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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
9 April 1998

Miles Davis, "The Prince of Silence," was the last in the line of Kings, Dukes, Counts, and Lords who forged the basic vocabulary of jazz. He reigned with undisputed power, opening melodies like flowers, into the early 90s despite active nobles and young pretenders assaulting the throne.

He did not like to be called a "Legend." When he hit 60, he told me: "A legend is an old man known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it. Just call me Miles."

Whatever you call him, his treasury was overflowing. Money was every bit as important to Prince Miles as creativity. Or rather they were inseparable. He related to money and superstardom as integral to his art. They were evidence of communication, arts in themselves. Making record companies and promoters pay maximum dollar for his services forced them to invest heavily in promotion to protect their investment, which inevitably improved business and they paid even more next time.

What separated this Prince from most of his subjects is that he made creativity pay royally. ("I do what I do good. Better than good.") He divided his time between five-star hotels, a large apartment overlooking Central Park in New York and a million dollar villa in Malibu, California. He drove expensive sports cars. Money was part of what made him - whether he liked it or not - legendary.

"Don't play what's there," he told his young musicians: "Play what's not there;" and "don't play what you know, play what you don't know." Legends say legendary things. "I have to change," he said: "It's like a curse." He played key roles in the birth of bebop (with Charlie Parker), cool-jazz ("Birth Of The Cool"), modal jazz ("Kind Of Blue") and jazz-rock fusion ("Bitches Brew"). "I can put together a better rock 'n' roll band than Jimi Hendrix," he bragged.

In the 1960s, John Coltrane (who would become a legend too) was a perfect musical foil for Miles. With Philly Joe Jones, drums, Paul Chambers, bass, and Red Garland on piano, this was one of the best jazz bands in history. Trane's streamlined, full-blooded goosebump-raising "sheets of sound" on the saxophone contrasted the eloquent serenity of Miles' courtly, spacial trumpet (audiences would applaud his silences) - 20th century speed and complexity in tandem with elegant 19th century romanticism. Before leaving Miles to form his own band, Coltrane had been searching, a captive of his own intensity, playing 45-minute solos in the middle of what were supposed to be one hour sets.

"Can't you play 27 choruses instead of 28?" Miles asked him.
"I know I know," Coltrane replied:
"I play too long.
But I get so involved I don't know how to stop."
"Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?" Miles advised. One legend to another.

Miles Davis

Twenty years later, Miles was still having trouble with saxophonists playing what he called "duty shit, all the things saxophone players think they are supposed to do." He asked tenorman Bob Berg why he had soloed in a place where he was not scheduled and had never before played.

"It sounded so good," Berg replied, "I just had to come in."
"Bob," said the Prince of Silence, "The reason it sounded good was because you weren't playing."


Miles was regally relaxing in one of the series of grandiose hotel suites in which I interviewed him over the years. People waited on him, a young woman usually sat by his side. He was obviously accustomed to luxury, looking like he expected and deserved it. He reminded me of an African Prince in his chambers.

We were in a penthouse atop the Concorde-Lafayette Hotel at Porte Maillot. Paris was at our feet. Drinking herbal tea, he had the world on a string. I thought of when, not all that long before, he had ingested more potent substances.

For many years, Miles had been famous, or infamous, for one negative habit often associated with those who are considered to be "hip" - drugs. The black creators of that revolutionary urban American improvised music which came to be called "bebop" endured critics who said that their jazz was not really "music." While the sounds they invented were adapted by so-called "serious" composers, who were acclaimed by these same critics (all white). The composers' jazz-influenced works were performed in prestigious halls and on the soundtracks of big-budget movies while the creators worked in Mafia-controlled saloons and collected no royalties.

Bebop fathers fought alienation by constructing their own secret culture with it's own style and language - "bad" meaning "good" is vintage bebop argot. Drugs were part of the huddle; they seemed to cure alienation for a minute. Not coincidentally, drugs disappeared when respect - and money - arrived. Jazz was presented in Carnegie Hall, Clint Eastwood made a movie about Charlie Parker, Miles became a pop star. When Miles cleaned up his habit, he made it "hip" to be "square."

"What do you want to know?" he asked me, in that legendary rasp which has become an emblem of "hip" to generations of hipsters and hippies.

Remembering that he had once said: "Music is like dope. You use it until you get tired of it," I asked him if he had tired of cocaine, heroin and the rest.

He turned the pages of a large sketch pad, drawing flashy, fiery-haired bright-lipped women with an assortment of felt-tipped pens. Miles began to paint late in life. Since his death, neckties based on his paintings have become available in better stores everywhere, collectors pay high prices for his original works. He turned the pad around to show it to me:

"You like these chicks? These are Parisian women - sunken cheeks. Speaking French does that. They speak with their tongues out. Language forms your face."

Drawing more sunken cheeks, he began to answer my question: "I had to stop doing everything..."

He was wearing rose-rimmed dark glasses and an understated expensive trim white shirt. His hairline had receded but what remained was curly and luxuriant. Miles Davis was the first jazz noble to have a hair transplant. There was some weight on his bones for a change. It was difficult to refrain from staring at his healthy velvety jet-black skin-tone. He was a beautiful looking man who had affairs with Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau while in Paris recording the soundtrack for Louis Malle's film "Elevator To The Scaffold." (The soundtrack holds up better than the movie).

"Everything," he repeated: "Listen." His hoarse whisper sounded like there was a mute in his throat. "I was snorting coke, right? Four, five grams a day. Go out drinking brandy and beer around the clock. Get up at midnight, stay out the rest of the night and half the day. Smoke four packs of cigarettes. Using sleeping pills too. One day I wake up I can't use my right hand. Can't straighten it out. Cicely panics..."

Miles Dewey Davis III, son of a middle class dentist from Alton, Illinois, was married to the actress Cicely Tyson, who won an Emmy Award (the American TV Oscar) for the title role in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The marriage ceremony was performed by Andrew Young, mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, at the home of comedian Bill Cosby. This was the cream of the African-American aristocracy. Cicely and Miles were later divorced. In his autobiography, he accused her of trying to pull out his hair-weave.

"Cicely panics," he continued: "Let's go see Dr. Shen," she says. Acupuncture doctor. Dr. Shen gave me needles...here, here, here. He gave me herbs to clean my body out. Chinese medecine. I shed my skin. A whole layer of skin fell out. Weird stuff came out of my nose. I didn't know which drug was messing up so I just decided to stop them all. Now I swim 40 minutes every day. The only habit I got left is sweets.

"Cigarettes are the worst of all. You're better off snorting coke than smoking cigarettes. I saw Wayne [Shorter] stand there and light a cigarette. I said, 'Why you doing that?' He said, 'I need something to do with my hands.' I said, 'Why don't you put them in your pockets? You got four pockets.'"

I asked him what he would have done if Dr. shen had told him to give up the trumpet too.

Please turn to page 2

Photo: Miles Davis
Credit: Christian Rose

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