Following Miles Davis’ death on September 28th, 1991, Rolling Stone asked many of his famous friends, collaborators, and admirers to reflect on the genius of the legendary trumpeter-bandleader. Here are their tributes in their own words.
Miles Davis was and will always be one of the major contributors to the culture of America in the 20th century. Before anyone knew about self-esteem, before the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, America had Miles Davis. If I had never played with him, he would have still been a major influence on my life.
It has always amazed me with Miles and Charlie Parker and all of us who came up at that time — working conditions weren’t the best in those days. It was an uphill battle for all of us. You worked in environments where all kinds of distractions prevailed. It took its toll on a lot of us.
The day after he died, I went out to see his family. It was the first time I was in his Malibu home. What knocked me out was that it looked like a painter’s pad, not a musician’s place. He had his own work — huge, beautiful things all over the walls, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the garage. It always seemed that Miles had that Midas touch artistically and materially.
However controversial the last 20 years of Miles Davis’s career might have been, there is no doubt that the lyrical beauty, the poignancy of his sound, his swing, the depth of his feelings, and the ability he had to address the fundamentals of jazz will forever be of value to all musicians and all true listeners. He knew how to organize a personal style and he also knew how to organize bands. Few in jazz or in any other music have been as good as he was at his best.
The first really important moment that I remember in my social experiences with Miles was when he invited me to come up from Virginia. He called me on the phone one day and said, “Berta, I want to fix some food for you.” So I came up to New York with a girlfriend and he had prepared this dish, sort of like a bouillabaisse. At that time he was a vegetarian and he wasn’t eating any meat at all. It was a delicious, delicious meal. He came in, gorgeous in a white suit, and checked the pot, and went bouncing out of the house. Came back about two hours later, watched while his household person served the meal, and left. I didn’t see him again at all. But that was typical Miles. This was in ’76 or ’77.
Miles shares with a small handful of artists of this century the ineffable mystery of creation at its highest level. A bad motherfucker.
We were friends, buddies. We shared a lot together. Recently we had one of those conversations that aims for the stars, for the universe, like a rocket ship. A conversation laced with a hint of eternity in it.
We did a lot of laughing, a lot of conversing, and a lot of eye-laughing in the Sixties. All of us in that group [Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams] — we’d all just look at each other and be rolling on the floor, laughing. Miles would say, “You’re some crazy motherfuckers.” He had a good time with that band. He later told me that as a total group, that was his best band.
In his book he said that when he died he wanted to go on his feet. He did. He accomplished a lot — and he was still going. Damn! We gonna miss a good friend.
The guys in the Band had very, very special feelings about Miles. When we were going to play at the Hollywood Bowl [in the early Seventies], they asked us about an opening act and they read off a list and Miles was on that list, and once they got to his name, we couldn’t even hear any of the others’ names.
Well, little did we know that Miles had gone into a new phase in his career, and he came out and played first and it was like a horror experience in the audience. It really upset everybody.
And our job for the rest of the evening was just to kind of cool everybody out again. It was marvelous in just showing us that music not only soothes the savage beast, it stirs the savage beast.
John Lee Hooker
I been knowing Miles for about 25 years. Some people say how he didn’t get along with people too good, but that I don’t know about. He always greeted me with a smile and a hug and we talked.
Not too long ago we did something together [recording the soundtrack to The Hot Spot, a 1990 Dennis Hopper movie ]. When we got through, he said: “You the funkiest man alive in the blues. The mud’s up to your neck.” That meant a lot to me, coming from Miles Davis. Nobody else played like Miles Davis. Sketches of Spain — so deep I didn’t understand it. That man could go so far out, you’re like in space. I hope he’s gone to a better place, if there is such a thing.
I remember when I first got a phone call from him. It was 1981. Got a message that said, “Call Miles.” He said, “Can you be at Columbia in a couple of hours?” I said, “Well, if it’s really you, sure!” I went and he turned out to be about eight feet shorter than I thought he actually was. ‘Cause I thought he was at least 14 feet tall.
We played at this place called the Savoy. I was playing the bass and he was standing there facing me with his back to the audience. The music was pretty loud and he comes over and says, “How do you like my shoes?” And everybody in the place is watching us, trying to figure out what is this deep musical thought that Miles is telling Marcus. And I looked at his shoes and they were some bad shoes. I said, “Those shoes are bad! Where’d you get them?” He said: “Cicely [Tyson, his wife at the time] bought them for me. She can get you some. What size do you wear?” And we’re talking about his shoes in the middle of all this music.
I had been in Montreal performing in a jazz club when I first heard that Miles was looking for me. But I didn’t believe it. Then when I got back to New York, where I lived at the time, several other people called me and said Miles was looking for me. One day, Miles did call and asked if I was working, and I told him I was free. He asked me to come to his house the next day, which I thought would be an audition. Then he hung up. He didn’t give me his address or phone number, nothing. Later, Tony Williams called me up and asked me if Miles had called me and he said, “Yeah, he called me, too.” And Tony had his address and phone number.
We showed up the next day and we went down to Miles’ basement — that was his music room — and Miles stayed upstairs almost the whole time. For three days we were going over some new things and some old things. Then at the end of the three days, Miles came down and told us that we were going to be recording the next day at Columbia Recording studios in New York. Which surprised me ’cause I thought I was still auditioning.
Miles changed the way I heard music. Miles changed the way everybody heard music.
I first met him in 1985 before we started to work on the Tutu album. He had this incredible ability to look you right in the eye. I think it was his way of sizing people up. He still had his chops. When we recorded the first number — which was the title track — I was knocked out when he soloed. It was right on the money. And he still loved music. I would send him stuff to listen to, and I remember when I sent him a Scritti Politti album, he called me back and said in that voice of his, “Man, that Scritti Politti is a motherfucker.”
Miles was my biggest idol — it was Charlie Parker and him for me. I first met Miles in 1951 at the Downbeat Club. He told me he’d heard my solo on a Lionel Hampton record — which was the only record I’d ever played a solo on at that time. I couldn’t even speak. He said, “It sounds like me.”
When Miles came to Montreux to play earlier this year, it was one of the most dramatic nights of music I’ve ever been involved in. To hear him playing the music that he and Gil Evans made together gave me goosebumps all night long. That’s some of the most heavy music of the 20th century.
The mythology about Miles had developed around an existing persona. That was who he was. Most of the time the bark was worse than the bite. At Montreux, after he played something great, I whispered to him, “Beautiful,” and he just said, “Fuck you.” He was always that way. But he was also so full of love.
I grew up listening to his music. I feel like he and John Coltrane taught me about impressionism in music. So when I was playing the Fillmore, I asked if Miles would like to play and he said he would. I think he found it interesting to play for a younger and different sort of crowd. And the crowd definitely listened. I think his music was just brilliant. As a musician and as a listener, his early records taught me so much about space and phrasing. What he did reminds me so much of what the impressionists did in art — it was a beautiful revolution.
I met Miles around 1980, ’81, when he came out of retirement. He came into Seventh Avenue South, the club I was working in with Dave Liebman. There were like 10 people in the club and we were knocked out that Miles was there.
After the set he came over and said, “Hey, man, you sound beautiful.” So I said, “Gee, Miles, it’s so great to have you back on the scene playing with us again.” And he said, “Who asked you? Shut the fuck up.” God, he was the funniest guy I ever saw in my life. You never knew what to expect.
I grew up with his music, listening to his music with Bird. By ’68, when I joined the band, he was a huge, monstrous legend. You can imagine what a buzz it was to work with him. Tony [Williams] is from Boston, where I’m from, and when Herbie [Hancock] left the band, Tony recommended me. I got asked to play a week’s engagement in Baltimore. Before I left New York to join them, I called Miles to ask about rehearsals — because it was a transitional band and I’d never heard the songs they were doing — and in that famous airy voice of his he said, “No rehearsals. Just play what you hear.” And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
So I went in and did just that. The band at that time was Tony, Dave Holland, Wayne [Shorter], and Miles. As soon as we finished the first set, I ran to the bar and ordered three drinks. And then I hear Miles whispering compliments in my ear.
He was a spawning ground — a meeting place for great musicians. He also inspired the best within you. Spiritually, he helped me put my own stamp on myself. It was freedom of expression. Miles’s approach just brought out my desire for musical freedom. He did it. He lived it.