Miles Davis Played Trumpet but Not the Game
Miles Always Favored the New Sound
Possibly included among Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as one of the jazz greats of the twentieth century, Miles Davis was an outspoken critic of the way black musicians were treated in America's music industry.
Miles' musical career started the fall of 1944 when he entered the Juilliard School in New York City, but he soon tired of playing the white-oriented music they taught him and left after a year to play with his friends and co-musicians Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (Miles' idol) and Thelonious Monk. Miles preferred playing jazz or black music as he called it, and the popular style at the time was bebop, which started, according to Miles, at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. Miles' first professional job was playing with Eddie Randle's Blue Devils.
From Miles' teenage years (he was born in 1926), Miles resented how white folks - particularly the club owners, record producers and critics - tried to take the credit for discovering jazz. In his book, Miles the Autobiography, he wrote, "I hate how white people always try to take credit for something after they discover it. Like it wasn't happening before they found out about it - which most times is always late, and they didn't have nothing to do with it happening. Then they try to take all the credit, try to cut everybody black out." (All of the quotes in this article come from Miles Davis' autobiography.)
Eventually Miles ended up in Charlie Parker's band, the Charlie Parker Quintet. But virtuosic alto saxophone player Charlie "Bird" Parker was a tough friend and business associate for Miles to keep. A heroin addict, Bird, as everyone called him, would tell the dope dealers that Miles was going to pay them the money Bird owed them. This was a lie, of course. Also, Bird often failed to pay Miles and other band members. One time Miles had to threaten Bird with a broken off bottle to get him to pay up. Miles got fed up with this disrespect and eventually parted ways with this brilliant though troublesome musician (they continued jamming and recording with each other, however).
In 1948, jazz legend Duke Ellington offered Miles a job in his band. In the book, Miles wrote, "But I had to tell him that I couldn't make it, because I was finishing up Birth of the Cool. That's what I told him and it was true, but the real reason I didn't - couldn't - go with Duke was because I didn't want to put myself in a musical box, playing the same music, night after night after night. My head was somewhere else. I wanted to go in another direction from the one he was going, although I loved and totally respected Duke."
That was Miles, "always trying to hear something new," as he put it.
The following year, after doing some gigs in Paris, Miles returned to America and had trouble finding work. At this time many jazz musicians, black and white, were doing heroin. Miles started snorting it, and then, taking the advice of a friend, began injecting it. "That was the beginning of a four-year horror show," Miles wrote. Then, once club owners heard about his addiction, work became even harder to get. During 1951 and 1952 Miles was pimping to feed his drug monster.
Miles knew that some white jazz musicians were junkies, but he thought they were treated differently. He wrote, "A lot of white critics kept talking about all these white jazz musicians, imitators of us, like they was some great ‘mother-fletchers' (expurgation by Kosmo) and everything. Talking about Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Kai Winding, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano and Gerry Mulligan like they was gods or something. And some of them white guys were junkies like we were, but wasn't nobody writing about that like they was writing about us. They didn't start paying attention to white guys being junkies until Stan Getz got busted trying to break into a drugstore to cop some drugs. That shit made the headlines until people forgot and went back to just talking about black musicians being junkies."
However, during Miles' junkie period he continued playing and recording. Whether his playing was any better or worse at this time is up to the individual to decide. In general, Miles seemed satisfied with it. However, lots of people were getting tired of his crap, and so was he.
Then in late 1953 Miles went to his father's house in East St. Louis and kicked heroin. After seven to eight days of excruciating pain and insomnia he came out of the experience a new man, or at least one with a clearer head. However, he slid back into using heroin a number of times. It took weeks and months to get the monkey off his back. The self-discipline of boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson inspired Miles through this difficult period. In fact, once Miles was clean, he began training as a boxer. Though Miles never fought professionally, he used his dukes a number of times, knocking out people who offended or threatened him.
Miles' career rebounded after his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, playing such tunes as "Now's the Time," a tribute to Bird, who had just died and "'Round Midnight," a difficult composition by Thelonious Monk that had taken Miles a long time to master. Now everybody wanted to sign Miles to a recording contract and invite him to parties. In Miles' band at this time were John Coltrane (a.k.a. Trane) on sax, Philly Joe on drums, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on Bass and Miles on trumpet and, occasionally, piano.
But by spring 1959, Miles had formed a sextet with Bill Evans on piano. This was the ensemble used by Miles when recording the monumental album Kind of Blue, on which Miles played modal jazz, which emphasizes modes such as Dorian or Lydian. Miles also didn't write out all the music because he wanted spontaneity in the recording. As usual, Miles was opening melodic portals through which others could pass. Kind of Blue became the best-selling jazz album of all time, and listed as number 66 on VH1's 100 Greatest Albums of All time, compiled in 2001.
From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, composer Gil Evans did the arrangements on Miles' albums, including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. Miles said he had the greatest musical rapport with Gil Evans and that Evans was his best friend.
On a muggy night in August 1959, Miles had a confrontation with the police that left him bloodied and under arrest. While standing in front of Birdland in New York City, Miles helped a white woman get into a cab and after she drove off a white policeman came along and told him to move along. Miles pointed to the marquee and said that was his name up there. The cop wasn't impressed and repeated his order for Miles to move on. Because Miles didn't move quickly enough the policeman arrested him, at which point Miles - perhaps acting as a boxer would - suddenly approached the cop, who fell down, spilling his accoutrements on the sidewalk. Then, from out of nowhere a detective hurried over and hit Miles in the head. The cops took Miles to the station and booked him. Miles beat the rap and sued the police department for half a million dollars, a lawsuit which he eventually lost. Along the way, the police revoked Miles' cabaret license so he couldn't perform in New York for awhile.
About this incident, Miles wrote, "Around this time, people - white people - started saying that I was always ‘angry,' that I was ‘racist' or some silly shit like that. Now, I've been racist toward nobody, but that don't mean I'm going to take shit from a person because he's white. I didn't grin or shuffle and walk around with a finger up my ass begging for no handout and thinking I was inferior to whites. I was living in America, too, and I was going to get everything that was coming to me."
In May 1962, Miles' father, Miles Dewey Davis, died. The death hit Miles hard because his father had always stood by him, even during his years of heroin addiction.
By the middle 1960s, jazz was losing some of its popularity. Players of rock ‘n' roll, funk, soul and rhythm and blues were drawing larger audiences, particularly among young people. Reacting to this trend, Columbia Records, where Miles had a recording contract, signed groups such as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, bands with a jazzy rock sound.
Always looking for a new sound, even a radical one, Miles developed one for his next album Bitches Brew, recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. This album was recorded with electric instruments and had a jazz-fusion sound with plenty of improvisation and was influenced by the current rock-oriented music by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly Stone. This revolutionary album sold very well from the get-go.
Management at Columbia suggested that Mile begin playing at venues that attracted a younger crowd. Miles obliged by playing some concerts at the Fillmore West with the Grateful Dead. (Miles met Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist for the Dead, and they hit it off. Garcia loved jazz and had been a big fan of Miles for years.) Miles also played at the Isle of Wight concert in England in August 1970, which attracted over 300,000 people.
At the Isle of Wight, Miles and Jimi Hendrix, who had been friends for awhile, planned to do an album together in the near future. Unfortunately, Hendrix died only weeks later.
By the summer of 1975 Miles was considering retirement. For years he had been having trouble with his hip, even after it had been operated on a time or two, and he had bleeding ulcers. The partying life was taking its toll as well. Miles was heavily into snorting cocaine and had always been a heavy drinker and cigarette smoker. And he was popping Percodan for his bad hip. It seemed his body was wearing out. Even the amplified music was beginning to wear him down. So, he retired.
From 1975 until early 1980 Miles didn't even pick up his horn. Mostly what he did was hang around the house and party, consuming lots of cocaine, booze and pills such as Seconal; he even returned to injecting heroin. He also had amorous liaisons with numerous women.
During 1978, actress Cicely Tyson began seeing Miles. Tyson helped Miles clean up his act. She helped him give up cocaine and cut down on his drinking. She also helped him change his diet, emphasizing vegetables and juices and also helped him get acupuncture for his chronically ailing hip. After this therapy, Miles' head cleared somewhat and he began to consider playing his trumpet again.
In the spring of 1981, Miles began playing again. The musicians in his band were Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Al Foster and Mino Cinelu. Months later, Columbia released the album The Man with the Horn, which most critics didn't like. Some said Miles was only a shadow of his former self.
Late in 1981, Miles married Cicely Tyson, the last of several wives. Miles said that Tyson had a good side and bad side. Apparently, she could be pushy and domineering. The good side probably included helpfulness, because she helped Miles give up cigarettes, which he did cold turkey, as he had done with heroin many years before.
Regarding Miles' many wives and girlfriends, he liked putting photographs of them on his album covers.
In 1986 Miles played a pimp and dope dealer in an episode of the television show Miami Vice. About his performance, he wrote, "When I did that role, someone asked me how I felt about acting and I told them, ‘You're acting all the time when you're black.' And it's true. Black people are acting out roles every day in this country just to keep on getting by." Be that as it may, Miles thought playing a pimp was easy "because there's a little of that in every man," he wrote.
While at an award ceremony for pianist/singer Ray Charles at the Kennedy Center in 1987, a politician's wife asked Miles what he thought about jazz in this country, and Miles replied, "Jazz is ignored here because the white man likes to ignore everything. White people like to see other white people win just like you do and they can't win when it comes to jazz and the blues because black people created this. And so when we play in Europe, white people over there appreciate us because they know who did what and they will admit it. But most white Americans won't."
In the late 1980s, Miles began painting. Some of his works were exhibited and sold for as much as $15,000.
Concerning Miles' quest for continual change in his music, he wrote, "One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy ‘mother-fletchers,' resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that's what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don't want to try to understand music that's different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit over and over again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing ‘screwing' up the music and tradition. Well, I'm not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn't about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge. When people come up to me and ask me to play something like ‘My Funny Valentine,' some old thing that I might have done when they were ‘screwing' this special girl and the music might have made them both feel good, I can understand that. But I tell them to go buy the record. I'm not there in that place any longer and I have to live for what is best for me and not what's best for them."
Miles' last studio album was doo-bop, released in 1992. Miles wanted to create an album that captured the sounds of the urban environment, a mixture of the natural and manmade. Produced by Easy Mo Bee, the album combined a driving hip-hop feel with Miles' punctuating trumpet. The album is spectacular, particularly the cuts "Mystery," "The Doo-Bop Song," "Blow," and "Sonya." What a way to end a recording career!
Enthusiasts of the black experience should realize that Miles was a vehement spokesman for the plight of black musicians in the US. He simply wanted them to get the recognition and respect he felt they deserved. Moreover, Miles expected all jazz musicians to explore new musical territory in the quest of a new sound, and this was what he did until the end.
Miles Davis died at the age of 65 from a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure on September 28, 1991. In his autobiography, the last word he wrote was "later."
Please check out the videos below.
Miles - Hannibal Live
Miles Davis Quintet, Milan, Italy October 1964
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© 2008 Kelley Marks