JazzNet: Special Series - Sons of Miles
You are in:  Home > Jazz > Special Series: Sons of Miles   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

Sons of Miles

"Change doctors," he shot back without hesitation. "I was told that once, when I was, like, sixteen. Sonny Stitt came to St. Louis, right? And he had his hair straightened. He showed me how to do it, did it for me. My hair was wet. I was running around trying to be hip, right? So then I had to come back all across town to go home. I got sick. Went to the hospital. The doctor said, 'What, you play the trumpet? You can't do that any more.' If I'd listened to him, I'd be a dentist today. Isn't that a bitch?"

Miles was not exactly healthy to begin with, the rest was self-inflicted. He went in and out of surgery for sickle-cell anaemia, banged up his Lamborghini ("Shit! Both ankles"), had an ulcer, bouts of insomnia (the coke didn't help), polyps were removed from his vocal cords. After a hip operation (Miles was so hip, he even had hip operations) forced him into a wheelchair, he insisted on being wheeled from limousine to boarding ramp after he was loping around stages like a gazelle. "That's just Miles being princely," his guitar player explained.

Miles was famous for turning his back on audience. I asked why he did that.

He lowered his head and stared up at me, glowering with narrowed menacing eyes, grinding his mouth like there was gum in it which there wasn't. Miles loved to play the devil, although I always thought it was just that - a game. When a woman once came up to him and said, "Mr Davis, I love your music,"he leered: "Wanna fuck?" (She did not think that was funny.) Now he hissed to me: "Nobody asks a symphony orchestra conductor why he turns his back on the audience." After 1970, when his "rock" period began with "Jack Johnson" and "Bitches Brew," Miles took to standing in the middle of his bubblibg cauldron of binary electronic avant garde exploration on the cutting edge of distortion, signaling tempo and dynamic changes with an implied wave of his green trumpet or a pointed finger. At the same time, he denied the existence of signals:
"The music just does what it's supposed to do."

His most musical as well as commercial collaboration was with the older white arranger/composer Gil Evans, a father figure to Miles. On their albums together - which were, well, symphonic - Miles was at the height of his power. He was like a violin soloist playing a concerto with Gil's big band. Their "Sketches of Spain" was a big hit. Gil said: "Miles is not afraid of what he likes. A lot of other musicians are constantly looking around to what the next person is doing, wondering what's in style. Miles goes his own way."

Now there was a silence in the suite on top of the Hotel Concorde-Lafayette. When you're with Miles Davis, silence is not exactly silent. There was a palpable vibe in the air. He went on happily drawing away. Miles taught me whatever I know about silence, apparently not enough. I grew paranoid. I blamed myself for the conversational stagnation. I was the journalist, I needed a question - fast. Make me sound intelligent. Whatever came to mind: "Do you still practice?"

He had finished another drawing. He drew the way he once smoked and snorted - compulsively. Perhaps it was drug-substitute gratification. He turned it around, showed it to me and said: "Yeah. Practice every day. People know me by my sound, like they know Frank Sinatra's sound. Got to keep my sound. I practice seventh chords. Practicing is like praying. You don't just pray once a week."

"Do you pray?"
"I was on a plane once and all of a sudden it dropped. I had this medal Carlos Santana gave me around my neck.
It has a diamond and a ruby and a picture of some Saint on it.
I touched it.
I think that thing saved me.
Well, just say I pray in my way."

Jazz festivals will come to be divided into pre- and post-Miles Davis eras. For 20 years from 1971, Miles lent credibility to the rock backbeat. (He opened for The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at The Fillmore.) His presence continued to hover, providing a sort of tacit legitimacy for rock bands on jazz stages. After his death in the Fall of 1991, it has become more difficult to rationalize. Miles did not play rock for the money. He was in search of communication, or, at worst, the fountain of youth. Sure, he wanted a large audience. He was no loser. But anything Miles touched can be defined as jazz, like Louis Armstrong. Now we're stuck with the youth without the fountain.

During the summer 1991 jazz festival season, Miles did something he said he would never do - look back. He led an all-star assortment of ex-employees - Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Jackie McClean, John McLaughlin, etcetera - in Paris. Quincy Jones conducted Miles soloing with a big band performing "Sketches of Spain" in Montreux. 'I cannot help but wonder," I wrote on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, "if this unexpected flurry of nostalgia at the age of 65 is some sort of last roundup." That same summer, Jack Lang awarded him the Legion of Honor. I wrote: "It seems somehow like final punctuation." Later, I realized that I had written his obituary two months early, which really spooked me. Because I also wrote: "Miles Davis is playing the soundtrack for the movie of my life and when he stops, the movie's over."

Well, I'm still here. But life post-Miles is not easy. There is nobody to remind us of the importance of personal sound and silence. The silent sounds of "Tutu," recorded in the late 80s, reflect the best of our contemporary urban experience - a peaceful garden in the middle of a pulluted city, a warm café in winter, the metro when it is not on strike, walking streets, a friendly taxi driver, tree-lined empty boulevards at dawn. It has become much harder to ignore all the noise.

Miles was a regular at the "Grande Parade du Jazz" in Nice. Neighborly noise considerations forced a midnight curfew. When the stage manager waved off the band ten minutes early, Miles was furious. He wanted those ten minutes. He brought the band back until midnight on-the-nose. Money making as an art form involves doing what you want to do anyway even without the money.

Miles was also a master of the art of Good Publicity. His sparring with Wynton Marsalis in the press was a good example. Marsalis is the leader of the under-30 generation of tradition and blues-oriented players which has installed itself as the immediate future. It can be called a movement. They build on the past and one day may leap into the future.

Right now; though, most of them sound like other, mostly dead, people. They are intelligent, clean-living and highly specialized technocrats. Marsalis secured his influence on them through his post as Director of the Lincoln Center jazz program at just about the time Miles Davis died. There was a void, although I beg to differ with those who consider Marsalis to be Miles' heir. Marsalis is not "cursed" by change, and he has yet to learn the value of silence.

Marsalis accused Miles of deserting "true" jazz by playing rock. Miles accused Marsalis of ditto for playing European classical music. Back and forth, taking one to know one. Miles said: "Wynton is just doing a press number, which he is always doing. Music shouldn't be like two gladiators fighting."

Which of course made a great press number. Miles was photographed giving Wynton one of his drawings. They were both smiling like two heavyweights promoting a championship match.


So as we ride away into the sunset towards the future of jazz, we remember the words of the Prince of Silence: "When I'm not playing music, I'm thinking about it. I think about it all the time, when I'm eating, swimming, drawing, there's music in my head right now talking to you. I don't like the word jazz which white folks dropped on us. And I don't play rock. I make the kind of music the day recommends."

<· · · · · · [ E-MAIL TO MIKE ZWERIN ] [ BACK TO JAZZNET ] · · · · · · · · · ·>