There was never one Miles Davis. Depending on whom you ask, there may have been as many as five. But those would be the jazz fans, those who charted his every artistic move. They’re right. The composer/trumpeter blew through styles with a restless energy unlike any other twentieth century musician. But for our purposes, let’s step back from Davis’ stylistic devices and creations and look at the two fundamental Miles Davises: the public and the private.
Davis’ two faces are put on display with two equally compelling mediums released to coincide with what would have been his seventy-fourth birthday, the Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961, a new box set that covers a revelatory period in the musician’s career, and Miles and Me (University of California Press), a memoir by poet, and Davis friend, Quincy Troupe.
Columbia’s Complete Miles Davis/John Coltrane is a six-disc beauty of a collection that together with the label’s previous metal-spined reissues (Complete Plugged Nickel, Complete Bitches Brew, Complete Quintet, and Complete Miles Davis/Gil Evans) has become something of an encyclopedia set for a new millennium documenting Davis’ genius. The Davis/Coltrane set is of particular importance, as it contains what many aficionados point to as the closest thing there may be to a definitive jazz album, Kind of Blue. According to Columbia, Kind of Blue has achieved that rare legendary status that crosses over beyond jazz consumers, moving something to the tune of 5,000 units a week. While not Davis’ biggest selling effort, it is the one for which he is best known. Davis recorded classic work before Kind of Blue, but the album was a bellwether for the celebrity that would follow.
While his life depended on creating something and presenting it before an audience, Davis couldn’t have been more guarded. Whereas he stood naked on a stage, he was fiercely protective of his private life. Folks wanted to know Miles Davis. Miles Davis didn’t give a shit about folks. Quincy Troupe interviewed Davis for Spin in 1985. They had met previously, but with mixed results. For every meeting in which the musician seemed impressed with the young poet were two in which he would lambaste Troupe for violating his personal space. “Fuck you man! I don’t hafta speak to your motherfuckin’ ass every time I see you.”. But Troupe believes a bond formed when he arrived to interview Davis for the story. When Davis inquisitively grabbed a handful of the writer’s dreadlocks, Troupe didn’t hesitate to slap his hand away. Motherfucka, are you crazy? Subsequently Miles was sufficiently impressed with Troupe’s piece to suggest him as the writer for his 1989 autobiography.
Troupe’s Miles Davis: An Autobiography offered up the best account of the trumpeter’s life and its events. His new memoir, Miles and Me, portrays the trumpeter as the caring man that he was to the few who knew him, and the evil sumbitch he could be to those who didn’t. Troupe grew to know the ins and outs of Davis. While the books cite Davis’ birthday as May 25, Troupe insists he’s seen the birth certificate and that he was born a day later. He witnessed the volcanic outbursts as well as the trumpeter’s pursuit of making the perfect chili and his tender ties with Troupe’s family. And without missing a beat, he’s able to slide effortlessly into the Davis rasp, a wicked, almost inaudible croak with no small tinge of menace.
The two Miles Davises are so intertwined that one can’t help but detect a causal relationship. While he recorded some terrific work for Prestige through the Fifties, the public Davis began with his signing to Columbia in the middle of the decade. “With Prestige, he just played the tunes he played in gigs,” says Bob Belden. An accomplished composer and musician himself, Belden was granted the key to the candy store when Columbia tapped him to pour through their vaults as one of the archivists for their extensive Davis reissue project. “But he knew Columbia was serious business, so he took advantage of it.” The Columbia pairing signaled a personal and creative rebirth. No longer was he following Charlie Parker’s professional and personal path, gigging to purchase junk. “He got private after he was a junkie,” Troupe says. “The things he had to do to get the heroin, he took those to the grave.” By getting sober, Davis opened up the creative floodgates.
Along came the conceptual albums, a fairly new practice to jazz. The albums began to drop from Davis like a flurry of notes from his trumpet. Circle in the Round and Round About Midnight, both released in 1955, were the opening rounds of a comeback. In 1957 he initiated what would become one of his strongest musical partnerships, as well as his longest friendship, with arranger Gil Evans. Evans directed Davis’ large ensemble works starting with Miles Ahead, a selection of pieces captured in the third Columbia reissue set and a body of work that carries a classical feel within the jazz idiom.
A year later, Davis was chasing dual muses. Porgy and Bess featured his second ambitious collaboration with Evans, while Milestones found him working a mother of a new sextet. The new ensemble featured a young John Coltrane. “A lot of people questioned him for hiring Coltrane,” Troupe says. “He stood by Trane. He said, ‘I like him, so fuck you.’ And you know what? He made ’em look stupid.”
Indeed, hiring Coltrane proved to be both brilliant and prophetic. Under Davis’ tenure, the young musician honed his craft, worked on some of the most thoroughly conceived albums in jazz history and learned the trade. “Trane learned to record working with Miles,” says Belden. “You go on three-hour sessions, but you don’t kill yourself. Let them put the record together. And when you really feel like making a statement, like [Coltrane’s classic] A Love Supreme, then you go in there and put it together.”
Davis was growing comfortable making such statements and Kind of Blue proved to be a particularly memorable one. Davis ushered in a new brand of modal jazz (which implemented improvisation over scales rather than chord progressions) unlike anything jazz had heard before. His current pianist Wynton Kelly sat out during the session, replaced by Bill Evans. Belden suspects it was because Davis wanted a more European sound. “Subconsciously, I think that’s why people like it,” he says of the album. “It has that real western European impression. It crosses over to a white middle class audience. White middle class people can’t deal with real hardcore black music.”
Davis’ sextet was short-lived, though. Two years after Kind of Blue he released the uneven Someday My Prince Will Come which featured a muscular farewell from Trane. “Teo,” which boasts a thrilling Trane solo, stands as one of the strongest collaborations between the two. It was a fitting farewell to one of the most inspired collaborations in jazz. But the tenor saxman had learned all he needed to learn to chart a career of his own every bit as searching as that of his mentor.
For Davis, the creative restlessness ran his life until he died. “I remember one time walking through the Metropolitan Museum in New York,” Troupe recalls. “They had the Egyptian show and he came upon a mummy in the glass. Miles pointed at it and said, ‘Quincy, I don’t ever want my music to be like that. Because that means you’re dead. If you don’t listen to what your muse is telling you now, you’ll be like that mummy.’“
If Davis held anxieties about his musical path, his ascension to a high-profile figure made him even more skittish about his appearance. “He really loved being African-American,” Troupe says. “But what he was conflicted by was that he was so dark. The irony of it was that everybody else thought he was beautiful. Here is a guy who women would just fall down over, but he had this deep insecurity about the way he looked.” As a result Davis was particular about the way he was photographed. He hated photographs that featured him smiling, feeling they fell in line with a caricaturish image of black men, a line that included the beaming likes of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. When the autobiography was published, Troupe chose a photo of Davis breaking into a shit-eating grin without Davis’ say. You motherfucka!
Yet, the shyness could be pushed aside for an opportunity to be a bully. At a fashion show in 1987, Davis put on a gold lame cape that brushed the ground. With a smirk he tore into a nearby innocent. Someone weaker than him. “Andy, pick up my motherfuckin’ cape!” he sneered at Mr. Warhol.
To those that had the misfortune of sidling up to Davis in a social setting, he would unleash a furious flurry of profanity that could cut the thickest of skin. His musical achievements paired with his public emotional instability hints at a mad genius, but Troupe portrays Davis as simply protective of his life. “The more famous he got, the more people wanted to know about his private life. They wanted to hang out with him, and he couldn’t do that. Miles Davis spoke through his music. He was able to speak through his music very eloquently and elegantly and beautifully and powerfully and deeply.”
Those adjectives could occasionally be used to describe Davis himself, though Troupe would add one more. “Fierce! He wasn’t a big guy, but he was fierce. He had this volcanic temper and this look that said Do . . . not . . . say . . . shit . . . to . . . ME.”
All considered, would the private Davis and be doubly appalled by the dual releases this month? Troupe doesn’t think so. He informed Davis that he planned on writing the memoir. Don’t fucking write it till I’m dead! For the reissues, would he think them akin to displaying a mummy? Again, unlikely. “They wouldn’t have changed the direction of what he wanted to play live,” he says. “And they really put him in a sense of history.”
Columbia will continue their series with more gems from the vaults. According to Belden, the archival T.L.C. is urgent. “We just found out yesterday that the CD release of Filles de Kilimanjaro reversed the imaging,” he says of the previous release of the classic album. “In 1993, they put it out and the drums were in the right when they were supposed to be in the left.” A three-disc In A Silent Way set is next in the pipeline as well as Live at the Cellar Door featuring a young Keith Jarrett.
Even without the larger dilemma of production snafus, the discs spotlight Davis’ creative process over the span of decades. In the jazz medium, only Ellington was as prolific, but Davis’ structural innovations put him in an elite class. It was a fully realized career that due to his restlessness, still hinted at what might have been.
“He and Prince were trying to do some things,” Troupe says. “He wanted to record with James Brown. He liked some techno. He liked hip-hop beats. He wanted to do some Brazilian and Caribbean stuff. I think he might be mixing it all together.” From his various musical directions and from stories that were never known, stories that put a man with the music, something of a consistent Miles Davis portrait emerges.
“I always told him, ‘Miles, you have to understand that you’re a historical figure,'” Troupe says. “Like Picasso. You have to get your words down before someone else puts them in your mouth. About five months before he died, I told him I was going to write about him in the future. I thought that someone who knew him should write the truth down about him and humanize him in a way that a lot of people didn’t understand. He was a really human, caring and funny guy.”
Troupe pauses. “But he could switch to being an evil sonofabitch, though, if you crossed him.”