by Sy Johnson for Jazz Magazine, issued Fall 1976, p20-27
reprinted with kind permission of the author
In the summer of 1974, I was jazz editor of Changes, a tabloid of arts and letters edited by Susan Graham, manager and friend of Charles Mingus. I wanted to get a quote from Miles Davis for a jazz issue we were assembling, and when I called Neil Reshen's publicity office for access to Miles, an arrogant and angry male voice said, "How many times do I have to tell you - Miles Davis is not a jazz artist. Miles Davis makes his own music. Miles Davis will have nothing to do with a jazz issue of anything. I don't ever want you to bother me again." Bang!!
Then, Bob Hurwitz, at that time with CBS publicity, called to say that Miles was seeing people and he could arrange an interview for the following week. I thought about it for a day and called to say okay, with reservations. If we could find something to talk about, then I would write a piece.
I had known Miles slightly in Los Angeles when he came out to the coast for the first time with Coltrane, Philly Joe, Paul Chambers, and Red Garland. I caught every night of a two-week engagement the band played at Jazz City, and I shot pictures by available light with my Leica whenever I could get close to the bandstand. That in itself was unheard of in the fifties, and when I made some prints, Philly Joe undertook to sell them to the customers.
When the band returned from two weeks in San Francisco, Miles sat down at my table late one night and began to talk about the Leica he got in Germany and how much he liked it. He said he had the clerk set the shutter speed and aperture at the store when he bought the camera and hadn't changed them since. I can't remember saying anything except to ask him what model Leica he had, which he didn't know. I was tongue-tied by the solemnity of the occasion.
From then on he would motion me into the kitchen of Jazz City with a nod, usually on the first intermission, when the club was crowded with people who wanted to talk with him. He'd stand with his back to the kitchen door, talking about his Mercedes, other players, women, and pointedly ignoring musicians and fans who wanted to say hello. They would wait patiently or try to say something over his shoulder, and finally drift away. I remember Benny Carter in line once and murderous glances at me from some of the younger black players.
When I came to New York in 1960, I saw Miles a lot at the Village Vanguard and one night took pictures from on the bandstand. When Miles saw the prints, he said, "I don't wantcha takin' no more pitcha's, ya hear," and walked away. He never said anything else, but he did frequently leave his trumpet on my table while he wandered around the club during solos by the rest of the band, and stub his cigarettes out in the ashtray. I always wondered if he remembered me from Los Angeles. When I agreed to the interview, I thought that at least I would find out.
I called Miles's producer, Teo Macero, and Teo said that Miles was recording the morning of the interview and that I should stop in for the last half hour when the likelihood of making Miles nervous was minimal. The control room was full of thick Spanish funeral music and solemn men filling out W-4 forms when I arrived. Teo whispered that this was Miles's tribute to Duke Ellington.
"He Loved Him Madly," he said, waving his hand at the speaker.
Miles came out of the studio wearing a big jaunty hat, looking pinched and tired beneath it. He leaned against the console for a few minutes, lost in the music. Then, smiling wanly and touching a few hands, he slipped out of the door.
I listened to the playback until it finished and was surprised to hear a warm strong statement from Miles emitting from the studio speakers. The band sounded sure of itself on the slow, treacly tempo. I was sorry I hadn't seen them record it.
My appointment with Miles was at Neil Reshen's office after lunch. When I arrived there, growing steadily more apprehensive, the receptionist told me that Miles was waiting for me at home and handed me a slip with the address. Michael Henderson and Al Foster from Miles's band were sitting in the tiny reception area, and I said to Al, "I'm off to see the master."
I took the IRT to 79th Street and walked to Miles's corner. I could see him leaning on the wall in front of his house drinking a beer. He seemed relaxed and very much master of his own turf. I was sure Miles would remember me, but when I introduced myself, he gave me a disgusted look and said, "Might as well get it over with." I could see in my mind's eye the photograph I could make of Miles with beer and hat in front of the bas-relief carving on the front of his house, but he was inside the dark doorway before I could ask him.
There was a short hallway with another door on the right. I looked into it just in time to see Miles grab a black man just inside the room.
"I want you outside this door, motherfucker," he said. "You don't come inside unless I invite you inside." The man scrambled past me out the door, and I stepped into a cool, dark room. A pretty girl was threading tape onto a tape deck.
I noticed that the room had an elaborate circular structure built into it, giving a circle-in-a-cube motif that repeated throughout the house. The back room had a huge wooden table and glass doors leading out to a sunny garden.
Miles said something to the girl and, after a short conference that seemed about the garden, decided to go upstairs. He led me to another dark room with a circular upholstered seat built around the wall and a built-in piano overlooking the space. Poll-winner plaques hung on the walls.
Miles motioned to me to sit behind a long coffee table that had a heavy wooden cube with a three-foot, wire mobile on it. As I started to unpack my Sony, he stood on the other side of his huge table and began to adjust the mobile, moving a piece of it slightly, stepping back for a better perspective, stopping the movement at arm's length, moving in, taking a piece off, putting it back.
I thought he would sit down when he got it right, and when I finally could see that he had no intention of stopping, the house was suddenly flooded with music from downstairs. I recognized it from the morning session. It was loud enough to hear in New Jersey.
I thought, "I'll never hear a goddamned word he says. Should I ask him to have it turned off?" I could see the whole afternoon going down the drain, and I didn't know what to do about it.
Miles's lips moved. I shook my head, pointed to my ears. His mouth moved again. It looked like he said, "Ask me some questions so I can tell you some lies."
I shouted, "I can't talk with you standing over there."
He said, "Why should I have to sit down to talk to you? You're supposed to ask me questions so I can answer them."
He still hadn't taken his eyes off the mobile. Neither of us said anything. The music was suffocating, broken only by an occasional clank as he moved the pieces.
I swallowed hard and said, "Teo said this piece was dedicated to Duke Ellington."
"When did Teo say that?"
"This morning, after the session."
"I call it 'He Loved Him Madly,'" he said. "I'd like to do one-tenth of what Duke did."
I wondered for a second if he was serious.
"You've already done as much or more."
He looked at me for the first time since I arrived. I hoped I was making headway.
"How do you feel?" I asked. "How are your legs?"
"They get sore."
"Do you still get to the gym?"
"I have one in the basement. I can't use my legs. They're sore. They stay sore."
Miles finally seemed to get the mobile the way he wanted it.
"The guy who did this is a research chemist."
I asked, "How many ways does it go together?"
He gently began to touch life into the mobile with his fingers. Circles revolved inside of the other circles inside of other circles.
"Like this house." I thought.
"Damn you!! Ask questions. You're the one asked to be here."
I swallowed resentment.
"How's the band coming? Is it finally where you want it?"
The reply was muttered into the mobile.
Miles gave me a withering look through the mobile.
"I always get a band where I want!"
I was finally fed up.
"Goddamn it, Miles, sit down."
"I can talk standing up."
"Bullshit! Between you and that music, I can't hear shit."
Miles came around the table and turned off the air conditioner, which I hadn't even noticed. The din diminished, and he sat down next to me.
"Come on, Sy, relax."
He handed me his beer. I took a swallow and then another.
Miles called out, "Loretta, Loretta."
The girl from the living room came up the stairs.
"Loretta, this is Sy. Bring us some beer."
Loretta smiled at me and went back down the stairs. I wished desperately that I had asked to have the tape turned down.
I told Miles I had known him in California. He didn't remember me. He was pleased that Benny Carter had come to see him. Encouraged by our truce, I decided to press on.
"Miles, I'd like to ask you about your new band. Since you started adding extra rhythm players at the Fillmore, I'm having a harder time following the music. I'm probably missing something. I'm not sure what to listen for."
Miles was immediately defensive.
"You can't understand me 'cause you're not me. In the second place, you're not black. You don't understand my rhythms. We're two totally different people. That's almost an insult to say you don't understand."
"I don't think it's an insult."
"You don't like my music."
"I'm asking you about it, not insulting it."
"I haven't mentioned your music."
"No, you've probably never been aware of my music."
"Why is that? Give me one reason. I listen to Stockhausen."
"Stockhausen and I have nothing in common."
"Yeah. I know!!"
Miles went to the mobile again, deftly setting it in motion.
"Just takes a touch. I bought it for fifteen hundred dollars. I like to sit up here and write music. If that guy can make that motherfucker like that, then I can use that fuckin' chord. You know what I mean?"
I did know what he meant. All those delicate arms moving independently and precisely inside of one another. Always changing, yet solidly anchored to the same base. It was like the new Davis music was supposed to function, in theory, anyway.
Miles went on. "White guys keep saying they don't understand my music."
"Do all black people understand it?"
"I don't even look at that shit."
"Miles, to my ear the band seems to keep rambling around. I can't find a center."
He is angry. "Who told you to look for a center?"
"I have to. For my own needs."
"Ooh - That's your problem."
"I haven't said that it wasn't. That's why I'm asking."
"Do you realize you got me up here listening to you? Telling me you don't like my music? I could be out in the sunshine." He looked out the window.
I could feel anger welling up in me again.
"What do you want to talk about?"
Miles looked over at me and his expression softened. He sat down beside me.
"Sy," he said, very softly, "I got into music because I love it. I still love it. All kinds."
My resentment vanished. It was the second time Miles had made an effort to ease the tension, and it directly contradicted my image of him.
"I think it's time people changed where they put the melody," he went on. "The melody can be in the bass, or a drum sound, or just a sound. I may write something around one chord. I may write something around a rhythm."
He looked at me.
"I always place the rhythm so it can be played three or four different ways. It's always three rhythms within one, and you can get some other ones in there, too.
Do you know what I mean? It's almost like Bach. You know how Bach wrote."
We sat back and relaxed. Miles lit a cigarette. We listened to the tape from downstairs, which didn't seem so instrusive any more.
"White people don't like me."
I glanced over at him.
"I mean, a policeman grabbed me around the neck."
"'Cause I was black. I'm not gonna say what no white man wants me to say."
He reassured me, "I'm talkin' 'bout a policeman. 'Are you goin' peaceful, or am I gonna put handcuffs on you?' I'm supposed to say, 'Yes, I'll go down peaceful.'"
"That's what I would have said. Is it gonna be okay?"
He shrugs. We sit. Loretta comes up with two warm beers and glasses filled with ice cubes.
"We were out," she said. "I had to go to the store. I got you some cigarettes."
She left. I asked him about Big Fun, an album culled from tapes from his Bitches Brew period.
"I'll be tired of this music before today is over," he said, waving his hand in the air. "That's four years old."
I asked him about the many groups his former sidemen have spawned.
"Chick [Corea] has a nice band. He's so multitalented. He can play drums. He can play anything he wants to play, just like me. He's a music-lover, you know."
I mentioned some of Chick's compositions.
"He's written some pretty things," I said.
Miles made a face.
"Does it have to be pretty to be marvelous? I mean, the reason I don't go to the movies is that the music for the sex scenes is always so pretty. Strings and French horns. Sex isn't like that all the fuckin' time. Sometimes you hear some drums and shit. You want to get to the bitch in a hurry!! You're stumblin' over shit. You don't wanna hear no sweet shit, man."
"How do you keep it up?" I ask, "I mean, how do you keep changing the music all the time? You've left so many good musicians behind. I'm forty-four and I can count . . ."
He cut me off.
"I'm forty-eight!! I never feel that shit. I'm not vain. As long as I'm not draggin' the musicians I'm with - and I pick the best ones I can find that are available to me - then I figure I'm pretty all right. That's the way I judge."
"They're probably worried about pleasing you"
Miles sips his beer.
"Like sometimes I say, 'Al, don't get excited.' And I usually can control everything. Tell them to settle down. Or maybe they're overanxious, and if I see I can't do anything, I'll leave 'em alone. They know themselves.
And Michael, fartin' around, showin' off, not being a group player. He'll do that shit two nights, and I'll tell him, 'Michael, you been fuckin' around for two days. Settle down!' And he'll say, 'I knew you were gonna say that!' And I'll say, 'Man, bitches make you act funny.'
They get to think I'm their father! 'We don't see you fuck around on the road.' I say, 'I told you I used to have a bitch for every night I went to work, and one night I went to work and all seven of them were there. Shit!! That's why I don't fuck around."
Miles walked to the piano. It was a little spinet nestled under the circular structure. Some of the notes didn't play.
"When Chick joined my band, he used to play all this shit."
His hands flew over the keyboard.
"We used to talk about music until late every night. Pretty soon he was playin' like this."
Miles played something simple.
"That Chick is a bitch!!"
He shook his had in wonder.
I noticed a score of Tosca on the piano.
"I read in Down Beat that you were into Tosca."
"Shit-it! Have you heard the record with Leontyne Price?"
I said I hadn't.
"What are you into besides Stockhausen and Tosca?"
Miles, very matter-of-factly: "Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Ann Peebles, Aretha, Roberta Flack." Obviously, a stock answer. After a pause, he went on. "I saw Artie Shaw. I said, 'Man, you knew, you got tired of fuckin' those bitches.'"
Miles chuckles to himself.
"Would you like to see the bedroom?"
He led the way past a small, open shaving area into a big room, gesturing toward a circular pit with an enormous wedge-shaped bed in it. The bed was unmade. I had heard stories about a big gong Miles kept at hand to summon reinforcements to his bed. I didn't see it.
Miles went into the bathroom and took a piss with the door open. I walked around, looking at the pictures, all of Miles, and at his famous wardrobe in disarray all over the room. There were shirts, pants, jackets, scarves thrown over everything. Gaudy platform shoes were underfoot everywhere, scuffed and clumsy.
We went back to the other room. A poster-sized concert picture of Miles leaned against the wall in the hallway, inscribed "for Loretta."
Miles said, "Policemen. They never change. They stay the same."
He was delighted at the insight.
He chortled softly, "Oh, shit. You know what I mean?"
He slapped his leg as he sat down.
I wanted to talk about his astonishing ability to adopt and grow with the times. I told him I couldn't think of any comparable examples in jazz.
"Hell, I was the best player in St. Louis. Clark Terry and I. He and I used to go out to jam, and in ten minutes the place would be crowded. He'd come over to my house and ask my father if I could go with him, you know, and he'd take me to a session. Man, we'd play from six o'clock to six next morning. When I got to New York, I thought everybody knew as much as I did, and I was surprised. Wasn't nobody playing but Dizzy and Roy. The guys who were playing, you didn't even know or hear of. Same way in my home town. I was fifteen and guys would come to hear my play because they heard about me. Man, I didn't even know who they were."
"When did you join Bird?"
"Right away, as soon as he left Diz. Charlie Parker used to live with me. He used to talk to people about work, and they'd say, 'You don't have a trumpet player.' And he'd say, 'Here's my trumpet player right here.'"
"Is it true you used to quit once a night?"
"Once an hour."
Miles took deep delight in the recollection.
Miles obviously can project his voice if he wants to. Miles met her at the head of the stairs for a whispered conference. They disappeared into the bedroom for several minutes.
"Had to drink some water 'cause I get dehydrated," Miles explained. "Loretta knows. Sometimes I'll say, 'Loretta, something's funny about me. What is it?' And she'll look at me and say, 'Fix your hair. It's sticking out over there.'"
Miles touches his hair behind the right ear.
"You know, Sy, chicks just know about you. Cicely [Tyson] knows when I don't feel good, and she'll call me up and say, 'What's the matter, Miles?'"
Miles's trumpet makes a sensual one-note entrance on the tape.
"Oooh," he says.
A long moody phrase follows.
"That's all I was gonna play on there, you know. Because it didn't lend itself to no more."
It was the passage that surprised my ear during the playback this morning.
"See what I mean," he says.
I asked him why he had begun to play organ.
"I can play it the way I want it. I know guys who can show their technique and all that stuff. I just play it for Dave [Liebman] and different little sounds and shit. Reggie [Young] can play the same things that I can play. I taught him to make the same sounds."
The drums can be heard making slow funeral snare drum patterns. Miles listened.
"That's nice. It kinda grows on you."
I told him I knew Al Foster and thought he was a nice guy.
"So nice I lent him my piano and he never did bring it back."
"What's more or less one piano to you," I tease him.
"A Rhodes-Fender!! You go to be kidding."
I poured the rest of the warm beer in my glass and wished I had some more ice cubes.
"Loretta!! Bring me a Band-Aid."
No response from downstairs.
"Look at that," he says.
He has his right shoe off. I could see a dime-sized hole on the knuckle of his middle toe. It is red and raw.
"Jesus Christ, how did you do that?"
"I don't know."
The bare foot is wheezed and old. I had the weird notion that Miles might be aging from the feet up. I remembered that he had broken his ankles when he smashed up his Ferrari earlier that year.
Miles let his injured foot drop.
"He's lost interest in it already," I thought. "Just another small hurt."
"Couldn't you feel that when you were walking around today?"
Miles shook his head abstractly.
I realized that the medication for his hip and legs was probably so strong that he really couldn't feel his feet.
We talked halfheartedly about a band Teo Macero had assembled. I told him I had arranged a piece of Teo's around a bass ostinato figure.
Miles came to life.
"See there. Now you're gettin' around to the bass. It's a pleasure to write around the bass."
He asked who was in the band. When I told him, he said, "All white guys."
I said, "Yeah, and he calls it 'Cotton'"
Miles grinned. "Oh, yeah," he said.
I told him I had to write around the bass all the time working for Mingus.
He said, "Mingus is a man. He don't do nothin' halfway. If he's gonna make a fool of himself, he makes sure he makes a damn fool of himself. You know what I mean?"
He drank some beer.
"Mingus and I were really close. We used to rehearse all the time in California. I don't see enough of him.
Sy, why don't somebody write an article about musicians who are really close friends and don't have time to see each other. You know, like Thad Jones, Elvin Jones, Hank. We're glad to see each other. We never see each other."
"Miles," I said, "Thad and I went to one of your Carnegie Hall concerts. We sat in the third row right under your nose."
"Yeah, and Thad got so upset that you kept spitting on the stage that he left."
Miles looked upset.
"Maybe it's because I didn't see him. I never see anybody when I'm onstage."
"No," I said. "He kept saying, 'Miles shouldn't spit onstage in Carnegie Hall.' And finally he said, 'I'm sorry, Sy, but if he spits one more time I'm gonna have to go.' And you spit, and he went."
Miles said, very softly, "Maybe it's a good thing we don't see each other. Didn't he know I just got over pneumonia?"
He shook his head sadly. I saw Loretta coming up the stairs.
"Loretta," I called out, "Miles needs a Band-Aid."
Miles said, gently, "She does what I tell her. She won't do what you say."
Miles hobbled off to talk to Loretta.
"You know," he said as he sat down again. "Roberta [Flack] called me from London, and she said, 'I went to hear Thad's band and nobody spoke to me.' She felt very bad."
Loretta came and knelt at Miles's feet. Some antiseptic cream and a Band-Aid were expertly put in place.
"Loretta, did you know Thad walked out on my concert?
I take Loretta down to hear Thad, and I tell her, 'This is one of the greatest trumpet players you're ever gonna hear.' Don't I, Loretta?"
"Yes, Miles really loves Thad."
Miles sent Loretta to place an out-of-town call for him.
He continued, "When I go to hear a trumpet player, I've really gotta like him. I don't go to hear Freddie Hubbard only because I don't like him. I'd rather hear Thad miss a note than hear Freddie make twelve."
I told him that Thad told me how much he loves Miles's playing but that Miles's continual changing made him very threatening to older players.
Miles was silent for a minute and then said: "Thad should get that shit outta his head. That boy's a motherfucker. Has been for some years.
You know, Sy, Thad's always around, and he doesn't come to see me. Nobody comes to see me. None of the guys, you know. All the young guys do, but Thad and all my friends like that never do. I like them, but they don't like me. Dizzy asks me to teach him. I say, 'Yeah, come by. I'll show you everything we're doin'. It'll be my pleasure.' And he don't come by."
Loretta: "Pick up, Miles."
The man he wanted was at another number. He asked, "How's he acting? Is he healthy? Huh? Is he thin? Is he drinking too much? Okay, Loretta, try this other number."
He comes back. His face is full of concern.
"One of my old gangster buddies. He ought to take care of himself. He gonna kill himself before I get to see him again."
"Miles, pick up."
"Hello, you old motherfucker. What!! Fuck him. If you think I . . .
He slammed down the phone. He was calm again before he even sat down. I asked him which of the younger guys came by to see him.
"Herbie [Hancock] does. He always comes by when he's in town. Chick does."
He stopped for a minute.
"No, Chick doesn't come to hear me."
I could barely hear him.
"Chick wouldn't be interested in my band."
Miles eyes were moist.
I thought, "That's why he wears those huge glasses. His eyes give him away. The pain, the hurt, the vulnerability, forty-eight years, all there to see. But he puts those glasses on and it's the Black Prince, who knows no pain."
I said, "Maybe you have to come to them. Nobody's gonna knock on that front door."
I watched him put his shoe on again.
"Don't you wear socks? It's no wonder those fucking ridiculous shoes are tearing your toes off."
He went to a mirror and poked at his hair.
"It was those fucking policemen hurt my foot."
"What did they do, step on your toe?"
"It was a fucking policeman."
He walked over and slapped my foot.
"Damn it, Sy, I'm gonna throw a party. Do you think they'll come? Max, Mingus, Gil, Dizzy, Thad?"
I assured him they would if they were in town.
"That's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna throw a party.
Come on, Sy. I gotta get ready for a rehearsal at six."
He tried on another hat as I packed my Sony.
"I love this hat. Ain't it a bitch?"
He laughed all the way down the stairs. I said good-bye to Loretta. Miles took my hand at the door.
"Come by tomorrow, if you want."
I stepped into the street. Sunlight blinded me. I remembered I hadn't taken my pictures.
I thought, "I bet it never happened. I'd better check the tape when I get home."
This article/interview was reprinted in Bill Kirchner's noteworthy book A Miles Reader, published 1997 by the Smithsonian Institution
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