Miles Davis

Shining a Light on The Prince of Darkness

by Ken Franckling for JazzTimes, August 1986, pgs 14-16

Miles Davis can't sit still. He never has musically, and he doesn't while unwinding in his plush Manhattan apartment after four concepts in three nights in Washington and New York.

The well-tended Prince of Darkness persona is gone this way, and the trumpeter is talkative as the afternoon sun streams through his balcony window overlooking Central Park. From his million dollar lips come anecdotes, opinions laced with bitterness, reminiscences about boyhood in East St. Louis, Ill., and his early days in Jazz.

But his restless energy is always evident. Davis jumps up often from the sofa. Once, to make a quick phone call. Then, to put on a cassette from his next album. Several times, to take a swig of Evian, his favorite spring water. And back to the telephone again.

The need to move, change and grow is a force that powers Davis's musical explorations, his new-found dabbling in acting that landed him a role in one "Miami Vice" episode last fall. It compels him to sketch and draw almost constantly, to design clothes for himself and his wife, actress Cicely Tyson, whom he married in 1991.

And, five years after he emerged from his last "retirement", Davis is in good health. He credits Tyson for his positive outlook. He attributes his new-found fitness to swimming, acupuncture and lamb serum injections he got at a Swiss rejuvenation clinic last fall.

There is a dark side to the Davis story -- one of bitterness, of unsavory happenings peppered through his career, including 1950s heroin addiction and occasional run-ins with the law -- that clashes with the beauty of his music. Shyness and arrogance add to the mystique of a man who rarely smiles, never announces his songs, and who used to walk off the stage after each solo.

While some would call him a survivor, Davis, who turned 60 on May 26, remains a musical innovator who today is bringing new textures and layers into his fusion of electronic jazz and rock that show more than just traces of the "old Miles" sound that existed before his bands began plugging their instruments into the wall.

Yes, he still plays jazz but shuns the term. He has a distaste for musical categories and, in particular, feels 'jazz' is a white man's word for what began as black man's music.

"I don't call it anything. I don't know what to call it. I'm tired of 'jazz'. If they want to call it 'popular music' -- OK. In the old days, they would call it funky, but nobody would buy it. If they're going to call it and stay there and help promote it, that's another thing. I don't like labels, but if they do it so you can find it, great. But jazz, they just pass it by."

The voice is a hoarse whisper, as individual to Davis as the throatiness of his trumpet tone.

"In pop music, they treat people like they're God. But the people who sell music don't sell me -- 'I'm a legend'," Davis says.

It is respect that Davis seeks, not labels that put his ever-changing music into neat little boxes.

That is one reason, he says, that he left Columbia Records last year after a rare 29-year relationship that yielded 44 albums -- an amazing output given his myriad health problems and long periods of inactivity.

"Twenty-nine years? Is it that long?" Davis rasped. "Don't I get a pension or something?"

George Butler, Columbia vice president for artists and repertoire, feels Miles just wanted "a change of scenery. It was nothing personal. He wanted to get away and may be do something other than jazz."

"No one had done as much for an artist as we had for Miles," Butler said. "This is comparing him to what would be done for rock-oriented artists, in terms of the big press parties, promotional campaigns and the like."

Davis sees things differently. He said he moved to the pop-oriented pastures of Warner Brothers because Columbia "made me feel like I'm a tax loss."

"George would call me up and say he wanted me to call Wynton in St. Louis and say 'Happy Birthday'. I couldn't believe it. I got tired of them putting me against Wynton. I didn't get into music for any competition. If I wanted competition, I would have become an athlete."

"I told George: 'I know what I've done for music, but don't call me 'a legend'. I make the records, and you sell them."

"Respect is what a man wants, not money. I told them they could double the offer and I'm still not changing my mind."

The 'legend' comment was too rich to pass up, so I threw it right back at Miles, asking if he felt like a legend?

"How does a legend feel? I don't know what the fuck they're talking about," Davis said.

"What do you want to be called?"

He rasped: "Miles Davis."

Miles Dewey Davis III, son of an affluent dentist, was born in Alton, Ill., on May 26, 1926. His family moved to East St. Louis, Ill., when he was a year old.

His father gave Miles a trumpet on his 13th birthday. The teenager learned to play the horn after a few lessons and found a place in his high school band. There, he built up his trumpet technique and a bitter resentment toward bigotry. The latter stems from the knowledge that he was the best trumpeter, but all the prizes "went to the boys with the blue eyes."

Even today, Davis' music remains rooted in the blues and the distinctive, lyrical St. Louis trumpet sound he assimilated from Clark Terry, Eddie Randall, Prez Robert and Harold Baker.

"My base is St. Louis. That's the town for trumpet players, with the river boats coming up from New Orleans. In my town, all those trumpet players would help you. I lived across the river and could hear it from there. When I was 14 or 15, Clark Terry would ask my father if we could jam. We'd go out and jam all night. When the clubs closed, the other musicians would come to hear us, and play with us."

Davis soon found local jobs playing in bands led by Billy Eckstine and Benny Carter and sharing solos with the late great saxophonist Charlie Parker. After graduating from high school in 1945, Davis entered the prestigious Juillard School of Music in New York, but spent most of his time seeking out and playing with Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Manhattan's famed jazz avenue, 52nd Street.

Davis quickly matured as a composer and musician, and by the late '40s, was regarded as their equal. He developed a style of underplaying that became his trademark -- the notions that blending sound and silence create a teasing, tension-building music, and that what you don't play is just as important as what you do.

But music wasn't the only thing that hooked Davis in the sometimes rough-and-tumble New York underbelly.

"I didn't intend to get a habit. I was doing the shit because it was supposed to be fun. I didn't know it was going to be like that," Davis said. "Gene Ammons and I started. We were working together and when the work was over, I got sick. I thought I had a cold. I told a guy on the streets and he said, 'Man, that ain't no cold. You got a habit.' It took me three years to break it, too."

Davis realized just how sick he was one night in 1953 when a close friend, drummer Max Roach, slipped $100 into his pocket after a gig in California. The money took him home to his father's farm outside East St. Louis.

For 12 days he lay in bed in a cold sweat that he described as "a bad case of flue, only worse." Before it was over, Davis told Ebony magazine, "my pores opened up and I smelled like chicken soup."

"It takes forever to kick it," he says. "It lasts until it goes out of your head. It will leave though. Now, I don't even know how it feels."

With heroin no longer sapping his strength, Davis in 1954 went into the first of his major creative periods. Within a year, he won his first critics' poll for trumpet playing, and made a 1955 Newport Jazz Festival appearance with his first influential quintet that included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and saxophonist John Coltrane.

He made a dozen albums for Prestige, a couple more for the Blue Note label, then signed a deal with Columbia that soon produced some of his finest albums, including "Sketches of Spain", "Miles Ahead", and "Kind of Blue".

Davis had become a true jazz innovator, taking the music in directions that later became distinct styles -- the light and lyrical "cool jazz" of the mid-'50s, the influential modal playing of the late '50s in which compositions were based on scales rather than repeated chord structures, the driving sound of "hard bop" in the '60s, and his melding of jazz and electronic rock in the '70s in the definitive fusion album "Bitches Brew".

Creative peaks were offset by valleys of ill health. Davis cracked up his Lamborghini in New York on Oct. 21, 1972, breaking both ankles. He was hospitalized for eight weeks, and the plaster casts put great strain on a hip joint that was deteriorated by sickle cell anemia. His hips were so brittle that he needed two joint replacement operations that sidelined him from 1975-81 and gave him a dependence on pain-killers.

Through the years, Davis surrounded himself with the best young talent he could find. Coltrane and Garland were soon followed by saxophonist Hank Mobley and pianist Bill Evans. In the 1960s, he recruited Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett and Joe Zawinul in a shifting lineup that gave rise to the fusion movement. It also turned out musicians who soon became leaders in their own right.

"You teach, and it comes right back to you," Davis says. "I'd show Herbie something, or Wayne, and they'd take it further. It's like putting a crease in your pants, only somebody else continues with the iron."

It is a legacy that dates to the late 1940s, when Davis was the protege.

"When I first came to New York, I was like Dizzy's little brother. He carried me around from club to club. I'd say, 'Diz, what's this chord?' and he'd say 'Go to the piano and find out for yourself.' This was in the '40s and he told me that."

Now, Davis and his youth movement are taking fusion one step further. He is using his expanded band to create an orchestral layering to his sound through the exotic polyrhythms from one drummer and two percussionists, and the near-limitless sound options he can draw from three sets of synthesizers.

Davis has two new albums in the works and, as has happened every five years or so throughout his career, he is forging a new sound. This time, it is with the first nine-member band assembled since his "Birth of the Cool" period in 1949 and 1950.

The band includes saxophonist Bob Berg, guitarist Robben Ford, percussionists Steve Thornton and Marilyn Mazur, drummer Vincent Wilburn Jr., bassist Felton Crews, and Adam Holzman and Robert Irving III on synthesizers.

"I have a sound -- my sound. When I hire musicians, it's for different things. Like Robben, he's funky. Robben doesn't play any bullshit. He'll pick his spot. Robben plays the blues real well. Bob [Berg] can play 'em too. Marilyn, she has the fastest hands of any drummer in the world. Vincent, my nephew, never drops the beat. I hired Adam because he programs, patches so good, like strings and voices. We have all that in our arrangements."

"Marilyn is the first woman in my band, but not the first woman I've played with," Davis says. "She's a good musician. She plays drums, piano, writes all of the arrangements. Marilyn says she gets a heroe's welcome when she goes to Copenhagen."

[Mazur's membership in the band this year was short-lived. By June, she was gone. Her failure to move to the United States was costing too much in travel expenses, Davis' managers explained.]

Backstage at the Beacon Theater, where he shares the billing with blues guitarist B.B. King, Davis warms up in a barren fourth floor dressing room. A Harmon mute is on his red trumpet, and he runs the scale several times with a series of soft, bright notes.

Earlier in the day, Davis had listened to tapes of the previous night's two concerts. One by one, he calls in his musicians to discuss what he intends to play, and what he liked -- or disliked -- in their previous gigs.

He tells Berg to not drive so hard on one number. "Just lay out a bit." Davis coaches. If you lay out, you're gonna hear something."

"He's taught me a lot," Berg explains later. "Just being around and hearing him play, seeing his concept about music and what not to play, about phrasing."

"Miles really has an idea of a direction he wants to go in. He's formulating that now. It's still evolving toward more orchestration, a focus on the group in terms of playing whole songs."

Davis leads his eight colleagues on stage, opens his set with a funky new tune, he then shifts into a new blues he calls "Tutu". From funk to ballad back to funk, the music doesn't stop for one hour and 20 minutes.

Davis not only faces the audience for part of each tune, but take some of his solos at the front of the stage, hunched over in deep concentration. Each time one of his band members registers an impressive solo, Davis brings them down front for applause.

He paces the stage, restless as usual, as if he's looking for something.

"If I play the notes, the high notes, and I don't hear it, I'll move over there. But if I hit it over here, and when I'm ready to get it again, I hope I'm over that way to do it again. If I'm playing low notes, like a B flat, or a low G, if it comes back, I'll remember where it came out. Sometimes I don't get over there fast enough and you'll hear 'PFOOF' because the horn goes with the speakers and fucks up."

"A lot of people don't know that in order to be in unison, you have to be out of tune. There is a certain time on the horn, when I'm playing with a mute when to notes come out. My horn doea that some times. Coltrane could do that. I can only do it when I'm playing certain passages. And all of a sudden, the spit and vibrato causes two notes. It's a fuzzy sort of a sound that happens when you hum and are playing."

Davis duels side-by-side with Crews, trumpet matching the throbbing electric bass lines, then with Berg's soprano sax, and the blazing guitar of the band's newest member, Robben Ford. ["I had to let go off Mike Stern, because he wasn't concentrating," Davis explains later.]

There are wonderful snippets of the "old" Miles sound. His horn is as sparse and lyrical as ever, it's just the background that has changed.

There is even an echo from the past that he is preparing for his debut album with Warner Brothers. A flamenco-tinged composition called "Portia" with Spanish scales and fine, albeit electronic, orchestration is certain to bring comparisons to his "Sketches of Spain" album of 1960, a collaboration with composer-arranger Gil Evans.

"When I hear flamenco music, it goes right here," he says, putting his fist to his heart. "When I like something, I play it. Years ago, I liked to go see Jose Greco, Antonio Molina. I love that music. Flamenco music is the blues -- only in Spanish."

The way Davis boils a ballad down to its melodic essence still draws the biggest crowd reaction night after night. But "My Funny Valentine" and "Green Dolphin Street" of the '50s have been replaced by the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time".

Davis is in a playful mood this night, extending "Human Nature" by several choruses so he can add melodic quotes from "A Tisket, A Tasket" and "London Birdge is Falling Down".

His new direction, swirling orchestral lines and exotic rhythms, are most evident on what he's doing these days with the blues, the deeply rooted black music that gave birth to jazz.

These days, Davis is, as Boston reviewer Craig Harris heard it, "using tone and imaginative phrasing to recondition the blues for the space age. While the simplicity of the 12-bar blues is preserved, it is enhanced by a swinging infinity of new colors, lines and lyrically percussive phrasing. The focus is on how much emotional energy could be compressed, expressed and released."

When asked about it, Davis smiles and nods.

"There are voices in there you can hear," he rasps. "All of a sudden you hear a sound, but you don't know where it starts."

Davis is not only reaching out to pop audiences averaging half his age, but perhaps can force some of them to really hear the music.

"It will teach younger kids to appreciate music -- because now, they don't know what they're listening to," says Crews, who made his recording debut on Davis' "The Man With The Horn" comeback album in 1981.

"It's gonna be a breakthrough where jazz won't be shunned by younger people. It's opening the door for a lot more musicians to step out. It's a new direction, like bebop was. It's going to be more commercial," Crews said. "What we can do with the music is start a new thing. We're incorporating all the pop elements. It's going to be good. By 1989, by the time everybody sees how hip it is -- he'll be on to something else."

The pop elements Davis is working with these days include rock star Prince, who wrote and performed one cut on Davis' next album. The song is called "Can I Play With You?"

"Prince sent me two tapes. He wrote me a letter that said: 'We think alike. I know how you feel, I know what you're doing, and these tapes you can put on with or without the vocal.' He could have released this himself. He wrote some nice parts for the band. People don't know how good he can play. He plays drums, guitar, piano."

"So he sent me the tapes. I called him back, I sent him what I took out, what I put in. He loved it. So he sent it back and put some more words on the end of it."

"Prince and I relate to each other because of what we go through," Davis says.

What We Go Through could be a running theme for Davis. He took off on an extended monologue on the subject when asked why his final Columbia album was called, "You're Under Arrest", the title tune being a rap-style parody with whistles and the sharp click of locking handcuffs.

"Because the police always fuck with me. Because I drive a Ferrari and my lifestyle is something they think a black man shouldn't do. So once a month, it's 'You're under arrest' or 'Shut up' or 'What are you doing with this car?' or 'You have a New York licence. Why don't you have a California licence?' Because then I'd have two," Davis said. "I get tired of that. They do it all of the time."

"I was going to the studio to make a record and driving my black Ferrari. I say, 'What do you want?' He was right in my face with that hat and badge and funny uniform asking about my New York licence. He made me forget about my music. I'm suing him because I might have made a good record or song or composition in that time. He didn't like my color, my car, my licence plate. I paid a million, million and a half, for my house, and I get treatment like this," Davis said.

At home again, he sits relaxed on the sofa, playing his muted horn, embellishing the melody of a funky pop tune blaring from the radio.

Who's been the biggest single influence on your life?

"I don't know. I have a lot of people that influence me. Some of them I can't talk about, and some of them I can't remember."


"It was always Gil Evans, the musician for me. I love the way he thinks about music. You can feel free to make things out of half-tones and quarter-tones. Architects and illustrators influence me."

What will you be doing five or 10 years from now?

"I'll be in music. That's my whole life. I wake up with music, I go to sleep with music. It is always in my head and is has been since I was six years old"

"When you perform or write music, it is a collage of cliches. You can't write a new phrase. All you can do, is your mind sorts out phrases that you like. When you write or compose phrase and rhythms, your head sorts that shit out like a computer and you lean toward different things. Women lean toward higher sounds because their voices reflect that. My voice is like an alto voice. When I first picked up the trumpet, I loved the way the cornet sounded, so I played the cornet for a long time. I love the middle register. When you get all set for these sounds, the mind sets itself up for these other rhythms and polyrhythms."

What drew you toward music as a kid?

"I started collecting records, the guys who would come to get them off the jukebox would sell them for a nickel, a dime. So I'd collect records that I liked. That's how you start with music. You have a horn, you try to play what you hear on the record. We tried to copy the Benny Goodman Quartet, Teddy Wilson. The only records in my house were ones my mother bought -- Art Tatum and Duke Ellington. It keeps on going."

Why did you leave Juillard so soon?

"If I played a C minor 9th chord, everybody would say, 'What's that?' so I stopped going. But I couldn't tell my father. I'm lying low on the outside, ducking phone calls. I couldn't tell him on the phone. I had to hop a train to tell him what was happening on 52nd Street. I said, 'They're doing something. They play like Clark Terry,' and like that. He said, 'Well, okay, as long as you know what you're doing.' I went back to New York and that was it."

Watching Miles sit here at home, weaving his horn through the sound wafting from the radio, embellishing and playing along, brought to mind the old jam sessions he has not been a part of for so long.

Don't you ever get the urge, say if Clark Terry is in town for a week at the Blue Note or Village Vanguard, to just pick up your horn and go blow with him?

"I don't get that urge. I used to. Horn players are doing the same thing. I like to hear different passages that I like and remember from St. Louis," Davis says. I don't like the same things. Clark likes what he plays, the same goes with Dizzy. I love to hear them play but I don't go down to listen to them or want to play with them. I don't want to be in the way. I don't want to be upstaging them. They're still both my idols."

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: August 1, 2001