Friday, January 8, 2016

The Enigma of Miles Davis - Barbara J. Gardner


© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.


This features continues the theme of our recent postings about Miles Davis’ career after he made the move to Columbia Records in 1955 and returns to the JazzProfiles continuing emphasis on the work of Jazz writers.

This is our first feature devoted to the work of Barbara J. Gardner, a talented writer who was based in Chicago and who for over ten years was a contributing editor to Down Beat.

In addition to the lengthy work on Miles that follows and which appeared in the January 7, 1960 edition of that magazine, she also wrote profiles on Joe Williams and Abbey Lincoln for Down Beat.  Other examples of her writing can be found on VeeJay Records, a Jazz label based in The Windy City, for which she contributed liner notes for some of its LP’s, including Wayne Shorter’s earliest recordings as a leader.

“There is no room for the middle stance. You choose up sides, and you play on your team. He is either the greatest living musician or he is just a cool hopper. He is handsome and a wonderful individual or he is ugly and a drag. His trumpet prowess is getting greater every day or his scope is becoming more and more limited.

Any current jazz discussion can be enlivened simply by dropping in the magic name — Miles Davis.

Yet these arguments can be mystifying in the frequency with which the opponents switch positions. A musician in a conversation with fellow workers is likely to blast Davis. The same musician discussing Miles with his dinner host and hostess may change tunes in the middle of the chorus and sing nothing but the highest praise for the trumpeter.

Unaware of the chain of events they were beginning, Dr. and Mrs. Miles Davis, on May 25, 1926, named their first son Miles Dewey. Miles, his parents and an older sister, Dorothy, moved from Alton, IL to East St. Louis, IL in 1927. There, Miles' brother Vernon was born. The first 12 years included all the usual brother-sister squabbles. Yet, though there were normal childhood frictions, Miles was gregarious, amiable, and had many friends.

Musically, his career began uneventfully on his 13th birthday when his father gave him a trumpet. Only his immediate attraction and dedication to the horn gave an indication of the mastery of the instrument he would later achieve. Even his family admits that in the beginning, the growing pains were considerable and Miles was no instant threat to any trumpet player.

"We still have a record packed away someplace that he cut with some rhythm and blues outfit," his sister recalled. "He was pretty awful. They don't even mention his name."

But the woodshed was nearby, and Miles used it.

By the time Billy Eckstine brought his big band through East St. Louis in the early 1940s, the worst was over. Dizzy Gillespie and Eckstine convinced both Miles and his father that the quiet, reserved youngster should continue to study music. While the band was in town, Miles had the exciting experience of sitting in. He was so awe-stricken by Charlie Parker and Gillespie that he could hardly play.

Miles pulled up stakes in 1945 and at 19 made the trek to New York City, where he enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music to concentrate on theory and harmony. At this time, the idol of the jazz world was Charlie Parker. Miles, too, was under the spell. He spent his entire bankroll searching the clubs and hangouts, trying to find Bird.


While his relationship with Parker, Eckstine, and Gillespie had been discomforting for him in East St. Louis, it was not nearly so overwhelming as being surrounded by the giants who inhabited 52nd St. in the mid-'40s.

The same Dizzy who had invited him to sit in with the band in East St. Louis, who had encouraged him to come to New. York and study trumpet, now sternly advised the newcomer to study piano so that he might learn how to build an effective solo.

The helpful and understanding Bird, who advised him to leave the woodshed and break into his own with the public, was making such departures in improvisation, rhythm, and harmony that Miles was bewildered. It was no wonder that the frustrated neophyte, just in his 20s, would quit every night. Fortunately, he returned every day.

He underwent the usual influences. His first idol had been Roy Eldridge, a musician whose influence spreads throughout the contemporary trumpet tradition. Once having heard Gillespie, however, Miles decided to draw from this man his major inspiration. For a while there was a period of complete absorption, and Miles Davis seemed destined to become a second Dizzy Gillespie.

But by 1947, Davis had filtered from the Gillespie-ish playing all that was not natural to himself.

During that two-year period, he had worked with Parker, Eckstine, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins. He had so impressed the listening jazz public that he was voted Esquire new trumpet star of 1947.

Davis made his debut as leader in 1948. The first small group was replaced within months by a nine-piece unit whose exceptionally high musical caliber was captured on records. These celebrated 1949 recordings featured Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, J. J. Johnson, Max Roach, Kai Winding, and Kenny Clarke. Musical pre-eminence, however, was not enough to salvage this experimental group. The gig folded after two historic weeks, and the group disbanded, its members spreading their messages on separate paths.

Davis went to Europe. In 1949, France got its first glimpse of 52nd St.'s new trumpet star. He played the Paris Jazz festival.

But when he returned to New York, Miles passed into comparative musical
obscurity. For a while illness plagued him, financial difficulties mounted, and musical appreciation and satisfaction made a sharp and rapid decline. This bleak pattern was brightened only by three noteworthy events: he won the Metronome readers poll each year from 1951 to '53; he made the Jazz, Inc., tour in 1952, and, above all, the musicians were still listening, learning, even copying.

It is this last fact that perhaps is most significant. It is the thing that, more than any other, explains the sudden reappearance and pervading eminence of the forgotten patriarch.


In 1957, there had come to be established a new sound in jazz, a new school of trumpeters, a new concept in communication in music. People began listening for the familiar characteristics and searching for their source. Re-enter Miles Davis, rediscovered, new star.

After throat surgery in 1957, Davis captured every coveted trumpet award in the United States and Europe. Readers of Holland's Muziek Express, Hamburg's Jazz, Echo, Paris' Jazz Hot, London's Melody Maker, all awarded Miles first or second place on trumpet in 1958 or 1959. In the United States, he has been voted outstanding trumpet star by Metronome readers and has won the Down Beat Readers Poll Award every year since 1954, excepting 1956, when he placed a close second behind his former mentor, Dizzy Gillespie.

As Davis now stands at the pinnacle of his musical career, he stands simultaneously at the nadir of sociability.

Ask any jazz fan who Miles Davis is. Most will say, "He's a fink, but he sure can play." Ask any club owner where he has worked. Most will say, "He's a headache, but the customers flock to hear him." Ask any musician. He probably will say, "He's an evil little bastard, but he certainly can play." In other words, two points seem glaringly in evidence — Miles is a difficult person to deal with, and Miles can play his instrument. Among his closest friends, and he has many, it is the consensus that Miles carefully cultivates both contentions.

The major accusation levied at him is indifference toward and lack of consideration for the audience.

Wearing what the well-dressed man will wear next year, Miles saunters diffidently onstage. Usually squinting through smoke from his cigaret, he briefly surveys his audience, chats momentarily with his sidemen, and idly fingers his horn. Snapping off the beat, he assumes his characteristic stance, drawing the muted trumpet inward. He shoves the mute tight against the microphone and breathes out the notes, placing each sound just where he wants it. He hovers there for several choruses, then drops his horn, and casually ambles away, off the stage sometimes, out of the room . . .

"No stage presence!" the customer will exclaim.

The appearance is certainly that he disinvolved himself from activities on the stand. But musicians who work with him deny this emphatically. The wily trumpeter is able to dissect every tune played during the set. Each musician's work is analyzed at the next rehearsal.

Why Davis chooses to wander about while the rest of the group plays is still as much a mystery as it was when he began doing it 10 years ago. It is by no means a newly acquired habit. Miles has never attempted to be a crowd pleaser, although these very eccentricities serve almost to transform him into a showman whose behavior, though often resented, is nearly as much a part of his audience appeal as his musical performance.

The quality of music that is presented is the major concern with Davis, and neither money nor threats can force him to compromise on this point.

During the spring of 1959 the Miles Davis Sextet, featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, was contracted to play a Milwaukee nightclub. Adderley was hospitalized a few days before the opening. Davis agreed to go with the rhythm section and Coltrane. On the morning the five men were to leave New York, Coltrane contracted a virus infection and could not leave. The club owner insisted that Davis keep the engagement. Davis said, "No." The owner threatened to sue. Miles used his favorite unprintable epithet. The club owner sued — but Miles did not play the date.

There are few persons more noted for the use of flat, bald definitives than Davis.


Only an inconspicuous withdrawal or reversal of a celebrated position will belie the assertiveness of his original proclamation. "I shall never work here again" was hardly dry on the printed page before he was back at work in the same club.

Among his most flagrant asserted positions is dislike for the ofay. This generalized overt exhibition of racial prejudice, however, has been undermined in practice throughout the entire pattern of his adulthood.

Since 1948, when he formed his first group, Davis has hired competent musicians regardless of race. Among his closest associates are white politicians, actors, actresses, musicians, and citizens of many countries and many walks of life. He is no embittered hothead on this issue. His attitude has been arrived at because he has endured a series of cold, degrading, and demoralizing experiences.

An instance: arriving in Chicago during the summer of 1959, Davis rolled his imported Ferrari into a motel on Lake Michigan's shore only to be told there was a mix-up in the reservations. Sorry. Jazz great or not, there was no room available.

His refusal to accept publicly a poll award from a national men's magazine was prompted by his dissatisfaction with the discriminatory policies of the publication. Davis talked, as well as corresponded, with the publisher, explaining why he could not, in good faith, accept any commendation from the publication. In spite of the best efforts of the publisher, he has been unable to sway Davis' attitude.

This adherence to principle runs through his relationships. Once he has made up his mind, and cast his lot, he is more than reluctant to change his position. This is especially true regarding sidemen working with him. Both his present pianist and his drummer went through periods during which Miles had to adjust to and acquaint himself with their styles of playing.

"Miles thinks there is only one drummer in the entire world," a musician said at the beginning of 1959, "and that one is Philly Joe Jones." Miles seemed to give credence to this idea long after Jones had been replaced by Jimmy Cobb. Several times, he recorded only when he was able to secure Jones as his drummer. Gradually, this attitude began to fade, and Cobb at last was free to function without the ghostly sizzle of his predecessor behind him. Several months ago, questioned about Miles' affinity to Philly Joe, the same musician expressed amazement. "Well, Miles has that clean-cut Jimmy Cobb sound in his ear now," he said.

The exact pattern was followed when pianist Wynton Kelly replaced Red Garland. For months Miles was attuned to the blockish Garland swing, and he couldn't hear it in the melodic, stylish Kelly. But, sticking by their personal styles, and drawing from Miles' subtle hints in technique and execution, Kelly and Cobb came to be highly regarded by their employer.

Davis' ability to pick top musicians as sidemen is unerring, and the influence he wields over their musical expression is almost phenomenal. Sometimes by subtle suggestion, at times by brutal frankness, Miles whips a musical unit into a cohesive, tight-knit, power-generating single voice.

Not only does he usually walk away with top trumpet honors in trade polls, but like a powerful politician, he carries the ticket, and individual members of his group wind up well inside the first 10 of their categories.

This has been referred to as the "Miles magic." What are some of the elements that form the man and the magician in this trumpeter?

There is an undercurrent of loyalty and dedication to conviction that runs well hidden beneath a temperamental guise. Examples of his generosity and loyalty are described throughout the industry.

Earlier this year in Chicago, a man wielding a knife appeared backstage and began threatening the trumpeter. A prominent New York musician — unexpectedly out of work, down on his luck, and hung up in Chicago — was nearby. Seeing the man with the knife move in on Miles, the New Yorker knocked him cold with an uppercut.

Miles walked calmly away without saying so much us "thank you." Some bystanders were annoyed. Wasn't this more than adequate proof of Miles' insolence and ingratitude? Few if any of them knew the reason the New Yorker was present.
Miles, hearing the man was in financial trouble, had invited him to play the date with his group. He had no need of the man, but offering a handout would perhaps have hurt the New Yorker's pride. The fee Miles paid him was big enough to get him out of town and on to the next gig.

A contributing factor to Miles' attraction is his show of freedom and individuality. This exhibition strikes a chord within many persons who, on the surface, are critical of his attitude. He seldom allows anyone to bore him with small talk. A chatterbox is likely to find himself talking to empty space as Miles walks quietly away.

Although there are several individual writers and disc jockeys among his personal  friends, as a profession, Miles has little use for persons in communications. He seldom gives interviews to writers and almost never appears for radio or television interviews. One reason he will not do them is that he is, in his speech habits, impetuously profane.

But perhaps more important than that is his extreme sensitivity about the loss of his normal speaking voice.

After a throat operation a few years ago, Miles was told by the doctors not to speak at all for several days. Someone provoked him, and Miles blurted out a retort. The damage was done. Now he speaks in a soft, rasping, gravelly voice. It is curiously attractive, when you become accustomed to it, and strangest of all, it somehow resembles the tightly restrained sound of his muted trumpet.

The    striking,    delicate-featured    man who stands in almost shy uneasiness, mute against the microphone, is the antithesis of the confident, self-contained offstage Miles. There are those who believe this restless musician is the real Miles. Certainly his exquisite—at times even fragile—playing would not seem to be the expression of a braggart or a bully.

Standing somewhere between the unapproachable loner and the onstage lonely trumpeter is Miles Dewey Davis. At present, Miles is unwilling to share that person with the public. He expresses his conviction that each person has a right and a duty to live an independent existence.

If this attitude rubs many persons the wrong way, his popularity evidently rises with each disparagement.

It was not surprising that Miles in the past few months has won both the Down Beat International Jazz Critics poll and the magazine's Readers poll. What is surprising, however, is that despite all the criticism of his stage manner, the readers also voted him jazz personality of the year.

Apparently a club owner was right when, not too long ago, he threw up his hands in exasperation as Miles sauntered offstage after a solo. After reciting to Miles a list of his sins, he said: "The trouble with you is that everybody likes you, you little son of a bitch."”                                          


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