Miles Davis - Life-Size

Miles Davis - Life-Size

The Prince of Darkness Turns 60:
"I know what I've done for music, but don't call me 'a legend'"
by Ken Franckling
Advanced Sunday, May 18, 1986 by United Press International
Copyright © 1986 United Press International, All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by permission of Ken Franckling

NEW YORK - The Prince of Darkness, swashbuckling in silver and gold, waves his crimson trumpet, lifts his blue sunglasses, and peers at row upon row of fans in the Beacon Theater.

He turns his back to the audience, as he has done for decades, and glides to his synthesizer where he plays keyboards with his left hand, the trumpet in his right.

The distinctive, muted horn weaves a jazzy melody through a funky, pop- sounding electronic tapestry of percussion and synthesizers, highlighted by hot guitar and saxophone licks.

No, Miles Davis explains later in his soft rasp of a voice, he's not turning his back to be rude, although often accused of it in his 40-plus years in music. He's pulling the music out of his band, giving cues with hands, eyes and body language. In that regard, Davis's on-stage demeanor is no different than that of a symphony conductor. After all, who would expect Leonard Bernstein to face the audience?

"I turn my back because I play better," Davis says. "Some notes you get better in a specific spot on the stage. If I play a high note, and don't hear it, I'll move."

Davis, who turns 60 on May 26, is a musical innovator and a survivor now playing for audiences whose ages average about half his own. A recognized master of traditional jazz trumpet, Davis moved away from the genre in the late 1960s to force a marriage of electronic jazz and rock that became known as "fusion."

"I know what I've done for music, but don't call me a legend," he says. "Just call me Miles Davis."

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. It is productive by any measure, more so considering his long periods of inactivity caused by myriad health problems, including a three-year addiction to heroin.

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

He has moved to the pop-oriented pastures of Warner Brothers, he says, because Columbia "made me feel like I'm a tax loss."

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 with the first nine-member band assembled since his "Birth of the Cool" period in 1949 and 1950.

And, five years after he emerged from his last "retirement," Davis is in good health. He credits his positive outlook to actress Cicely Tyson, a longtime confidant who became his wife in 1981. He has found it less necessary to pepper his conversation with four- and 12-letter obscenities.

He attributes his new-found fitness to swimming an hour a day, acupuncture and 11 lamb-serum injections he received last fall at a rejuvenation clinic in Switzerland.

There is a dark side to the Davis persona - one of bitterness, of unsavory happenings peppered through his career, including the 1950s heroin addiction and occasional run-ins with the law. 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.

But Davis, who has seen musical peers from his early jazz days succumb to drugs and racial intimidation, retains a child-like sense of discovery.

The need to move, change and grow is a force that powers his musical explorations and his new-found dabbling in acting that landed him a role on "Miami Vice" last fall and a Honda motorcycle commercial filmed this spring.

He sketches and draws almost constantly and designs clothes for himself and his famous bride, whom he married at Bill Cosby's home in western Massachusetts.

In the privacy that he relishes, the mystery man of the stage is gone. Davis is talkative as the afternoon sun streams through the balcony window of his plush apartment overlooking Central Park.

From his million-dollar lips come anecdotes, outspoken opinions laced with bitterness and irony, and reminiscences about growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., and his early days in jazz.

What comes through most of all is that this perennial music poll winner, the highest-paid performer in jazz, has no fear of being himself. He has never known a generation gap because he thinks young and surrounds himself with young, gifted musicians.

The voice is a hoarse whisper that seems to stop at his larynx, unable to leap any further. It is as individual to Davis as his throaty trumpet tone.

It is the voice that Tyson imitated in 1974 when she played the Emmy award- winning lead in the TV movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Friends say Tyson is the best thing to happen to Davis in terms of sorting out his troubled life and bouncing back from a 6-year layoff caused primarily by ill health, including injuries from a car accident, sickle-cell anemia and surgery.

"She keeps me balanced. I respect her. Every time I check, I always feel good," Davis says. "I always have to check my stuff. When I'm alone, everything is loose. When Cicely's here, I can feel a little pull. Just a slight pull."

Concerts and filming keep both of them on the road often. When at home, Davis and Tyson spend their time at a $1.4 million seaside villa they bought recently in Malibu, Calif. And yes, Tyson says, the Land of Mellow has had a softening effect on Davis.

In New York, their 17th-floor apartment, designed by Tyson, is like a piece of functional sculpture. The ceiling is white. Everything else is gray - the plush carpeting, the pillowed couch, the bedstand in one corner, the suede walls.

With Tyson on her way to California, Davis relaxes at home and talks at length. He often jumps up to make a quick phone call, put on a cassette from an album that's in the works, or take a swig from a 2-liter bottle of Evian mineral water.

The restless energy that fuels his music may be related to his string of marriages and relationships. Davis seems to need a lot of elbow room, and that has caused friction with all of his wives, including Tyson on occasion.

"Women get too frisky on you," Davis says. "I don't like it when women get like that. They get frisky and out of hand, because everything is geared to please the women - love songs, even cars. Some women, if they don't know what you're doing all the time, they dislike that. They want to know what you're doing, but don't want you to know what they're doing. I could never tell my mother 'I'm going down to 12th Street and I'll be there for 32 minutes.'"

Biographers list Tyson as Davis's fourth wife and say he has three children. Davis says he has married three times, and has four children: "One's in jail, one's in Phoenix, one's in the Navy and one's a schoolteacher."

His first relationship, which began in 1943 in East St. Louis when he was 16, yielded three children. Apparently there was no formal marriage between Davis and their mother.

His daughter, Cheryl, born in 1944, is a teacher in St. Louis. His eldest son, Gregory, born two years later, is a Vietnam-era Army veteran, who is now in prison. His second son, Miles IV, born in 1950, is in the Navy. The youngest, teenager Erin, lives in Phoenix, Ariz.

In 1958, Davis married a tall, strikingly beautiful dancer named Frances Taylor. She was even shier than Miles, who talked her into posing for three of his album covers. They were divorced 10 years later. While that divorce was pending, Davis lived with Tyson for two years. She had become a close friend who was able to pull him out of periods of depression.

In September 1968, he married aspiring soul singer Betty Mabry, 23. The marriage lasted one year, although a divorce took three years to accomplish.

Erin, 14, arrived when Davis was between marriages. He lives with his mother in Phoenix. He plays the drums and is the son Miles feels closest to. "He's my last hope, the only one with a shot of doing something in music," Davis says.

In his personal life, like his music, Davis is more interested in the present than the past. When asked about his wives, he says: "I don't want to talk about that no more."

Two of Davis's vivid acrylic paintings are propped against the wall over the sofa where he sits and plays his muted trumpet. Softly, he embellishes the melody of a funky pop tune blaring from the radio. He wears a burgundy and black-striped robe over his black tank top and baggy gold-flecked trousers. It's his own design, offset by a gold neck chain, bracelets and rings.

A 10-speed bike is in one corner. By the window, a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer sits atop a Rhodes electric piano Davis uses in composing. Boxes of cassette tapes are stacked in foot-high piles. He listens to Prince, Weather Report, and James Brown - "that kind of funk." He listens to a tape of every concert to critique what he and his band have played and make adjustments for the next show.

In the dining room, piles of his sketches lean against a wall. Davis puts down his horn, pulls out a plastic bag filled with coloring pens and a roll of art paper, and begins sketching as he talks.

"My father taught me when we were real small. He had all of us drawing, because St. Louis was a prejudiced place and it took the edge off of things," Davis said. "It takes a lot of anger out. If you're gonna get mad, and you sit down and sketch a bit, it will leave.

"When I started playing trumpet, it kept me out of a lot of fights. I could box real well. I could outbox everybody I saw. I used to fight big guys because they'd step all over themselves. I'd get right up in their face like Charlie Chaplin and then duck down."

Miles Dewey Davis III, son of an affluent dental surgeon, was born in Alton, Ill., on May 26, 1926. His family moved to East St. Louis, Ill., when he was a year old. He was the second of three children.

His mother, Cleota Henry Davis, was taciturn and socially ambitious, as much as her husband was professionally ambitious. While Miles seemed to be his father's pride and joy, he had a stormy relationship with his mother.

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 developed his trumpet technique and a bitter resentment toward bigotry. He knew, he says, that he was the best trumpeter - but all the prizes "went to the boys with the blue eyes."

Even today, Davis's music remains rooted in the blues and the distinctive, lyrical St. Louis trumpet sound he assimilated from a legion of local players including Clark Terry, Eddie Randall and Harold Baker.

"I lived across the (Mississippi) River and could hear it from there," Davis said. "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 shared solos with saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. After graduating from high school in 1945, Davis entered the prestigious Juilliard 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.

He showed little patience with Juilliard. He stayed there only for one and one-half semesters, and that was in deference to his father. Davis found the school to be less than challenging. His real education came on 52nd Street, where he matured as a composer and musician. Davis, by the late '40s, had developed a style of underplaying that became his trademark. It blended sound and silence to create a teasing, tension-building music on the belief that what you don't play is just as important as what you do.

But music was not the only thing that hooked Davis in the sometimes rough- and-tumble New York underbelly.

"I didn't intend to get a (heroin) habit. I was doing the s--t 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."

One night in 1953, Davis realized just how sick he was. Drummer Max Roach slipped $100 into his pocket after a gig in California. It was for train fare to take him home to his father's farm outside East St. Louis.

For 12 days he lay in bed in a cold sweat that he likened to "a bad case of flu, 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, pulling out a purple pen. "I'm still kicking it now. It lasts until it goes out of your head. It will leave, though. Now, I don't even know how it feels."

He has seen what overuse of drugs can do to people. Now, Davis says, his days of substance abuse are over.

"The doctor told me, 'Whatever you take, you have to pay later.' I don't have to reach for nothing. No more mortgages."

He says he no longer drinks, smokes, or takes dope. He downs several quarts a day of imported mineral water. His food preferences run to fish, chicken, sushi, bouillabaisse and spaghetti.

"I love to cook," Davis says, "but I only cook when nobody else can. All those women I was married to couldn't cook. I had to teach them. Cicely cooks good."

The subject of his past addiction prompts a critique of hypocrisy in America about drug use:

"It enhances creativity. They say it doesn't - but it does," Davis says. "You see people in movies and they get ready to do something: 'Pour me a drink. I had a hard day.' or 'I need to light up a cigarette.' Now that shit is worse than dope.

"Look at Billie Holiday, and Bird. They'd be still in it today if they could have walked up to a cop and said: 'Yeah, I use drugs. I don't sell it. I use it.'

"They're gone because of the fact they were hassled over it," Davis says. "When you break their (drug-taking) routine, they get cold too fast after sweating and they have pneumonia. Every time you have pneumonia, it weakens the lungs."

In 1954, with heroin no longer sapping his strength, Davis went into the first of his major creative periods. Within a year, he won his first critics' poll for trumpet playing.

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

Davis became 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.

He had a way of taking a tune that struck his fancy, like "Some Day My Prince Will Come," the waltz sung by Snow White in the famous Walt Disney film, and masterfully turning it into a jazz standard.

Creative peaks were offset by deep valleys. 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 left him with a dependence on pain-killers.

Through the years, Davis surrounded himself with the best young talent he could find. 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 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 a 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.

Jazz impresario George Wein, producer of festivals worldwide, likes what he sees and hears from Davis these days, in concerts that gross the trumpeter $20,000 to $40,000 a night.

"Miles loves electronic music. It gives him a whole new concept about what music is about," Wein says. "Miles Davis plays sets now that last two and one- half hours. He never used to do that. Miles is enjoying playing more than he ever did in his life. It is certainly nice compared to other years when I tried to get him to play an extra 10 minutes and he would say, 'Man, I've played it, George. I'm going home.'"

At the Beacon Theater, Davis shares the billing with blues guitarist B.B. King for three concerts in two nights. He 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.

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." The music doesn't stop for one hour and 20 minutes.

Two years ago, he still had a pronounced limp from the residual pain of his hip surgery. It is gone now, and Davis moves freely about the stage. He not only faces the audience for part of each tune, but takes some of his solos at the front, hunched over in deep concentration.

For the first time, a Davis band has a woman on the roster. Percussionist Marilyn Mazur was hired by Davis while he was on tour in her native Copenhagen. "She's a good musician. She plays drums, piano, and writes arrangements. She has the fastest hands of any drummer in the world," Davis says.

There are wonderful snippets of the "old" Miles sound. His horn is as sparse and lyrical as ever. There is even an echo from the past that will be on Davis's debut album for Warner Brothers. It is a flamenco-tinged composition called "Portia" that has Spanish scales and fine, albeit electronic, orchestration. It is certain to bring comparisons to his Sketches of Spain album of 1960, a collaboration with composer-arranger Gil Evans, whom Davis calls his greatest musical influence.

"When I hear flamenco music, it goes right here," he says later, 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 a big 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."

His new direction, swirling orchestral lines and exotic rhythms may reach out to pop audiences and force them to listen.

"It will teach younger kids to appreciate music - because now, they don't know what they're listening to," says Felton Crews, Davis's bassist, who made his recording debut on Miles' "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 good," Crews says. "But by 1989, by the time everybody sees how hip it is - he'll be on to something else."

The pop musicians Davis is working with these days include young rock star Prince. His Royal Purpleness will appear as a composer and vocalist on the trumpeter's next album with a song called "Can I Play With You?"

"Prince sent me two master tapes," Davis said. "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.

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

Davis is bitter about the problems he faced growing up black in a white America. He has tangled with police over the years, with arrests for drug and weapons possession and incidents he views as pure harassment.

In 1962, he sued the city of New York after an incident outside the Birdland jazz club. A plainclothes detective bashed Davis on the head while he was getting some fresh air between sets. A few minutes earlier, Davis had escorted a white woman from the club to her car.

That festering bitterness prompted him to name his final Columbia album "You're Under Arrest," the title tune being a rap-style parody with whistles and the sharp click of locking handcuffs.

He says he did so "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 license. Why don't you have a California license?'" Davis said. "I get tired of that. They do it all of the time."

Davis's business manager confirms that Miles is suing the California Highway Patrol over an incident in which he was stopped for speeding this spring in his black Ferrari.

"He made me forget about my music," Davis says. "He didn't like my color, my car, my license plate.

"They can fool around on St. Patrick's Day. A black man can't do that. Sometimes I feel like I'm ready to die in a war. Put those Irish policemen where they belong - in an Irish neighborhood."

Davis has found yet another creative outlet - acting. In addition to his recent "Miami Vice" appearance, he is studying a script for a John Schlesinger film about religious rituals in Latin America.

"They want me to play a priest," Davis says. "They tell me I have intense eyes."

Davis the artist has a fascination with eyes. They are the focal point of sketches - and he uses them to express joy, suspicion and whatever other mood is coursing through him at the time.

He works his way around the rolled paper, using the torn wrapper as a guide for his lines. There's a trumpet player in one corner, perhaps on a stage, a large audience across the page. One figure, a woman with a suspicious eye, is glaring at the horn player.

"If I draw something, it's what I want to see right then. When I go to a hotel, if the room is dull, I have my colors. I take a piece of paper, and the room changes. You know what I mean?"

His sketches have decorated the covers and-or liners of his past four albums.

The Tower Gallery in New York ran an exhibition of Miles' work as part of a Columbia Records tribute to him in 1984, marking his 40th year in music. Works by Davis bring up to $1,000 for small drawings, and prints run in the $200 to $400 range, gallery director Gary Lajeski said.

"They're really kind of quick study sketches with a lot of humor in them. It is a linear technique, like musical notes flowing across the page. It shows a jazz influence. It is colorful and very sketchy," Lajeski says. "They are nice prints for people who like his music. They all relate to each other. From his drawings, he'll design his own clothes and take those pictures to a tailor."

Davis goes to the kitchen and boils water for tea, offering a visitor regular or an array of herbal varieties.

Asked what the future holds for him, 5 or 10 years down the road, Davis responds: "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 it has been since I was 6 years old."

The stylish hipster, actor, artist, rock star sits down again and talks with pride about Tyson's present to him on his 59th birthday.

"It's a thoroughbred," he says, "one of two jumping horses we own. He's won ribbons. My trainer thinks the horse may turn pro next year.

"His name is Kind of Blue."


Editor's Note: JJA member Ken Franckling interviewed Miles Davis in New York in April 1986, a month before his 60th birthday, and received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism for the article. While the some of the material has been dated by Davis's death five years later, Franckling believes the piece still makes for interesting and ironic reading.

Those familiar with Davis's autobiography will find his comments in this profile about his then-wife Cicely Tyson to be most interesting, particularly the "tension" he talks about. The interview took place the day after an argument Davis described in his book - one in which Tyson pulled out his hair-weave. It was the beginning of the end of their marriage.


C o m m e n t s

WOW 1 of 4
Kendra January 13, 04

Miles Davis is very flamboyantly adventerous! AMAZING MAN!! Love Peace and Afrogrease!

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