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.
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.
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.
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
"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
"Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of
your mouth?" Miles advised. One legend to another.
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."
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
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
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."
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..."
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.
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.
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
I asked him what he would have done if Dr.
shen had told him to give up the trumpet too.