled. Custom-made clothes, bags from designer shops, and sound and image-reproducing devices were strewn about. Home was wherever he checked in. The Eiffel Tower was far below through the window, behind a gangster film with strings on a video monitor.

But first. Miles the musician. He has drummer problems: "Drummers are my pet peeve, maybe I'm hard on them. You always have to tell them what to play, what not to play. If a drummer has 15 drums he wants to bang on every one of them. Some drummers drop the tempo just so they can squeeze in their favorite fills. I might have my son play drums with me."

Rumor had it his son is reluctant. According to Miles's autobiography, their relationship was something less than ideal.

Miles the painter designed a logo for Hennessy cognac ("they're sponsoring a lot of jazz this year"). He was making big black, white, pink and brown collages with pieces of copper, rusty nails, driftwood and bamboo. Priced at $70,000; "you can hang them if you have a house in the Hamptons." Further description (that hoarse whisper) was drowned out by the video. Following which something that sounded like "you following me?" filtered through.

He objected to the cliche roles offered black film actors. Pimps, for example. Which did not stop him from playing one in an episode of "Miami Vice." It was hard to imagine him animated - he didn't have a band called "The Birth of the Cool" for nothing: He talked about Billy Cross:

"Twenty years pass and this kid comes to Paris. He plays trumpet now. He's been practicing every day. He's married with two kids. He wants to find out if he's good enough. I say, 'Don't ask me, you've got to find out that stuff yourself.' So I take him down to this club [filmed in the New Morning], tell the guy to let him sit in. I don't play trumpet anymore, I had a stroke."

An unbuttoned shirt hung to his hips. He was skin and bones. Dexter Gordon nicknamed him Wisp after a journalist described him as a "wispy trumpet player." There were scars. There had been accidents and operations. He slouched more than sitting, moved infrequently and with apparent difficulty. His face was younger than his body, thanks in part to his hair weave, although it appeared to be growing a pompadour. His skin was luminescent, like a photograph printed on metallic paper. Periodic burps ("pardon me") were tics more than bad manners. He said he did not remember his age.

"Am I 64 or 65, Michael?" he asked Michael Elam, his aide-de-camp.

"You're 64, Miles."

He said he got "shaky" in his $4 million house in California. (Whoa now. Check the tape. That's it; $4 million.) He just bought a new apartment on 57th Street.

"You like living in Manhattan? What about all the greed?"

"Where? Brooklyn?"


"What greed? It's always been like that. I don't know, really. I don't go out that much."

That night, the crew for the movie "Dingo" was dining in their canteen tent on the sidewalk near Metro St-Paul before shooting. The mixture of Australians and Frenchmen reflected the nature of the co-production. Director Rolf de Heer's last film was a "science fiction mystery thriller" called "Incident at Ravensgate." He described this one as a "human drama about the fulfillment of dreams and the avoidance of regret." Screenwriter Mark Rosenberg says he was inspired by the Guy de Maupassant story "Regret."

Miled Davis on location

The young boy in the outback grows up to be a trapper of dingos, wild dogs that kill sheep. Nicknamed Dingo, he plays trumpet with a country and western bush band called Dingo and the Dusters. He has a recurring dream in which Billy Cross keeps saying "come look me up in Paris." But he's stuck out there. Until a series of events forces him to make a decision to go.

Played by Colin Friels, Dingo tracks Billy Cross down. Neither bitter nor an addict, a gentleman, Cross is successful making electronic music. After Dingo shows up he begins to play the trumpet again. Because of Michel Legrand, with whom he collaborated on the soundtrack, Miles plays over loose, walking 4/4 time again. Nice to hear.

De Heer goes to great lengths to make it clear that this is no jazz film, he is no aficionado: "It's not a genre film. Each one of us at some time in our lives wished we would have done something, or have had a dream we haven't executed. We say, 'I wonder what would have happened if I'd done that instead of this.' Do we regret not having done it? Dingo is lucky, he gets a chance to follow his instinct before it's too late."

Yaphet Koto was the first choice for the role. Then de Heer was on the point of signing Sammy davis Jr. before the entertainer grew terminally ill. Until a friend came up with the idea, Miles Davis had never occurred to him. He was only vaguely familiar with his music. All he knew was his reputation, "which wasn't good." But a number of people were "keen on Miles, so I met him and decided to take the risk because I saw that if we could pull it off he'd burn the place up.

"He's a natural actor. Every day he gets better, he's faster, he learns more. He's easy to work with, he's intelligent and instinctive at the same time. He's on time, cooperative, and knows his lines. Nobody around here has ever seen that 'other' Miles, the 'nasty' Miles with the bad reputation."

He told his musicians: "Don't play what's there," he said: "play what's not there." As a painter, he was beginning to learn that the work is often really finished before it is "finished."

Space plays a role in his acting too. De Heer describes him: "His sense of timing is phenominal. You start to feed him his following line because he seems to have forgotten it. But then he comes out with it at just the right time and you're left with a mouthful of words you don't need."

P.S. The above was rewritten almost a decade later. Obviously the movie did not live up to De Heer's blurbs. "Dingo" turned out to be something like one of the one hundred best completely unknown movies ever made. Like that. It's flawed, but not that bad, really. And it's a treat to look at Miles in color in Paris on the big screen.

Photo: Colin Friels (left), Miles Davis and De Heer (right) on location in Paris during the filming of Dingo.
Credit: Christian Rose

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