Wednesday, May 29, 2024

"Miles Davis, 'The Prince of Silence'" - Mike Zwerin [From the Archives]

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

Here’s the second in Mike Zwerin’s fine series Sons of Miles which he posted to Culturekiosque Jazznet.

“Miles Davis, "The Prince of Silence," was the last in the line of Kings, Dukes, Counts, and Lords who forged the basic vocabulary of jazz. He reigned with undisputed power, opening melodies like flowers, into the early 90s despite active nobles and young pretenders assaulting the throne.

He did not like to be called a "Legend." When he hit 60, he told me: "A legend is an old man known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it. Just call me Miles."

Whatever you call him, his treasury was overflowing. Money was every bit as important to Prince Miles as creativity. Or rather they were inseparable. He related to money and superstardom as integral to his art. They were evidence of communication, arts in themselves. Making record companies and promoters pay maximum dollar for his services forced them to invest heavily in promotion to protect their investment, which inevitably improved business and they paid even more next time.

What separated this Prince from most of his subjects is that he made creativity pay royally. ("I do what I do good. Better than good.") He divided his time between five-star hotels, a large apartment overlooking Central Park in New York and a million dollar villa in Malibu, California. He drove expensive sports cars. Money was part of what made him - whether he liked it or not - legendary.

"Don't play what's there," he told his young musicians: "Play what's not there;" and "don't play what you know, play what you don't know." Legends say legendary things. "I have to change," he said: "It's like a curse." He played key roles in the birth of bebop (with Charlie Parker), cool-jazz ("Birth Of The Cool"), modal jazz ("Kind Of Blue") and jazz-rock fusion ("Bitches Brew"). "I can put together a better rock 'n' roll band than Jimi Hendrix," he bragged.

In the 1960s, John Coltrane (who would become a legend too) was a perfect musical foil for Miles. With Philly Joe Jones, drums, Paul Chambers, bass, and Red Garland on piano, this was one of the best jazz bands in history. Trane's streamlined, full-blooded goosebump-raising "sheets of sound" on the saxophone contrasted the eloquent serenity of Miles' courtly, spacial trumpet (audiences would applaud his silences) - 20th century speed and complexity in tandem with elegant 19th century romanticism. Before leaving Miles to form his own band, Coltrane had been searching, a captive of his own intensity, playing 45-minute solos in the middle of what were supposed to be one hour sets.

"Can't you play 27 choruses instead of 28?" Miles asked him.

"I know I know," Coltrane replied:

"I play too long.

But I get so involved I don't know how to stop."

"Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?" Miles advised. One legend to another.

Twenty years later, Miles was still having trouble with saxophonists playing what he called "duty shit, all the things saxophone players think they are supposed to do." He asked tenorman Bob Berg why he had soloed in a place where he was not scheduled and had never before played.

"It sounded so good," Berg replied, "I just had to come in."

"Bob," said the Prince of Silence, "The reason it sounded good was because you weren't playing."

Miles was regally relaxing in one of the series of grandiose hotel suites in which I interviewed him over the years. People waited on him, a young woman usually sat by his side. He was obviously accustomed to luxury, looking like he expected and deserved it. He reminded me of an African Prince in his chambers.

We were in a penthouse atop the Concorde-Lafayette Hotel at Porte Maillot. Paris was at our feet. Drinking herbal tea, he had the world on a string. I thought of when, not all that long before, he had ingested more potent substances.

For many years, Miles had been famous, or infamous, for one negative habit often associated with those who are considered to be "hip" - drugs. The black creators of that revolutionary urban American improvised music which came to be called "bebop" endured critics who said that their jazz was not really "music." While the sounds they invented were adapted by so-called "serious" composers, who were acclaimed by these same critics (all white). The composers' jazz-influenced works were performed in prestigious halls and on the soundtracks of big-budget movies while the creators worked in Mafia-controlled saloons and collected no royalties.

Bebop fathers fought alienation by constructing their own secret culture with its own style and language - "bad" meaning "good" is vintage bebop argot. Drugs were part of the huddle; they seemed to cure alienation for a minute. Not coincidentally, drugs disappeared when respect - and money - arrived. Jazz was presented in Carnegie Hall, Clint Eastwood made a movie about Charlie Parker, Miles became a pop star. When Miles cleaned up his habit, he made it "hip" to be "square."

"What do you want to know?" he asked me, in that legendary rasp which has become an emblem of "hip" to generations of hipsters and hippies.

Remembering that he had once said: "Music is like dope. You use it until you get tired of it," I asked him if he had tired of cocaine, heroin and the rest.

He turned the pages of a large sketch pad, drawing flashy, fiery-haired bright-lipped women with an assortment of felt-tipped pens. Miles began to paint late in life. Since his death, neckties based on his paintings have become available in better stores everywhere, collectors pay high prices for his original works. He turned the pad around to show it to me:

"You like these chicks? These are Parisian women - sunken cheeks. Speaking French does that. They speak with their tongues out. Language forms your face."

Drawing more sunken cheeks, he began to answer my question: "I had to stop doing everything..."

He was wearing rose-rimmed dark glasses and an understated expensive trim white shirt. His hairline had receded but what remained was curly and luxuriant. Miles Davis was the first jazz noble to have a hair transplant. There was some weight on his bones for a change. It was difficult to refrain from staring at his healthy velvety jet-black skin-tone. He was a beautiful looking man who had affairs with Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau while in Paris recording the soundtrack for Louis Malle's film "Elevator To The Scaffold." (The soundtrack holds up better than the movie).

"Everything," he repeated: "Listen." His hoarse whisper sounded like there was a mute in his throat. "I was snorting coke, right? Four, five grams a day. Go out drinking brandy and beer around the clock. Get up at midnight, stay out the rest of the night and half the day. Smoke four packs of cigarettes. Using sleeping pills too. One day I wake up I can't use my right hand. Can't straighten it out. Cicely panics..."

Miles Dewey Davis III, son of a middle class dentist from Alton, Illinois, was married to the actress Cicely Tyson, who won an Emmy Award (the American TV Oscar) for the title role in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The marriage ceremony was performed by Andrew Young, mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, at the home of comedian Bill Cosby. This was the cream of the African-American aristocracy. Cicely and Miles were later divorced. In his autobiography, he accused her of trying to pull out his hair-weave.

"Cicely panics," he continued: "Let's go see Dr. Shen," she says. Acupuncture doctor. Dr. Shen gave me, here, here. He gave me herbs to clean my body out. Chinese medicine. I shed my skin. A whole layer of skin fell out. Weird stuff came out of my nose. I didn't know which drug was messing up so I just decided to stop them all. Now I swim 40 minutes every day. The only habit I got left is sweets.

"Cigarettes are the worst of all. You're better off snorting coke than smoking cigarettes. I saw Wayne [Shorter] stand there and light a cigarette. I said, 'Why you doing that?' He said, 'I need something to do with my hands.' I said, 'Why don't you put them in your pockets? You got four pockets.'"

I asked him what he would have done if Dr. Shen had told him to give up the trumpet too.

"Change doctors," he shot back without hesitation. "I was told that once, when I was, like, sixteen. Sonny Stitt came to St. Louis, right? And he had his hair straightened. He showed me how to do it, did it for me. My hair was wet. I was running around trying to be hip, right? So then I had to come back all across town to go home. I got sick. Went to the hospital. The doctor said, 'What, you play the trumpet? You can't do that any more.' If I'd listened to him, I'd be a dentist today. Isn't that a bitch?"

Miles was not exactly healthy to begin with, the rest was self-inflicted. He went in and out of surgery for sickle-cell anaemia, banged up his Lamborghini ("Shit! Both ankles"), had an ulcer, bouts of insomnia (the coke didn't help), polyps were removed from his vocal cords. After a hip operation (Miles was so hip, he even had hip operations) forced him into a wheelchair, he insisted on being wheeled from limousine to boarding ramp after he was loping around stages like a gazelle. "That's just Miles being princely," his guitar player explained.

Miles was famous for turning his back on audience. I asked why he did that.

He lowered his head and stared up at me, glowering with narrowed menacing eyes, grinding his mouth like there was gum in it which there wasn't. Miles loved to play the devil, although I always thought it was just that - a game. When a woman once came up to him and said, "Mr Davis, I love your music,"he leered: "Wanna fuck?" (She did not think that was funny.) Now he hissed to me: "Nobody asks a symphony orchestra conductor why he turns his back on the audience." After 1970, when his "rock" period began with "Jack Johnson" and "Bitches Brew," Miles took to standing in the middle of his bubbling cauldron of binary electronic avant garde exploration on the cutting edge of distortion, signaling tempo and dynamic changes with an implied wave of his green trumpet or a pointed finger. At the same time, he denied the existence of signals:

"The music just does what it's supposed to do."

His most musical as well as commercial collaboration was with the older white arranger/composer Gil Evans, a father figure to Miles. On their albums together - which were, well, symphonic - Miles was at the height of his power. He was like a violin soloist playing a concerto with Gil's big band. Their "Sketches of Spain" was a big hit. Gil said: "Miles is not afraid of what he likes. A lot of other musicians are constantly looking around to what the next person is doing, wondering what's in style. Miles goes his own way."

Now there was a silence in the suite on top of the Hotel Concorde-Lafayette. When you're with Miles Davis, silence is not exactly silent. There was a palpable vibe in the air. He went on happily drawing away. Miles taught me whatever I know about silence, apparently not enough. I grew paranoid. I blamed myself for the conversational stagnation. I was the journalist, I needed a question - fast. Make me sound intelligent. Whatever came to mind: "Do you still practice?"

He had finished another drawing. He drew the way he once smoked and snorted - compulsively. Perhaps it was drug-substitute gratification. He turned it around, showed it to me and said: "Yeah. Practice every day. People know me by my sound, like they know Frank Sinatra's sound. Got to keep my sound. I practice seventh chords. Practicing is like praying. You don't just pray once a week."

"Do you pray?"

"I was on a plane once and all of a sudden it dropped. I had this medal Carlos Santana gave me around my neck.

It has a diamond and a ruby and a picture of some Saint on it.

I touched it.

I think that thing saved me.

Well, just say I pray in my way."

Jazz festivals will come to be divided into pre- and post - Miles Davis eras. For 20 years from 1971, Miles lent credibility to the rock backbeat. (He opened for The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at The Fillmore.) His presence continued to hover, providing a sort of tacit legitimacy for rock bands on jazz stages. After his death in the Fall of 1991, it has become more difficult to rationalize. Miles did not play rock for the money. He was in search of communication, or, at worst, the fountain of youth. Sure, he wanted a large audience. He was no loser. But anything Miles touched can be defined as jazz, like Louis Armstrong. Now we're stuck with the youth without the fountain.

During the summer 1991 jazz festival season, Miles did something he said he would never do - look back. He led an all-star assortment of ex-employees - Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Jackie McLean, John McLaughlin, etcetera - in Paris. Quincy Jones conducted Miles soloing with a big band performing "Sketches of Spain" in Montreux. 'I cannot help but wonder," I wrote on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, "if this unexpected flurry of nostalgia at the age of 65 is some sort of last roundup." That same summer, Jack Lang awarded him the Legion of Honor. I wrote: "It seems somehow like final punctuation." Later, I realized that I had written his obituary two months early, which really spooked me. Because I also wrote: "Miles Davis is playing the soundtrack for the movie of my life and when he stops, the movie's over."

Well, I'm still here. But life post-Miles is not easy. There is nobody to remind us of the importance of personal sound and silence. The silent sounds of "Tutu," recorded in the late 80s, reflect the best of our contemporary urban experience - a peaceful garden in the middle of a polluted city, a warm café in winter, the metro when it is not on strike, walking streets, a friendly taxi driver, tree-lined empty boulevards at dawn. It has become much harder to ignore all the noise.

Miles was a regular at the "Grande Parade du Jazz" in Nice. Neighborly noise considerations forced a midnight curfew. When the stage manager waved off the band ten minutes early, Miles was furious. He wanted those ten minutes. He brought the band back until midnight on-the-nose. Money making as an art form involves doing what you want to do anyway even without the money.

Miles was also a master of the art of Good Publicity. His sparring with Wynton Marsalis in the press was a good example. Marsalis is the leader of the under-30 generation of tradition and blues-oriented players which has installed itself as the immediate future. It can be called a movement. They build on the past and one day may leap into the future.

Right now; though, most of them sound like other, mostly dead, people. They are intelligent, clean-living and highly specialized technocrats. Marsalis secured his influence on them through his post as Director of the Lincoln Center jazz program at just about the time Miles Davis died. There was a void, although I beg to differ with those who consider Marsalis to be Miles' heir. Marsalis is not "cursed" by change, and he has yet to learn the value of silence.

Marsalis accused Miles of deserting "true" jazz by playing rock. Miles accused Marsalis of ditto for playing European classical music. Back and forth, taking one to know one. Miles said: "Wynton is just doing a press number, which he is always doing. Music shouldn't be like two gladiators fighting."

Which of course made a great press number. Miles was photographed giving Wynton one of his drawings. They were both smiling like two heavyweights promoting a championship match.

So as we ride away into the sunset towards the future of jazz, we remember the words of the Prince of Silence: "When I'm not playing music, I'm thinking about it. I think about it all the time, when I'm eating, swimming, drawing, there's music in my head right now talking to you. I don't like the word jazz which white folks dropped on us. And I don't play rock. I make the kind of music the day recommends."”

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