ME AND MILES

by Howard Mandel, for the Swiss magazine JAZZ, 5/85


I first met Miles in Bob Siegal's basement in 1965. Red Garland, Oscar Pettiford, and Philly Joe Jones helped with the introduction. Siegal's dad was a psychologist who listened to some jazz, and had given his son The Beginning, which my pal passed on to me after we listened to side two while playing Monopoly and I told him how much I liked it. He didn't think it was so great.

We were 14, and I had very definite ideas about music at that time - I'd recently lost my first teenage girlfriend to the plague of Beatles popularity. Carol was all caught up in the "Yeah, yeah, yeahs," which I, an adolescent philistine, sneered at for being less accomplished than Donald Byrd's A New Perspective, her father's copy of which we'd listened to playing ping-pong in her basement. She started dating a guy who took orders at a Chhinese restaurant. When she told me, I went to see my friend Allen, who was adept at picking out songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Lovin' Spoonful, and the Animals on his family's piano. We sang youth's laments for a while, then I went home. If I'd had it, I would have slipped Kind Of Blue on the stereo.

But I didn't, so I probably listened to the radio - these were the early days of Motown, Aretha Franklin's Atlantic hits, and Dionne Warwick's sweet singing - or to Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby" from At The Village Gate, or Ramsey Lewis's "The In Crowd." I liked the pulsing bass and windy flute on Mann's record, and Lewis's piano funk gave me another taste of those sounds I heard passing through black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side, where I lived. Besides, it referred to an elite set, and I longed to be a part of an in crowd one day. Pudgy, pimpled, and a notorious wise ass, I figured I stood a very slight chance. Still, I was proud.

I was sure, for one thing, that the Beatles were a passing fad. My parents loved show music, and it wasn't until Revolver that I was convinced Lennon and McCartney were worth considering alongside Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Frank Loesser as songwriters. Anybody could sing "Yeah, yeah, yeah" - Allen and I proved that. Most early Beatles tunes were mere ditties. Real, composed music - like the stuff the passionate Russians wrote - was something else. And improvising melody must certainly be an art. Here's where The Beginning came in. Garland opened "A Gal In Calico" with luminous block chords that caught and held me - I can still hear them in my mind whenever I want, remembering them as handfuls of pearls pulled from the sand and rinsed clean in the pianist's palm. Ramsey Lewis was pretty sloppy - on piano I could approximate his blue notes and rhythm. Garland's touch was understated, elegant, and far beyond my limited abilities. I instantly associated him with sophistication.

Then Miles's trumpet entered, mid range, voice-like, not highly polished and bouncy as I expected trumpets to be from Herb Alper's Tijuana Brass. Self-conscious and earnest, pockmarked but classy, honest as my movie hero Bogart, Miles seemed manly. With his horn. he drew a portrait of and for an initially shy but soon merry and daring girl, playing with deliberation as though if he didn't sketch her right she'd bolt. Warming to his solo, he swung more easily, apparently confident he'd won her admiration - maybe with the gliss he tossed off at the end of his first chorus, or the double- and triple-tongued tone he pricked one's attention with on the ninth bar of his third time through. Miles didn't press, though. His finishing touch - even, suggestive intervals he proposed as he smoothly turned the tune back to Garland - was cool and deferential. Hey - maybe this was how one spoke to girls! I could learn something from Miles!

And he took me places I'd vaguely imagined with his next number, "Night In Tunisia." Philly Joe shook something - a snake rattled. Pettiford asked an oblique question, asked it again. Getting no answer, he wove his query into a pattern, as a rug-maker hides a significant figure in an elaborate design. Now Miles replied, with nasal half-notes. Jones clanged his cymbal's bell, Garland fell in syncopation with him, and Miles unfurled a wondrous melody. I wasn't sure where Tunisia was - thought I knew, and could picture a mezzuzzin's tower over a walled desert village, set against a midnight blue sky, star-lit and crescent-mooned. I could feel dust rising from unpaved streets, smell strange spices and exotic incense. Didn't know this was Dizzy's song, occasion of Bird's most convoluted flight, a bebop anthem - only that Miles sped me towards adventure down a path that seemed to offer entry to mysterious nightspots in all-but-forbidden sectors of my city, to views from the ramparts of North African fortresses, to intensely vivid images from overheated regions of my own mind.

I indulged my imagination. I was already addicted to fiction and films, and because I was too young to be admitted to places in Chicago where jazz was played - the frustration of standing in bitter cold outside the Plugged Nickel in December of '65, unable to hear note one from Miles's band! - records were the next obvious route. I shopped the cut-out bins, having little money, with exaggerated discrimination, not knowing what I liked. Some stores let me listen selections before I bought them, and I found that Miles didn't always move me. Miles In Europe sounded thin, pinched, hurried. Miles Smiles was slick, with a woosh I couldn't really appreciate, though I liked the melodies - "Footprints", "Freedom Jazz Dance", and "Gingerbread Boy", especially.

I believe I bought Kind Of Blue as soon as I heard it. Here was poise, lyricism, delicate shadings of emotion that a sensitive kid like me was relieved to learn were shared by grown men. I'd heard the blues - on my sixteenth birthday I'd wandered into the Jazz Record Mart, operating base of Delmark Records, where for the next five years I'd hang out - but never blues like these, that sounded so profound. They mirrored my feelings - I was a blue kind of guy - yet these musicians could live with these feelings, even express them!

I learned all that record by heart, listening constantly to it, and pursued Miles's sidemen: Cannonball and Bill Evans to Know What I Mean?, Coltrane to Live At Birdland and Impressions. Impressions led me to Dolphy (and Out To Lunch), Dolphy to Mingus (Mingus Presents Mingus), Mingus somehow to pre-Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Rip, Rig & Panic). I thought only I knew about Herbie Hancock's Mayden Voyage and Empyrian Isles - great albums to make out to. Blue Notes were on sale - I picked up Monk, Ornette Coleman's trio At The Golden Circle, and Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures.

Much of this music was way over my head at first; maybe that's why I liked it. I could listen over and over, be sure there was more to this jazz than I could understand, and stimulate all my senses in the attempt. The avant garde seemed to give me one up on my contemporaries who dictated the unofficial high school dress code, excelled at athletics, and were possibly at ease. They aren't hip to this, I'd console myself, alone in my room.

I was lonely because my parents had moved to the suburbs, and I'd left my longtime friends. When I got my driver's license I'd attend concerts by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) on the University of Chicago campus, near my old home. By now I was resigned to the quality of some pop music - I liked a few things the Beatles did, grudgingly, and those weirdly distorted electric bands from San Francisco, and tough urban blues by Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. At the Record Mart, I was around musicians who spoke of drugs, politics, "freedom". I began to read down beat. Where did Miles fit in?

Well, he was a star - I realized that, though I maintained personal, private claims on his sensibility. Miles was more popular and commercially successful than other innovators I'd become interested in (one day, while reading, I'd suddenly locked into the logic of Unit Structures, which was on the turntable; up until then I'd thought it inaccessibly dense and marvelously foreboding, so this was my aural breaktrough, my revelation). Though Coltrane was deeply involved, Miles scoffed at the New Thing, and followed his muse with his own band of improvisors. Some of them were familiar to me from Blue Note lps, but Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams sounded different on Columbia, behind Miles - secondary to their leader, chained to short tracks, and their resonance compressed. I still enjoyed Miles's horn, biting or muted, but couldn't make his direction coincide with my esthetic theory. So while plunging into the energy of '60s free jazz, I set Miles aside. Until I got the chance to hear him live.

I was home from college on vacation, and he was booked into Chicago's Civic Opera House, an ornate hall with at least five balconies and the stage a city block from the last row on the main floor. Whereever my tickets were good for, I managed to sneak onto the main floor and find an empty aisle seat soon after the concert began - lots of people left. I can't date the performance by record releases, but without doubt this was the new Miles.

Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett both played keyboards, Jack DeJohnette was drumming. Dave Liebman blew soprano saxophone, half-crouched towards the rear of the stage. Dave Holland played bass. There was probably a guitarist; the stage was crowded with amplifiers, as at a rock show.

Yet Miles' sound was more deafening and confusing than anything I'd heard from Cream, the Doors, the Mothers of Invention, Jimi Hendrix, or Sly and the Family Stone. I strained to pick out something familiar - a melodic riff, a collective rhythm; whether due to the Opera House acoustics or the embryonic nature of Miles's music, I could hear only chaos. I wasn't turned off at all - I was delighted! The power from the stage washed over me, and I felt justified in my unspoken loyalty to Miles. He was as furious as Shepp, Rivers, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra about racism, the war in Viet Nam, the suppression of progress, the hypocricy of America! He, too, was an explorer, an iconoclast, a revolutionary! I bought In A Silent Way, and was secretly elated it was mellow, textured for love-making, in the groove like Kind Of Blue. I bought Bitches Brew, and was less impressed by Miles's reliance on ostinatos - anything over a repeated figure will sound coherent, I thought. But I also heard Miles live twice more - at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, and at my school. Both performances were thrills - Miles gave my ears a feast - and I was devout, once again. Miles would always be worth hearing, I decided.

Jazz-rock, per se, was not my style - rockers who improvised were mostly wimpy, and jazz men (there were few active women except Carla Bley at the time) went electric to sell out or slum. I was into Braxton, the Art Ensemble, Ornette's Friends And Neighbors - but Miles stood up to all of them, staring down rock crowds At The Fillmore, going psychodelic, Live-Evil. Folk music grew precious; Miles was raw. Rock 'n' roll went country; Miles shot into space.

Jack Johnson was bold - and John McLaughlin was phenomenal. Miles continued to feature devastating soloists whom he inspired beyond their persumed limits. I think I was running on the fire of his jet stream as I graduated into the job market, first working at a record store, then at a newspaper.

Contrary to my own momentum, though, my favorite culture petered out in the '70s, mid-decade. I had On The Corner, Miles's visionary release, percussive unlike anything else in his catalogue, anticipating both the hip-hop and rap rhythms of the future and the steady-pulse, "minimalist" composers whose return to tonality became a certified Big Thing. I'll never forget Steve Reich's reaction when I slipped On The Corner into his Blindfold Test: "Fantastic - the sleigh bells, clapping, wha-wha pedal, pots and pans and overproduction - it's a good session with Miles Davis!" I had a lover - one of the few women I've known who really liked Miles; most seem put off by his macho posturing, his increasingly shrill and slurred trumpeting, his affinity for heavy metal guitars - then she was gone. I was kind of blue again. My people were missing-in-action: where was Ornette, Cecil, the Jazz Composers Orchestra? Freedom was replaced by fusion, and Miles seemed to implode, like a sun that's burned itself out. Agharta was a roar without dynamic fluctuations, and Get Up With It was a two-fer that didn't cohere. Then Miles was quiet, too.

From the mid to late '70s, I regrouped. Got into a new relationship, and suffered its storms. Applied myself as a professional to editing a jazz magazine and writing informed criticism; to do so I had to study jazz history. There I stumbled over Miles's earlier achievements, and gained some perspective.

From Birth Of The Cool I learned that Miles had always looked further than the formulas to make music that was modern, not a day behind anyone else. Nor was he scared of arrangements - this man had Juilliard training, and would use it when it suited him. He'd grown up middle class or better, and worked well with white musicians - I discounted his anti-white statements as so much image building, though wondered at their necessity.

Listening to Miles with Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, and others, I learned he'd come up in the tradition, with a brightright and something to prove. He was accepted with little question when he first hit the scene - St. Louis, his birthplace, was a font of trumpeters - but he struggled after his own style, rather then running the top like Gillespie. And no trumpeter had developed as immediately recognizable an instrumental voice.

After throwing off heroin, Miles had started nearly from scratch to rebuild his musical reputation. Little had I realized The Beginning was a comeback album, nor had I known earlier that Kind Of Blue was the culmination of a search for ensemble balance Miles documented in 'Round Midnight, Milestones, and elsewhere. Miles luxuriated in the orchestral arrangements Gil Evans created for him - at last, romance without mush - and Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, Sketches Of Spain were all new to me. I listened to more Gil Evans. Was he the link between Hendrix and Miles?

During Miles's late '70s retirement, Columbia and I, together, caught up on music he'd made since the late '50s that the label hadn't issued; these productions were as valuable as Chronicle, his complete Prestige recordings. Big Fun is the most consistant double-disc set - in McLaughlin Miles had a collaborator with chops, imagination, and passion - though their are fine tracks on Directions and Circle In The Round which fill in gaps and clarify his steps towards the apocalyptic Japanese albums Dark Magus and Pangaea. Of course, at down beat we were always speculating about whether he'd return, and how. No one suspected that three young men - Robert Irving III, Vince Wilburn, and Randy Hall - would simply walk into our office and announce themselves as Miles's new band, with a tape to prove it.

To me, The Man With The Horn was most welcome. Miles scaled back from 40 minute onslaughts to four minute tunes, but was hardassed as ever; he made tart heads out of the merest nothing - did he have any lips left? - and got over on the radio. If reedman Bill Evans and guitarist Mike Stern were fresh recruits, Miles would whip them into shape. Stripped down to basics, he was pushing on, strong. I pulled up stakes in Chicago, and relocated - don't ask why - in Washington, D.C. Life wasn't easy, but I stayed tuned, and each of Miles's albums got better. With every performance I caught he appeared healthier, more assured, playing longer and taking more chances. Guitarist John Scofield became more than a foil for Miles; he provided pieces designed to highlight and challenge Miles's strengths, and to please the crowd without condescending to it.

By the time I moved to Manhattan, Miles was accepted again as the archetypal jazz charismatic, and with good reason: no one is so dramatic onstage. I've read Ian Carr's biography, and it doesn't do justice to the force of his scowl, or his command of both live and studio situations. Decoy strikes me as the most original, far-reaching album any instrumentalist has assembled from popular electronics and open-ended structures; richly detailed, moody, and on side two, stomping, it proves Miles can still attain previously unconquered heights. You're Under Arrest, I'll agree, is a trifle - though not a dull one. I saw Miles last spring in New Orleans (on the same bill as would-be-king Wynton Marsalis), and he was killer. So he wants to be a pop star? Why not inject some baaad jazz into commercial music? So he's left CBS for Warner Bros.? Now Miles has two record companies working for him; Columbia's got enough tapes on its shelves to last until the end of the century, I bet.

I've read the opinion that Miles is a canny trend-setter, but an uneven trumpeter - damn, I'd never denigrate his skill with his horn. His clams, substitutions, and ellipses all sound right; he can confound me, and I'll just want to hear him again. I theorize that Miles and Ornette have reached the same plane of absolute freedom to create and catalyze surging group improvisations, reached it by traveling diametrically opposed roads. A few weeks ago I saw Miles play to a packed pier on the Hudson, and he caused the disparate elements of a newly constituted band - relaxed, blues tenor saxist Bob Berg, maniacally fast guitarist Stern, and an untested rhythm section - to bond. But once I asked Miles, via a phone line from Chicago to Columbia's offices in New York, then relayed to his Los Angeles home, "What will you be remembered for?" and he responded in his unmistakable harsh whisper, "My sound." He wasn't modest, or wrong.

And once I touched Miles - after the Black Music Association held an evening-long "Tribute To An American Legend" in Radio City Music Hall, with jazz players and pop stars performing Miles-related material. There was a reception that started well past midnight in a lavishly appointed midtown nightclub, for about 300 with-it well-wishers. Miles entered regally, walking steady with a cane and his wife, actress Cicely Tyson, on his arm. I reached forth and tugged his sleev gently. He looked me straight in the eye.

"It's been a pleasure," I mumbled.

His gaze widened. He smiled, faintly, collecting his due. I grinned, and Miles nodded, benignly.


maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: October 6, 2001