Miles Davis stands in relation to jazz music as Hemingway stood to the American novel, as Picasso stands to art.
What he does can change -- and has changed -- jazz history. His is the kind of creativity that is not limited to personal virtuosity but is based upon a conceptual capability that opens the doors to perceptions of new ways to view music.
In a music which is turbulent, constantly evolving, subject to whims and fads and exploitation, Miles has been for almost twenty years the public conscience of his art.
At the end of the Forties, he pioneered in the use of harmonies and tonalities which evolved into the "cool school."His series of 78 rpm discs cut then for Capitol (still available and fresh sounding on a Capitol Birth of the Cool LP) are definitive.
Then jazz becomes lost in the miasma of modern classicism. It lost its balls. Miles brought it all back home with one appearance. He came on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival and he played a blues. It was so funky, so down home, so deeply grooving and swinging that the whole cool school was wiped out in less than a year. The blues was called "Walkin'"and his disc of it, on Prestige, remains a classic, one of the most influential recordings of the Fifties, as musicians all over the world abandoned the conventions and tricks of the cool to follow Miles.
Since that time, Davis has led a succession of small groups, quintets and sextets, which have set the pace in jazz. He joined with composer Gil Evans to produce a series of Columbia albums by larger units. Sketches of Spain was and is a remarkable achievement, sounding as modern as tomorrow's news after almost a decade. With John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones, he made the intriguing All Blues, quotations from which you hear today in blues bands and rock groups and jazz combos.
No single personality in jazz has set style and led movement to the degree Davis has. He comes from the music of Charlie "Yardbird"Parker and began as an obvious follower of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. But like all true creators, he quickly abandoned anyone else's mold to make his own. What Miles plays sounds easy. He does not accentuate the speed or the run or the swooping leaps and strides across intervals from the bottom to the top of the horn as the virtuoso players do. Instead Miles packs into his playing the kind of intensity that is rare in any performing artist, and even in jazz only a few have managed it.
When he plays a blues he has the searing concentration of emotion Blind Willie Johnson got in "Wreck of the Titanic."When he plays a ballad, he sings through the horn with the eloquence of La Nina de los Pienes, Edith Piaf, Ray Charles or Nina Simone. When he finishes playing he is damp and emotionally drained from the effort. It is almost painful.
Like all great creative artists, he has big ears. He is the first major jazz artist I know of to seriously listen to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. He was listening to Dylan before most of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues"fans ever heard of him, just as he dug flamenco and classical and all other kinds of music.
And above all he is the most honest musician I have ever met, of any kind, of any color. "Don't ask me nuthin'bout nuthin', I just might tell you the truth"might have been written for Miles. But then he is so totally concerned with music, and music means so much to him, that he can be blunt and honest where others have to be more diplomatic. Miles is all music. He gives you no clues. He doesn't tell you it's a soprano on Ïn a Silent Way"nor does he tell you how many hours of thought and planning and rehearsing went on before the two sessions (of three hours each) in which the album was cut. The message is all in the music and the music is all that matters. Which is the way it is with a major artist in any field -- the art is all there is.
Miles Davis was leading his quintet through a roaring version of "Walkin',"and the small bandstand at The Plugged Nickel, the Chicago jazz club, was literally rocking with the music's heated vibrations. Miles, knees bent, shoulders hunched, horn aimed on a 45 degree angle at the floor, blew wide open into the microphone. The rhythm section wrapped itself around his solo, rising to meet him as he soared, whipping over him when he coasted. At the end of the chorus, he took horn from his lips, wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand and looked around the crowded room with a pained expression.
After what seemed an eternity -- is he through or isn't he -- Miles leapt back into the fray with a ripple of notes that twisted and squirted upward with astonishing speed.
At the bar, a middle-aged patron rubbed his ears, squirming in obvious displeasure. "That's not music to me,"he shouted over the torrential blast from the bandstand. He stabbed a forefinger at his temple. "Too much jamming it in. Too loud. They're all good musicians but . . ."
The man really loved Miles, he was quick to add -- the way he used to play six or seven years ago. Those pretty things like "My Funny Valentine."
Ï wouldn't even come down here,"he said ëxcept I know Mike [the club's owner], and he lets me in free."
Davis finished his solo, carefully placed his horn on the piano and walked toward the bar as Wayne Shorter got into a soprano saxophone solo.
The man at the bar smiled as Miles passed him. "Great, man!"he offered, but Miles kept on toward the end of the bar as if he hadn't heard him. The diminutive trumpeter ordered a nonalcoholic drink and perched himself on a bar stool, a worried look on his face.
Miles and I had never said much to each other -- and there had been more than a little animosity on his part -- during the seven years I was with Down Beat magazine. Stories about Miles'salty relations with jazz writers are legion, and, many of them, firmly based in truth. My first encounter with him was in 1960. He was in Chicago, playing a Rush Street club, I had just recently joined the Down Beat staff, and I was eager to present him with magazine's Critic's Poll plaque (one of dozens of awards he has won over the years).
Asked if it would be possible to present the plaque to him at the club, Miles'reply was immediate and barbed: "You're not going to plug that god-damned magazine on my bandstand. Give it to me at the bar."
Four years ago, at The Plugged Nickel, our last encounter ended in a heated, profane argument that centered on Down Beat: the social attitudes of its owner; who do critics think they are, writing about music; if Down Beat is a music magazine, then it should publish nothing but music, no words; how he never read the magazine because it was prejudiced and why the hell did I (as editor) put Nancy Wilson's picture on the cover of a magazine that's supposed to be about jazz?
And so -- though I left Down Beat's employ two years ago -- I approached Miles with some trepidation now. An interview had been arranged through an intermediary, but . . .
Ï don't want to talk now, man,"he said, not so much as a brush off but a plea for understanding. Ï'm thinking about this."His hand made a sweep toward the bandstand. "The music. Call me tomorrow."
The middle-aged man started again. He'd come to hear Miles and he hadn't heard any trumpet solos. (Miles had soloed on everything so far.) The conversation revolved back to Miles-ain't-like-he-used-to-be. About then Davis began an acid-etched "Stella by Starlight."He played it much as he has for the last several years -- with an inner pain that touched the heart. The man at the bar finally quieted down.
A couple of days later, Davis said: "The old people come up to me and ask, 'Why don't you play the way you used to?'I say to them, 'Tell me how I used to.'"
The fans of Miles early Sixty style, despite all, have a point: the music of Miles Davis has continually evolved over the years, particularly the last few, during which it has grown out of bop and ballads into something that combines elements of rock and the avant-garde, something distinctly unique.
Yet Miles had a point, too, even if only by implication: there is a strong thread of continuity that runs through his music from the mid-Forties to today. Most would call it style; he would probably call it approach. Whatever it is, it suffuses everything he does -- and he does everything his way, on his terms, whether it be playing music, conducting business, attiring himself (he has been in the advance fashion guard for at least the last twelve years) or merely talking about a wide variety of subjects, from music to boxing.
And everything he does (and some things he doesn't) are part of the Miles Davis mystique, which has grown to legendary proportions, fed by truth, half truth, pure fabrication, and, most of all, by its bearer's sometimes brutal frankness.
Ï always thought that nobody could do anything better than me,"he explained, when we got together to talk. Ï don't have no second guesses. At least I don't assume anybody can do it better . . . I'm just bashful. I have nothing to say that's bullshit. So when I hear bullshit, I can detect it.
"Like, I can't be on none of those television shows, 'cause I'd have to tell Johnny Carson, Ýou're a sad motherfucker.'That's the only way I could put it. If I did that, right away they'd be telling me, Ýou're cursing.'But that's the only way I can say it. I was supposed to be on Steve Allen's show, and I sent him a telegram telling him he was too white, his secretary was too white, his audience was too white. And he wanted me to play for scale! Shit. I can't be standing up there before all those white broads . . . and all of them got maids. I can't be associated with that kind of shit. I got a maid myself. See, whatever they do, they're trying to get those middle-aged white bitches to watch it."
Miles chuckled softly at a question concerning all the far-out Miles Davis stories that are in circulation. "They're probably all true,"he said. There's the one about how he lost his voice (the Davis voice is a legend unto itself): He had a throat operation in the early Fifties and was not supposed to speak for a period of time, but he became so angry at a record company owner that he began to shout; from that moment, so the story goes, he has not been able to talk above a hoarse, rasping whisper. Another version of the story substitutes a booking agent for the record company man.
Davis doesn't come close to fitting the stereotype of the black jazz musician. He's not from a poor family (his father was a well to do dental surgeon), nor was he reared in a big-city ghetto or sharecropper farm -- he grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, where his parents were solid members of the middle-class -- the black middle-class of a viciously racist city, which means that, despite his family's affluence, he suffered all the indignities heaped upon black people in the United States.
Äbout the first thing I can remember as a little boy was a white man running me down the street hollering, 'Nigger! Nigger!'"he told a Playboy interviewer a few years ago.
He never denies his blackness -- in fact, he is one of the heroes of the black community (little children run up to him when he strolls down the street). In almost any conversation with him, he makes reference to the difference of being black and being white in this country. His frankness has caused him to be called a racist. He most certainly is not.
Miles Davis at leisure is quite different from Miles Davis at work. Gracious, talkative, humorous and warmly human, he is excellent company. When he was at The Plugged Nickel, we spent two afternoons and a night hanging out. The afternoons were spent for the most part in his Volkswagen bus (he still has the Ferrari) driving around the South Side as he talked and answered questions, a unique milieu in which to conduct an interview, it must be admitted. The night was passed at The Plugged Nickel where the Buddy Rich band worked on Miles'night off. That night Miles sat slumped at a table in front of the stand, not saying much but watching Rich like a hawk. (A good portion of the audience watched Miles watching.) Rich has seldom played better, and Miles made occasional knowing comments about what the master drummer was doing.
"Did'cha notice the way he cut into the band there?"
"Hear what that motherfucker did then? Just that little cymbal thing and it swung the whole fucking band."
The day before he had talked about his listening habits, among several other things. He said he listened to anything good. For instance, he admires Laura Nyro as a performer. Recently, when she recorded in New York, Miles dropped by the sessions to see what was going on. Laura asked Miles if he'd play on some of the tracks -- she's a fan of his -- and Miles studied the proposition, as he listened to what was going down. His conclusion was that -- much as he'd like to play behind Miss Nyro -- all the holes where he could play had already been filled in. Maybe next time.
Miles likes much that goes under the name of rock and roll. "But I don't like the word rock and roll and all that shit. Jazz is an Uncle Tom word. It's a white folks word. I never heard that shit until I read it in a magazine."
There's rock bands and then there's rock bands, Miles says. Ït's social music. There's two kinds -- white and black, and those bourgeois spades are trying to sing white and the whites are trying to sound colored. It's embarrassing. It's like me wearing a dress. Blood, Sweat and Tears is embarrassing to me. They try to be so hip, they're not. They try to sing Black and talk white. I know what they do: they try to get Basie's sound with knowledge . . . put some harmonies in it -- instead of a straight sixth chord, they'd use a -- shit, I can't call chords anymore -- a raised fourth or some shit like that, with the tonic on top. It was done years ago.
"White groups don't reach me. I can tell a white group just from the sound, don't have to see them. It's all right for a white guy to talk about them, to keep up with what the white brothers are doing, but I listen to James Brown and those little bands on the South Side. They swing their asses off. No bullshit. All the white groups have got a lot of hair and funny clothes -- they got to have on that shit to get it across.
"Some of those white groups are nice, though. I was listening to one last night -- but when I listen, I put something in . . . like, 'that would be nice if they did such and such.'
"But Jimi Hendrix can take two white guys and make them play their asses off. You got to have a mixed group -- one has one thing, and the other has another. For me, a group has to be mixed. To get swing, you have to have some black guys in there.
"See, white guys can only play a certain tempo. [Taps fingers at a medium tempo on the bus'dashboard.] They can play here, but they can't play here [slightly faster tapping] or here [fast tapping]. When you got a fast tempo, you gotta have some shit going on -- keep it running under. The average rock group can play at a medium tempo [tap, tap, tap, tap], but a little more [taptaptaptap], they can't play it. For me, if I listen to a white group, they got to have some spades in there for me to like them in more than one tempo. Spades got that thing -- they can tighten it up. Tony [Williams] has a mixed group [a trio], and that white guitar player, John McLaughlin, wouldn't play the way he's playing with Tony if he was in a white group. John's harmonic sense is fantastic. But his time . . . Tony'll take care of that. Even with just a little luck he'll sound good."
Yeah: Think Fast
Davis'new album, In a Silent Way, has McLaughlin among the personnel. Using a rock player seemed quite a departure, even for Miles, and one might wonder why he did it.
Ï didn't use John as a rock player,"he said, "but for special effects. John's no more a rock guitar player than I'm a rock trumpet player. You don't have to be a special kind of player to play rock. That's what we were playing when I first started playing with Eddie Randall's Blue Devils in St. Louis -- played the blues . . . all the time."
Miles has never stood still. He has continually arrived at new concepts, new directions, and then, just as his colleagues in the jazz world have picked up on it, Miles is already somewhere else. His career is an elusive and tremendously influential path of changes.
His approach to trumpet comes up when Miles talks about his boyhood in East St. Louis. There weren't many records in the Davis household, but a lot of musicians came by to stay all the time, and Miles, aged 13, listened hard when they played.
"The approach to the trumpet by my instructor in St. Louis, Elwood Buchanan, is so slick. You can't help but play fast if you approach the trumpet like he does. He approached trumpet like he was going to really play it -- and he did."
For example: Ï wouldn't approach playing the trumpet like Louis Armstrong, 'cause right away it would stop me -- that's too late for me. Know what I mean?"
That Louis has already done it?
"Naw. It's the approach. It's the difference between speed and the way you think and if you have to have a drink when you play, and it's the way Buddy Rich sits down on the drums -- you know, he can play fast by the way he sits. Speed, right there. The way Tony Williams plays, that speed. I mean, a fighter can look at a fighter and tell if he has speed. I'm fast. The trainers can tell just by looking at me -- I got small legs and round shoulders. Just looking at a race horse -- you can tell just by the lines."
If Miles hadn't modeled his style after Louis Armstrong, what about Dizzy Gillespie? No, Diz wasn't so much his man as Clark Terry, fine trumpet player with Duke Ellington for years, whom Miles had heard often as a boy, and Buchanan, Miles'teacher, and an obscure player named Buddy Anderson -- "those guys that play fast."
But Diz plays fast.
"Dizzy,"says Miles, "didn't play fast like that -- light and fast and under and fast."
Under? That's the difference, in Miles'terms, between a polished, well-schooled musician like alto saxophonist Benny Carter racing through his licks, and Charlie Parker, the spiritual/technical father of Be-Bop playing fast. Ï mean,"Miles explains, "to play fast and take the drums away, and you still hear it fast but it's not a run."With time mixed into it. "Yeah. Think fast."
In 1945, when he was 18, he convinced his father to send him to the Julliard School of Music in New York City instead of to Fisk University, his mother's choice. By that time he had been musical director of Eddie Randall's Blue Devils (a local high school band), written arrangements, been offered a job on the road with Tony Bradshaw's band (his mother wouldn't let him go, and he didn't speak to her for two weeks), and filled in on a few gigs with Billy Eckstine's band, which then featured both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was no achievement higher than playing with those cats in the realm of Be-Bop -- except, of course, to split for New York, the capitol of the new music itself.
Miles spent his first week in New York -- and his first month's allowance -- trying to find Bird (Charlie Parker's nom d'Be-Bop).
Ï roomed with Charlie Parker for a year,"Davis once said. Ï used to follow him around, down to 52nd Street, where he used to play. Then he used to get me to play. 'Don't be afraid,'he used to tell me. 'Go ahead and play.'Every night I'd write down chords I heard, on matchbook covers. Everybody helped me. Next day I'd play those chords all day in the practice room of Julliard, instead of going to classes."
Today, he puts down Julliard because it graduates trumpet players "who haven't got tones good for anything -- they have a legit sound and it's a white sound."He quit the music school in 1946 -- äll that shit they were teaching wasn't doing me a damn bit of good"-- and began playing with Bird's group, even though he was unsure of himself and often faltered. His recollections of the great jazz innovator are less than fond.
"First thing, he was a dirty mother-fucker, man. I loved to listen to him but he was so fucking greedy. Just greedy -- you know how the greedy people are. But he had a hell of a mind."
Parker also was the king of the junkies, a side of him that had an influence on Davis.
Ï got hooked [on heroin] . . . in 1949,"Davis once told an interviewer. Ï got bored and was around cats that were hung. So I wound up with a habit that took me over four years to break."
During the year he got strung out, he began rehearsing with a group of young musicians -- among them baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, altoist Lee Konitz, arranger-composer John Carisin, pianist John Lewis -- who got together to play and talk music in arranger Gil Evans'basement room in New York. Evans, the oldest of the group, had been chief arranger for the Claude Thornhili band and Evans'scores had made a deep impression on Davis when he first heard them (they have remained musical collaborators through the years).
"He liked the way I played and I liked the way he wrote,"Davis says.
The music played and written by the men in Evans'basement was bop-derived but more tightly arranged, more languid, cooler. The records the nine-piece group made under Davis'name, for Capitol in 1949 and '50 set off the so-called Cool Era of jazz.
Ironically, as the cool school -- consisting almost exclusively of white musicians -- gained the ascendency, Miles Davis'career faded to the point of oblivion. He was reduced to playing as a single at any club that would give him a few nights'booking, and with any local rhythm section that might (or might not) do an adequate job of accompanying him.
In 1954, however, his fortunes and personal life changed for the better.
Ï made up my mind I was getting off dope,"he said. Ï was sick and tired of it. You know you can get tired of anything. You can even get tired of being scared. I laid down and stared at the ceiling for 12 days, and I cursed everybody I didn't like. I was kicking it the hard way. It was like having a bad case of flu, only worse. I threw up everything I tried to eat. My pores opened up and I smelled like chicken soup. Then it was over."
The next year, Davis was given a rousing reception at the Newport Jazz Festival. Critics welcomed him back in open-armed reviews (he commented later that he played the way he always played, so what were they talking about). His comeback, as one writer put it at the time, was in full swing.
He tied with Gillespie in the trumpet category of the Down Beat International Jazz Critics Poll, coming "practically . . . from out of nowhere,"as the magazine described his feat. His Prestige records began selling well, and he was, with such public acceptance, able to form a quintet that was to become one of the finest -- and most influential -- in jazz history.
By the end of the Fifties, Miles Davis was one of the hottest musical properties, as the bookers say, in the country, jazz or otherwise. And Miles had made it without selling out. His music was as uncompromising as ever, perhaps more so. Everywhere he played, whether at a night club or concert hall, the people queued up in lines that sometimes stretched a block. Many came to see rather than listen, for it was during these heady times that Davis ceased being just a superb musician and became a personality.
The people loved it when he turned his back on them, when he walked off the stage during others'solos, even, by God, when he didn't show up. He could work as much or as little as he wanted, and his price was high. Young men copied his tastes in clothes (then it was very Italian, now it's sort of personal mod-ish). The stories of his cars (much interest in his white Ferrari), his amours, his cursing, his boxing -- all were grist for the legend mill. There was even a Bell Telephone ad that showed a man in a hotel room talking into a phone saying something like, Ï was sitting here thinking of you while Miles played 'My Funny Valentine'and I thought I'd call. . . ."
Äll the money, cars, clothes, the bitches -- all that was to match my ego,"he says today.
Musically, he had reverted in part to the Bop of Parker, but with greater flexibility, sophistication and lyricism. Out of that rich ground, however, other flowers grew.
Saxophonist John Coltrane, who was a member of Davis'group during most of late Fifties and who in the Sixties became a musical giant in his own right before he died in 1967, once described his impressions of Davis'music when he returned to the band after a brief absence in late 1957.
Ï found Miles in the midst of another stage of musical development."he said. Ït seemed that he was moving . . . to the use of fewer and fewer chord changes in songs. He used tunes with free-flowing lines and chordal direction.
Ïn fact, due to the direct and free-flowing lines in his music, I found it easy to apply the harmonic ideas that I had. I could stack up the chords . . . I could play three chords at once. But on the other hand, if I wanted to, I could play melodically. Miles music gave me plenty of freedom. . ."
Coltrane was talking about the modal pieces Davis was featuring more and more, compositions based on scales instead of chords. A Davis album made during this time, Kind of Blue (Columbia), influenced the shape of jazz almost as dramatically and widely as the Capitol Records made a decade before.
The music of Miles Davis today stems in part from that period but more from the influence of the young men he has hired since 1963. Before then, he tended to play with older men who had come up about the same time as he. In '63, however, his rhythm section consisted of men who had grown up on his music, not Charlie Parker's -- pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams. Though these three have since departed, their replacements are of the same generation.
Ï pick who I like,"he said. "But they usually like each other too. All of them are talented, and when they play, it gets off the ground. I give them their heads, but I try to tell them what sounds best. I tell them to always be prepared for the unexpected -- if it's going out, it might go out more, an extended ending might keep on going."
His sidemen during the last few years have always been young.
"They're the only ones I know who can play. A lot of guys are good musicians, but it's what they can do in my group that counts. You can't build a band on friendship. A guy might be a good guy, but if he can't play . . . See, if I was gonna get a drummer, he'd have to play fast, y'understand?
Ït's quality that makes music good. If you get the right guys to play the right thing at the right time, you got everything you need. I could take guys who've played with me -- like Ron Carter, Herbie and Tony -- and they could play anything. I could put together the greatest rock and roll band you ever heard. But the quality of music is in the musicians too. Guys get together and make music good. I've heard so many good songs fucked up because they weren't directed right, not going in the right direction. I've had Herbie and them start off in the wrong direction, and I had to say, 'Hey! Wait a minute.'"
Direction, as well as approach, is a strong member of the Miles Davis music structure. Each of his last two albums, Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way, has a small line of type on the cover that reads "Directions in music by Miles Davis."None of his earlier albums have it.
Ït means I tell everybody what to do,"he said lightheartedly. Ïf I don't tell ém, I ask ém. It's my date, y'understand? And I've got to say yes and no. Been doing it for years, and I got tired of seeing 'Produced by this person or that person.'When I'm on a date, I'm usually supervising everything."
Miles despairs of convincing anybody as to what is, and what is not, good music. To find good music, you've got to seek it on an individual basis. "You have to listen,"says Davis, "learn by trial and error. You can't go by talk -- that's the way people sell things. You can sell anything. If you want to sell a car, paint it red. It can be the raggedest car in the world, but somebody'll buy it. Rebel with a natural -- he's a winner today."
Then it's all just old-fashioned show business?
"Yeah. A white man can take a black man with a natural and run him for Congress, as long as he's good looking and a little tall. Sell him but don't sell him. Y'know, Ïf so-and-so were in Congress, he'd . . ."Or "So-and-so doesn't want to be in politics, but . . ."Same thing in music. Look at Johnny Winter -- that ain't nothing. They're telling the black people that he's not exactly white and telling the white people he ain't exactly black. Now, what kind of shit is that?"
A couple days after the Buddy Rich night, I met Miles at Johnny Coulon's gym on 63rd Street where he works out when he's in Chicago. After he'd sparred and boxed a few rounds, skipped rope, punched the small bag awhile, got a few pointers from a trainer, had Coulon (a little old man who was bantamweight champ many years ago) give me the visitor's tour of the gym, and had changed from his fight togs (he has a white terry-cloth robe with his name inscribed across the back, just like pro fighters) into a fringed outfit that was reminiscent of the Old West, we headed for the parking lot.
Before we got there, a car stopped beside us, and a man jumped out. It was Larry Jackson, who had played drums with Miles when both were boys in East St. Louis. He is now president of two Chicago locals of the United Steelworkers, a fact that Miles kidded him about unrelentingly. Rich's name came up, and Jackson said, "Miles always loved Buddy. He used to tell me all the time, 'Play like Buddy.'He always wanted the drummer to play like Buddy Rich."
Jackson and Miles'eldest son, Gregory, joined us for lunch at one of Miles'favorite eating places, Floogie's. (Gregory is also a boxer and won three titles while he was in the Army, a point of considerable paternal pride.)
With all of us crowded into a booth, Miles the Provider emerged. He made sure everybody got something to eat, offered to share his food (he's now a vegetarian as well as a nondrinker and nonsmoker), advised his son on what to eat, and generally held court.
When we left the restaurant, a huge man with a cane called out, "Hey, Miles. You're looking good."
Miles gave the man a mock blow to the stomach and said, "How ya doing, Kid."
"You know Kid Rivera?"he asked me. "He was one of the greatest, wasn't you, Kid?"
"Those days are gone, Miles."
"You look like you could still go a few rounds."
We went on to the parking lot and climbed into the bus. As he drove, Miles rambled over a wide range of topics.
He talked about why he boxes -- it gives him strength, is good for his wind, makes him graceful and shapes his body. To play music well, a musician must be in good physical condition.
Änd the way I play,"he continued, Ï play from my legs. You ever notice?"
I allowed as how I'd noticed he bent his knees.
"That's to keep from breaking my embouchure . . . If you drop your hands, you'll break your embouchure and break the flow . . ."
I still wasn't clear what he had meant the other day about mixed groups. When he said mixed groups, did he mean it in the traditional way -- that is, musicians of different races?
"The race has a lot to do with it, man, because black people can swing. There's no getting around that."
White people can't swing?
What about Buddy Rich?
"Buddy Rich is some different shit, man. How many Buddy Riches you got? You got one Buddy Rich. I'll tell you one thing, if Buddy's got a black audience, he plays different. You just get vibrations from black people that are swingier than from white. That's why when Mike Bloomfield plays before a black audience, his shit's gonna come out black."
His own group's playing for a black audience is not much different.
"There'd be just a slight change,"he answered. "We'd just tighten up a little more, y'know. It's an inner thing. It's just like if you're playing basketball and you got five black brothers on the team, they got some inner shit going that you can't get from a white guy. Now, when you get a white guy in, you usually get him for strength or for some sort of shot . . . he's got a good eye or something. But that inner thing and that speed and that slick shit -- you got to have them brothers there because there are things that they do that they did when they were little kids that the white boy don't know about."
Miles had hired the pianist Bill Evans, who is white, for the simplest possible reason: Ï liked the way he sounded.
"But he doesn't sound now like he did when he played with us. He sounds white now."
But his ex-drummer, Tony Williams, a black man -- that's another matter. Williams is just possibly Miles'favorite musician. "Tony can swing and play his ass off. Tony Williams is a motherfucker. To me, the way you think about Buddy Rich is the way I think about Tony Williams. I don't think there's a drummer alive can do what Tony Williams can do.
"When I play, I want whatever is going on to be going on. I don't want it to be no . . . well, to say bullshit is too easy an out. I want it to be . . . That's why I like Buddy and I like Tony, because if they do something, they're doing it. They're doing it to finish it, y'know. To end it. You know what I mean? If you were boxing a guy and he kept pressing you and you knew he wasn't gonna lighten up unless you get him off your ass by slipping and sliding, setting him up and feinting him, well, that's what Buddy and Tony are. They play the fucking drums. But they're different. They're the same, but they're different. Tony plays more rhythms and times than Buddy.
"Buddy plays off his snare drum, but Tony can play all over the fucking drums -- but with a sound that matches the chords that you're playing. Buddy doesn't play any fucking chords."
Miles'fabled temper heated up at the theory, which has been expressed by some noted academic or another, that since European music is directed toward chords and chord changes, and African music isn't . . .
Ït's a god-damn lie,"he shot back. African music is directed to sound. That's the way we play."
Ï mean chords,"I parried.
"Chords? We don't play chords, we play sound."
Ï'm talking about chords -- stacking notes on top of each other. With this in mind, he felt that Be-Bop, because it was so directed toward chords, was more white than black."
"He's full of shit. And he must be white. Yeah, that's why he'd say some shit like that, 'cause white men don't know anything about music and sound, y'know. The only thing they can do is try to make things so they can sell it . . . to finalize it by saying some shit like that. We play by sound. I mean I'll give Chick [Corea] a chord and the sound I want from the chord. He knows I'm musically intelligent enough to give him that. If I don't give him the sound and the approach, he can't play it the way I want to hear it. But there're so many variations on the sound I give him that he's got to get the sound first.
Ä lot of people don't know that shit. They look at Buddy Rich and they idolize him . . . I don't blame you, 'cause he's a white man, and white people always idolize white people. They think Negroes are born with rhythm. But you got to cultivate that rhythm, man. I know some guys who'd be corny motherfuckers if they didn't have some other guys with them, and both of them are black. But one of them is almost corny and one is super hip; you put the two together and they get even . . . In other words, you could put Mike Bloomfield with James Brown and he'd be a motherfucker."
We had been driving all the while since leaving the restaurant. By this time, we were heading toward the Loop, going past the rows of public (i.e, black) housing that line the west side of S. State Street.
We stopped for a red light, and a passel of black children crossed in front of us.
"White people own all this shit,"he said, hunching over the wheel and peering up at the buildings.
Öwn the whole country,"I added.
"They don't own me."
"You got a white booker, haven't you? A white record company?"
"They do what I tell them to do, man. They don't own me. I make my own records. We're just in business together. I mean it's all right to be in business with a white man, but for him to own everything and dictate to you is outdated, and it was outdated when I was born. I've never been that way in my whole life and I never will be. I'd die before I'd let that shit happen to me. I don't know about any other bands, but when you say white booking agent, Jack [Whitemore] and I are good friends. Jack asked me, 'Miles, what you want me to do, which percentage you want me to take -- five, ten or what?'If I don't feel like paying him shit, he ain't gonna say nothing, but I wouldn't take advantage of him, because of my attitude. He knows the way I think. And I don't want him to take advantage of me."
"You want to deal with guys who are fair,"I observed.
"Right. But I think George Wein is unfair. I'm on his tour, but I think he's using me. I wrote him a letter and told him. He tells other people how much I make. He kinda glorifies that, y'know.
"We gave a benefit for the Metropoliton Opera band, and they don't even hire Negroes. And I was gonna tell Duke [Ellington] not to do it, but I told George, 'Now George, you make sure they hire some Negroes.'But a Negro player told me they get their white cousins and all that bullshit in line to play with them. That's some sad shit. That's when I talk about a white band and I say it's shit, that's the shit I mean, passing the thing down the line. [Nods head toward black people on the street.] See all those colored here? It'll be just like this 20 years from now. That's what burns me up."
The mention of the Metropolitan Opera triggered remembrances of his disillusionment with Juilliard and academic studies.
"They asked me did I want to be dean of Howard University's music department,"he said.
Would he like to do something like that?
"Hell no! See, I don't think like that, man. I don't like them bourgeois niggers. That's why they're rebelling at Howard. For a long time, they wouldn't even have jazz concerts on the campus of Howard University."
The other day, he had said he was in favor of students taking over their universities and that if he'd had his choice of teachers he would have taken Dizzy Gillespie.
Ï'd have different guys for different things,"he said. "Get Dizzy for the freedom in music, and a white guy who's stricter on tradition and form, and learn both of them. Then you go your own way. Now you can get black people who've been conditioned by white teachers so that they can't think and they just know straight music -- they don't know anything about no freedom in music. I mean, you don't need the white man no more at all. Now, I'm not one of those people who say Negroes are superhuman. But let everybody do his own thing. Let it come out the way it comes out, not the way you might want it to be."
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