Sunday, August 4, 2019

Miles Davis At Columbia Records - "How It All Began" - by George Avakian

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

The following is from a time when support from recording companies along with coverage by the Jazz press could help bring national and international fame and fortune to a Jazz musician.

Obviously, that time in no more.

Of course, it helps to have a 'Miles Davis' as the focal point for such celebrity and providence.


Miles’ supplication had turned into a virtual litany.

We had developed a casual friendship in the late forties. By the end of 1948, Miles had been a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet for nearly two years, and the exposure helped him make two major breakthroughs. At age 22, he had vaulted to third place in the trumpet category of Metronome magazine's annual jazz poll (the winner was his other mentor, Dizzy Gillespie), and the following spring he was invited to the first Paris Jazz Festival, which introduced Parker, Gillespie and other bebop pioneers to European fans.

Despite his close association with Parker, Miles had avoided drug addiction, but soon after his return from Paris (late May 1949), he got hooked on heroin. He had left Parker because he sensed that the time had come to go out on his own, but had been unable to find a suitable manager or booking agent. Miles' addiction became increasingly obvious, and by 1951, he was virtually out of work, although low-paying record dates were still a means of a fast payday. The following year was much the same as Miles disappeared more and more from the New York scene, seeking work where his problems were less widely known.

It was during this time that Miles began suggesting that I record him. I discouraged him as gently as I could, without bringing up his drug problem. After the second or third time, I had an answer which took care of things for a while: "We can't do it, Miles. I checked with the union and you're under contract to Prestige. Let's talk after you're available."

Things were slow in New York when Charlie Parker went to Los Angeles in 1952 and sent back reports of a growing audience for jazz in California. New York musicians began a westward trek. The following summer, Miles joined in but to no avail. He even experienced an unnerving deja vu. Just as Parker had propelled him to prominence in New York years ago. Miles found that Bird had taken under his wing a hitherto unknown trumpet player who had quickly become the talk of the California Jazz scene.

The precocious youngster was Chet Baker, who became a charter member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet after Parker returned to New York. In a leap even more meteoric than Miles' rise in the 1948 Metronome poll, Chet would spring from obscurity to first place in the 1953 Down Beat trumpet poll. The ascendancy of Baker, who was obviously inspired by Miles himself, may have been the final push Miles needed to rid himself of his dependency.

In mid-1953, Miles went home to his parents' farm in Millstadt, Illinois, some fourteen miles south of East St. Louis. Inspired by the spartan training regimen of his pugilist idol, Sugar Ray Robinson (Miles himself was an excellent boxer), he disciplined himself mercilessly and came out of a "cold turkey" withdrawal a clean winner.

Recognizing the temptations of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Miles chose Detroit, a growing hotbed of up-and-coming young musicians, as more favorable to his resolution to stay drug-free. There, for five or six months, he got his chops back and returned to New York in early 1954, determined to regain his place on the scene. But club owners and booking agents had been burned too often.

Miles was at least able to sit in uptown and at Birdland on an occasional Monday night. I hadn't heard him in a year, but increasingly he began to sound like the Miles of old. A few months later, he resumed his "sign me up" routine. The idea was still pretty far-fetched, but I was reasonably sure that Miles had gotten straight. Encouraged, I checked again with the union. "But you've still got two-and-a-half years to go with Prestige," I told Miles. "I know," he said, "but I'm looking ahead." "Me too," I said. "Patience."

One day Miles said, "George, I've got the answer. Tell Bob Weinstock (Prestige was his one-man company) that you're going to sign me eventually, so why doesn't he let you record me now and hold the masters until the end of my contract? That way, you can have all the promotion ready and Weinstock will know that he can get a free ride right away on your advertising and publicity." Crazy idea, I thought. "Let me look into it," I said. Nobody was knocking down walls to book him. Even if he stayed clean, it might be years before Columbia could promote Miles sufficiently to overcome his reputation for unreliability.

I let the idea drift until I mentioned it to rny brother Aram, who had gotten to know Miles in Paris (Aram lived there from 1947 to 1952). "Do it," he said. "What can you lose?" What indeed? ... Miles backslides, goes to jail, overdoses... But on the positive side, he'd been clean for a year. What if he could get himself steady work with a permanent group instead of the hit-or-miss bookings by which he had survived?

Summer arrived. Aram and I went to the Newport Jazz Festival, which George Wein had started the year before. (I was a charter member of the board, so we had box seats and invitations to all the parties.) Miles was not scheduled to perform, but he was there. "How about it?" Miles asked. "Maybe soon," I said. "I've got some ideas, but we've got a long time. Stay cool."

The last night of the Festival was Sunday, July 17 (not the Fourth of July weekend as some books have it). George Wein filled in the time between the last two scheduled performers (Count Basie and the Dave Brubeck Quartet) with a short all-star set introduced by Duke Ellington, no less: Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Percy Heath and Connie Kay. (This was a frequent ploy at Newport; it gave George's crew twenty minutes to clear the main dressing room underneath the stage.] Miles joined them as a walk-on.

They opened with "Hackensack." Next came Monk's "'Round Midnight." Halfway through Miles' solo, Aram said to me, "Miles is right. Sign him — now. After tonight, everybody will know he's back." By the time they closed with "Now's The Time," I was on my way backstage.

Miles saw me and threw me a big grin. On Tuesday, we had lunch up the street from my office at Columbia with his friend Lee Kraft, who helped him now and then with music business matters, and Miles' lawyer, Harold Lovett, whose dapper exterior and cool demeanor cloaked a streak of practicality. To everyone's surprise, I brought up the new subject which had been percolating in my mind for weeks.

"Before we talk about a contract and an agreement with Prestige, let's look at what's got to happen if this idea is going to work for Miles and Columbia — and Prestige as well, because we need Weinstock's cooperation. Miles, you've never had an agent who's done more than get you a few gigs, whenever, wherever and with whoever was available. Your sound is unique, but your bands always sound different. What you need first now is a group that you can hold together."

Miles jumped right in. "I've got the guys right now," he said. He had just opened the week before at a new Greenwich Village club, the Cafe Bohemia, with an unusually cohesive crew: Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

"But you can't hold them without an agent who'll stick with you," I continued. "Jack Whittemore at Shaw Artists has done more for you than anyone else. I'm ready to tell him that if this deal works with Prestige, he can count on Columbia backing you a year and a half from now with a strong advertising and promotion campaign.

Meanwhile, Weinstock will be pushing to cash in on your new group before Columbia can step in, which will help Jack keep you working." Long before the waiter brought two Nesselrode desserts and four forks, we had a working plan, including the terms for a Columbia contract.

Next, I outlined the plan to Jack Whittemore and Bob Messinger, his assistant at the agency. They knew what had happened with Dave Brubeck's bookings when Dave switched to Columbia from a small company he had started himself [Fantasy Records]. "A year and a half is a longtime," mused Jack. "But I think Miles will do everything he can to make it work," I said. "Yes, I believe he will," said Jack. "And so will we."

Years later, reports were published that I'd run into some snags: "Davis was too demanding and Prestige was uncooperative." Nothing could be further from the truth. Equally inaccurate was a statement that Miles recorded for Columbia before we got permission from Prestige. (As I write this, I'm looking at a copy of the contract which Miles signed before that first session, forty-four years ago. Attached to it is Prestige's signed release agreement.)

I asked Miles how much advance against royalty he wanted; he would have signed for no advance if Lee, Harold and I had let him. Miles, aware that I was sticking my neck out in unprecedented fashion, said $2,000, which was not unreasonable. Added to his session payments, this came to a guarantee of about $4,000 for each year including options; an excellent deal for him under the circumstances. (In his autobiography, Miles, a notorious "enlarger," adds "plus $300,000 every year" to the contract, a number which may have been part of a much later contract, perhaps in the 1970's.) What Miles and I both knew was that Columbia's promotional and distribution strength would produce substantial royalties. His first statement produced a happy surprise. When we could finally release his first Columbia album, it jumped off the presses so fast that he received a check, substantially over and above advances, and Miles promptly bought a gull-wing Mercedes two-seater, drove it straight from the showroom to 799 Seventh Avenue, and took me for a fast ride through Central Park and back. "I knew all along what could happen if you'd sign me."

As for Prestige, the stories that cropped up later about tough negotiations are completely wrong. Weinstock saw the upside of the proposal at once. He had no demands, and only two questions: "If I say no, Miles signs with Columbia anyway a year from February, right?" "Right." "And if I say no, Columbia can't start its promotion for months, right?" "Summer's no time to start anything, Bob. We'd wait till September." "I'd hate to lose seven months of Miles Davis ads I won't have to pay for," said Bob. "Where do I sign?"

Before the paperwork could start, Miles left town and promptly ran into a crisis. Sonny Rollins had spoken of relocating to Chicago, where he had built a strong personal following. When he got an offer he couldn't resist, Miles was ready with someone else: Cannonball Adderley, who had come up from Florida that summer and turned everybody upside down. But Cannon was also a schoolteacher, and he had a contract requiring him to return to teach in September. ("One for the books — never before in jazz," I thought when Miles told me that.) A week later, Miles called again. "I've got somebody. Come hear him Saturday night."

John Coltrane was a perfect second banana. He didn't have the flash of Sonny or Cannon, although he ripped off a searing solo on the last set. "I knew you'd like him," said Miles. "Tell Jack to book us back at the Bohemia and we'll be ready to record."

When the two sets of documents were signed, I took Columbia's publicity director, Deborah Ishlon, to the Bohemia. She had done a great job with the Brubeck Quartet, from the day Dave first came to New York. Debbie saw as well as heard Miles' potential at once. "With the Italian suits and Cole Porter with a mute, we'll get a full page in both Time and Newsweek,"she  said. "Slow  down, Debbie." I   said. "We've got till 1957."

The recording debut of the new Miles Davis Quintet took place on October 26, 1955 at Columbia's Studio D on Seventh Avenue, although the group's later albums for Prestige came out first because of the release date restriction. (Actually I did release part of a track by Miles before the Prestige contract expired; Prestige waived the restriction for a shortened version of Sweet Sue, Just You which was made expressly for inclusion in an LP of Leonard Bernstein's "What Is Jazz" TV script, adapted from a CBS-TV "Omnibus" broadcast. Bernstein used it as an example of "cool jazz"; I asked Teo Macero to write two different introductions, and the Quintet improvised two very different takes. Both are in this collection, of course - The Complete Miles Davis and John Coltrane on Columbia, 1955-1961, six CD boxed set [65833].)

On the same session (the Quintet's third for Columbia), Miles finally recorded 'Round Midnight, which I'd told him would be the title of our first LP in commemoration of the moment at Newport when Aram had urged me to go ahead with Miles' suggestion [‘Round About Midnight [Columbia CL 949]. He never explained why he kept putting it off, but we had plenty of time, so I didn't press him. Although neither Miles nor Gil Evans ever mentioned it, I'm convinced now that Miles had asked Gil to write the arrangement, and so anxious was he to make the recording definitive that Miles waited until the band had played it for almost a year. He brought no music to the studio, and the band knocked it off in one take.

It was no problem to select the most effective tracks from the three sessions I had recorded. They fell naturally into two well-balanced "sets," one for each side of the debut LP, with the emphasis on the ballad style Miles had developed so effectively. Whittemore's bookings, well-coordinated now, brought Miles back to New York frequently enough (the Bohemia virtually became his headquarters in that period) so that the Columbia sales people (led by Hal Cook and his merchandising manager, Stan Kavan) had a chance to learn all about Miles in advance.

With Miles getting pop-star treatment, everybody was a winner. Weinstock's decision to go along with Miles' oddball idea paid off handsomely for him — five LP's with the Quintet that Whittemore's bookings held together. For Columbia, when 'Round About Midnight came out on March 3,1957, it soon outsold the five combined. Even so, I had no immediate plans to add to the remaining tracks I had recorded; months before, I had recognized that Miles' second Columbia release would have to be something entirely different from the over-exposed quintet.

The story of why and how the idea of bringing Miles together with Gil and a large orchestra came about is told in the Miles Ahead CD annotation (CK 65121) and the 6-CD set, Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (CXK 67397). Its release in the fall of 1957 eclipsed everything Miles had ever done and started him on his way as one of the biggest-selling jazz artists of all time.

After I left Columbia in 1958 and helped start a new company at Warner Bros.. Miles and I never worked together again, but our friendship endured. Miles, more of a showman than I had ever suspected, had created a bad-boy image of mystery and finally hostility (he started turning his back to the audience in California, even before the Bohemia), but no matter how many times he reinvented his public persona, the Miles I knew retained the foundation his conservative middle-class family had given him.

Years later, Miles and I fell into an unusual linkage after I became a Knight of Malta in 1984 (the citation reads, in part, "for a lifetime of service to American music"). As a member of that 900-year old brotherhood, I was invited to make a recommendation. Four years later, Miles was also knighted. His gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery, a few miles from my present home on the Hudson River, reads Sir Miles Davis. Facing it is an equally impressive stone which memorializes one Edward Kennedy Ellington.

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