Miles Speaks: "I don't wanna be like I used to be."

by Pawel Brodowski & Janusz Szprot
JAZZ FORUM 85th International Edition, October 23, 1983, pp36-39

Read Tomasz Szachowski's concert review.

We had just finished a two-hour interview with Jan Garbarek and were about to leave the Hotel Victoria for the afternoon concert, when we stumbled across Bo Johnson, the Swedish promoter responsible for bringing Miles Davis and other Jazz Jamboree headliners to Poland.

"What about Miles?" Bo queries. "Why don't you interview Miles? They say he feels fine. There's a chance that he might give you an interview this afternoon."

Interview Miles? The thought had not even crossed our minds. We are totally surprised, unprepared for such an adventure. But after a moment's hesitation, we jump into a car and return in less than an hour with a copy of "Star People" and a recent issue of JAZZ FORUM with Miles on the cover. We wait in the lobby for the signal, full of apprehension. After all, it's not every day that you get a chance to talk to a living legend of jazz.

Miles had arrived in Warsaw the day before, without his wife Cecily Tyson, but with an entourage that included six musicians, a three-man acoustics team, his manager Robert Blank and cousin Vincent Wilburn, a drummer from Chicago who serves as a bogyguard and right-hand man. At the airport, Miles exited through the V.I.P. lounge, where customs officers greeted him with smiles and "We Want Miles" badges in their lapels. A Russian-make Chaika limousine, hired from the government security office, was waiting outside to whisk Miles off to his hotel ahead of the crowd of foreign journalists and American TV crews. At the Victoria, Warsaw's most luxurious hotel, Miles was shown to his spacious suite with two bedrooms, living room, bathroom and kitchen.

After settling in, Miles spent all the next day indoors, alone, seeing hardly anyone outside his entourage. When Vince Wilburn told him that Jack DeJohnette was staying in the same hotel, Miles reportedly snapped back, "Vince, if you happen to meet Jack and he wants to see me, tell the motherfucker that I'm asleep." In the basement the hotel staff had refilled the swimming pool with fresh water -- one of the many requirements in his contract was tthat a swimming pool be available at all times -- but Miles was not seen taking his customary swim. He spent most of his time sketching and drawing.

Our wait in the lobby finally ends when Robert Blank appears and says that Miles is ready to see us. We take the elevator to the sixth floor and wait again outside Room 619. Vince takes the copy of JAZZ FORUM and disappears behind the door. The minutes pass with all kinds of thoughts troubling our minds. We don't know whether Miles will see us. After all, he is notorious for his hostile attitude towards jazz critics and seldom gives interviews. At any moment, we are afraid that we might be kicked out the door as "white motherfuckers."

"It must be quite an experience to see Miles face to face," one of us says. "You haven't been in yet," Blank reminds us, adding with his shrewd voice, "And don't you forget, you've only got ten minutes. Of course, if Miles wants to go on, you may go on. But mind you, ten means ten. No more."

Suddenly the door swings open, we take a deep breath and enter. There's no one in sight.We look around with uncertainty. A huge, spacious room, a leather sofa and table on one side, a large desk covered with loose paper sheets on the other. Suddenly, Miles appears. "Introduce yourselves, guys." Blank commands. We stand to attention and recite like schoolboys: "My name is Pawel Brodowski, I'm the editor of JAZZ FORUM." "I'm Janusz Szprot, musician."

Miles motions us to come closer. We approach his desk, present our business cards, and he greets us with a handshake. We take our seats and switch on our Walkman. The conversation begins.

Miles is dressed in grey -- a soft cap covering his balding head, loose shirt, baggy trousers, dark sunglasses with a white frame and a big golden talisman on his bare chest.

He starts drawing. Throughout the conversation he keeps sketching his favorite figures -- profiles, faces, eyes, women in motion resembling African ritual dancers. His lines are sharp and precise, the colors mostly bright. At one point, he interrupts the conversation in the middle of a sentence to show us a newspaper clipping with a photo of a Victorian girl on the banks of the Thames. "Do you like that? Cute? See, see? Look at this," he says expecting us to share his fascination with the drawing.

Every now and then he takes a sip of mineral water -- not Perrier as stipulated in the contract -- but the Polish "Mazowszanka," which he seems to enjoy just as much. Suddenly he makes an energetic gesture and overturns the glass. The water spills over a drawing. "Damn," he mutters. "May I have some more water?" Within seconds, a fresh bottle is supplied by Blank, who keeps hovering in the background.

Miles' voice is gravelly and rasping; he speaks in a half-whisper. Almost every other sentence ends with the intimidating tag "You know what I mean?" His eyes penetrate us through and through. It is less an interview than a royal audience.

We deferentially pass him the cover of "Star People" asking for an autograph. Miles picks up one of his markers and scribbles slowly: "To Pawel MILES good luck." The ink spreads. "Goddamm," he screeches. "Do you think it will stay? It will stay." And after a while, he urges us impatiently, "Go ahead! Ask me some questions. You're not bothering me." And he returns to his drawing as if he were all alone.

JAZZ FORUM: Your lineup on this tour differs a little from that featured on "Star People." Guitarist Mike Stern is out and keyboard player Robert Irving III is in. Darryl Jones has replaced Tom Barney on bass. Why the new changes?

Miles Davis: Well, I need a bass player with some weight and some kind of style. You know what I mean? The style that I want my music to sound. Darryl fits where I want. He's also one of the greatest bass players I've ever heard in my life. He has that same approach that Jimmy Blanton used to have with the Duke. Remember? Earlier? He has that same approach to music.

JF: Only Blanton played on acoustic bass while Darryl uses an electric bass...

Miles: It doesn't matter. There's no difference, you know. The difference is that he suits what I wanna do. Electric or acoustic, I like what he's doing. He has the right sound that I like, because of what I'm playing. Go ahead!

JF: In a piece that Mike Zwerin wrote...

Miles: Oh, Mike? I know Mike, he's a good friend of mine. Do you have that article that he wrote about me? May I take a look at it?

JF: Yeah. Here it is. [handling Miles a copy of JAZZ FORUM]

Miles: It's in English? No shit! Can I have it?

JF: Of course. What Mike wrote is that when Tom Barney approached you for advice on which standards he should learn, you told him to listen to Michael Jackson's songs instead.

Miles: I didn't say that. Standards, standards, what standards? What do you mean by standards? Oh. what I might have said... It isn't that way. You've taken it in the wrong context. If he wants to learn how to swing or keep time, he has to listen to today's music -- not music that we used to do years ago. Things move on, you know what I mean? We don't wear the same clothes, we don't think the same way. People are using synthesizers. You know, it's a whole different sound. I didn't say that, but I mean I should have. You know, then I would have to let him go.

JF: What kind of music do you listen to besides your own?

Miles: Stockhausen. You know, jazz music, music that they call jazz -- I don't like the term -- I mean, what's there to listen to? Nothing? I'd really rather listen to Stockhausen, you know. Because there's nothing happening in jazz now. Jazz music is... You have to multiply jazz music. I'm saying "jazz," because you can understand what I'm saying when I say "jazz," right? Because it's a black word that means Negro in the white man's eyes. You know what I mean? You can't just rely on the clichés that you've heard for the last hundred years, fifty years, twenty years. You have to start from right now, whatever you started listening to. Because it's too easy to listen to clichés and play. You can always do that. If you steal off a record -- one record will tell... If you copy one record, you're in. You know what I'm saying? Instead of copying, you have to use your head. Not to be the best, but join forces with each other.

JF: Leonard Feather in his liner notes to "Star People" observes that the blues is now the most conspicuous element in your music. This seems a rather strange remark, because the blues has always been present in your music.

Miles: You see, if I was a white critic in the U.S.A. I would say "blues" instead of "jazz." You know what I mean? Both of them are... I don't know where the word comes from, but I would say that, because blues is a sound, you know, more so than jazz. You see, blues is a sound and a sort of an attitude in music which carries over into another tempo, you know what I mean? A middle tempo and a high tempo. But it's all blues. I would say "blues" instead of "jazz." I don't know what Leonard Feather says. He has me born on the wrong date. [laughs] I was born on May 26th, not May 25th. But he's all right, he's trying. He really does his own work, though. Leonard is very good.

JF: When Leonard Feather wrote critically about one of your concerts, JAZZ FORUM received a letter from Max Roach defending you as an artist...

Miles: Max is fine. Max is like my brother and anything that anybody would say about me, Max is going to challenge them to fight or anything. Max declares war on them. Poor Leonard.

JF: Could you explain in what way Gil Evans contributed to "Star People," because it's not too clear.

Miles: You know you can hear this. Gil? He writes things down for me, you know, when I'm in a hurry, what I want to remember and don't have time to. You know what I'm saying? A lot of times I can't write something down, because there's something else in my head. So I'll tell him to do it -- how to do it and where to do it. That's where he comes in. And if I wanna know if I should put this patch of music here or there -- he'll tell me. You know, we'll combine heads and figure it out.

JF: At one point a few years ago there was talk of you and Gil reuniting for a new record project. Yet somehow this never happened.

Miles: It will happen, maybe next spring. You have to pick a time.

JF: Are you planning a big orchestral work like, say, "Sketches of Spain" or "Miles Ahead"?

Miles: I don't know. Whatever we think of. You know it'll be out, whatever we'll think of doing. We'll be in the next month, 'cause he's working on something now. I talked to him just before I left.

JF: Musicians consider you a master at creating space. How do you understand the role of space in your music?

Miles: Well, when you are with someone to do something, you must like something they do, right? Very well. You know, if you find out a girlfriend that pleases you, you have to leave space for her to please you. You can't just be all over, you know what I mean? It has to be joined somewhere -- a litle space to trigger you on. Right. [laughs] That's what music does. If you hire these musicians, you know what you hire them for. I know Darryl is going to give me a strong background on bass. I know Al Foster is going to give me a very strong background on drums. And I know when I'll play the piano or the synthesizer that is going to sound with the orchestration and not just by myself. And I know how it's gonna sound combined together, with a little space here and there. You write certain parts and then you space certain parts, you know what I mean? You want to hear in between, a little air or something. Then you know how to react toward it, you know what I mean? Music is just a memory, anyway. You have a memory bank up here [pointing to his forehead], right? When you where first born, whatever your mother says or did, or you might have that music thing transferred to you in your genes. And you're coming up, when you get about 17 or 18, 16 or seven years old, six years old, your memory bank starts working. Then when you have a horn or any kind of instrument for that outlet, you know, when you're playing after you've been to different clubs hearing different music, looking at girls, hearing that noise out there, you just have to put out with it. So when you leave that space, it has to come out. You see what I'm saying? I'm not losing you, am I? I don't expect you to know what I'm saying, you know what I mean? But you do know what I'm saying. You'll have to read it over.

JF: When you're recording in a studio, do you often put together one track out of bits and pieces from different takes?

Miles: Yeah. You have to pick out what fits. It's like a puzzle, you know that. Music is like that. It's like a memory in a puzzle. That's when you use the drum machine. 'Cause the drum machine is always on. And you can take one patch and put in another patch, as far as rhythm is concerned. Nobody can keep perfect time.

JF: Nobody? Not even Al Foster?

Miles: Nobody, not anyone. Me, I can keep perfect time... No, nobody. Not by themselves, you know... If you're gonna change the time and you have ten musicians, you either have to cut it in half or 16th or 8th or 32nd. But it's even, you know what I mean? It has to be even. It might be a patch like this, but it has to fit. If it has to be three parts, then it must be three even parts. So when the time changes, it can't be 98, it has to be like 98 or 96 or 94 or 92. It has to be an even half for it to sound any good.

JF: When you're composing, do you start out from a melody, a bass line or maybe a rhythmic pattern?

Miles: I don't know. A lot of times it is impossible to tell how you start. Maybe you start with a sound. Mostly with a sound, I guess. [Impatiently] You aks me questions that I don't know what the answers are.

Manager Robert Blank intervenes from behind: It's five o'clock. Time to get ready for the concert.

Miles: All right.

Blank: It's been twenty minutes.

Miles: Twenty minutes? Damn! I'm getting better. But maybe this is the end?

Blank: Okay.

JF [trying to keep the conversation going]: Wynton Marsalis opened the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw and now it's your turn to close it.

Miles: Who?

JF: A gentleman by the name of Wynton Marsalis.

Miles: Oh, Wynton, Wynton.

JF: Wynton recently criticized you in the press for not playing jazz, not playing what you used to do.

Miles: I'm certainly glad.

JF: Are you angry with his remarks?

Miles: No! But I didn't know he said that. As a matter of fact, his brother [Branford] is on my next album. Dizzy called me up and he said Wynton thought I was mad at him. I said, "Why?" And Dizzy said, "He said something in a magazine. But he's nice. He's afraid you wouldn't like him." And Dizzy told him, "Miles doesn't think like that," which is true. So when [producer] George Butler called me up with the same thing, I said, "It doesn't matter what he said of me, 'cause I didn't read it and I know how he thinks. He's a nice person." But it was probably some interviewer that aroused him, you know what I mean, and pressured for a statement or something. But he doesn't think like that.

JF: Maybe Wynton said that on purpose to get himself extra publicity, so people would have something to talk about?

Miles: I don't think many people care what musicians have to say, but writers.

JF: But people do care about what you say, what you do, and most of all what you play.

Miles: Do they? Well, my main thing is to create and not to compare. You understand that? I don't wanna be like I used to be years ago, you know what I mean? I hope I've advanced through all the years in the sound and composition. Stravinsky never wrote anything the same way.

JF: So you don't want to look back anymore...

Miles: My mind will look back, if I wanna go back, you know what I mean? But at this rate, there's not enough room in there [pointing to his forehead] to go back and put everything that I know today. Do you know what I mean? I can't go back that far.

Blank: Okay!

JF: Thank you very much for the interview.

We leave the salon of the Black Prince and return to reality. We pop into the hotel bar and order two cognacs. Within an hour we are back in the Congress Hall for the Great Concert.

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: August 11, 2001