BY BENSON IDONIJE
TRUE, the phenomenon called Miles Davis is no longer physically with us. But his personality continues to loom prodigiously over every other in jazz history. Miles is perhaps the most influential and controversial artist in the history of the art form today.
Like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti of Nigeria with whom he has a lot in common, books have continued to be written about the multi-faceted dimensions of Miles Davis’ life, times and career by various writers who are all coming out with fresh perspectives, new revelations and exciting ideas about this extraordinary trumpet player and band leader. Miles Davis was a great showman who combined this aspect with his serious music in a bewildering manner.
When he began to combine visual arts with jazz in the ’80s, Miles looked flamboyantly weird, his hair style draping down behind him, a flowing top tightened stylishly against his slim frame. But the real showmanship was not visible. It was not physically demonstrated. It was observed and felt only in his mode of dressing and general attitude to the music; his behaviour on stage and outside of it; and his extraordinary ideas about the music and its future.
One night, during the summer of 1957, the wonderful but short-lived Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, and Philly Joe Jones was playing at New York’s Five Spot Café. Monk was an imposing figure, and a unique showman, but that night, only one person was watching him. A small, slim, graceful man, impeccably dressed in the continental style that was then a few years ahead of its time, leaned casually against the bar, smoking a cigarette and listening to the music that Monk was making with two of his former sidemen.
Everyone else in the audience — which was made up of collegians who, at the time probably did not know who he was — was busy watching Miles Davis watch Monk.
In acting classes, it is called “Presence.” In Hollywood, it is called “star quality.” The Madison Avenue expression is “projecting an image.” Whatever the term, Miles Davis had it.
Eventually, it became more appropriate to speak of Miles Davis as a showbusiness phenomenon than a musician. A percentage of his audience felt it had gotten full value for its money if Miles appeared in one of his famous suits.
The striking cover of one Columbia album shows Miles’ lovely wife, Frances, seated alone at a table. At the opposite side is Miles Davis, trenchcoat worn cape style, head bent to light a cigarette from the match held in his cupped hands. Photographed in black and white, it is strongly reminiscent of a still from the Humphred Bogart-Ingrid Bergman movie Casablanca (“Don’t go to the session tonight, Miles”).
The most photographed jazz musician in the world, Davis captured the imagination of a section of the public to which he appealed in much the same way Bogart did, or better still, Bogart’s successor, Frank Sinatra.
Davis once concluded an engagement at the Village Vanguard, the New York night club at which he most often appeared. At the Sunday afternoon performance held on the last day of his booking, the room was packed, and people stood along the walls. The girl singer who appeared first was no more than tolerated, reminding of the ballroom dancers and stand-up comics who, in other days, had the thankless task of filling out Sinatra’s stage shows at the Paramount. Ex-Davis sidemen Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones chatted in the dressing room.
The singer’s set finished and the lights went up, but no one left. From various parts of the room, the members of the group walked casually towards the bandstand. Davis suddenly materialised from a dark corner of the room where he had apparently been talking with the little son of his bassist, Paul Chambers.
Resplendent in a tight white suit and green sports shirt, he strolled to the piano and, cigarette in mouth, played a few chords.
A waiter handed him his trumpet. He stepped to the microphone, without any perceptible word to the other musicians, assumed the familiar introvert stance, horn pointed toward the floor, and began to play Some Day My Prince Will Come.
The tight sound that prompted British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan to refer to him as a musical lonely heart’s club was heard briefly (the cliche expression “filled the room” would be entirely inaccurate) and the audience applauded wildly. The applause had hardly subsided, when Davis left the stand.
Davis became famous for that sort of action.
When the Davis group played England, a writer complained that Davis himself was visible for no more than 15 minutes during the evening — “stage presence” describes what Miles had but not what he did. He was often not there, and when he was, he did not speak. Those hoping to hear Davis say, “And now, we’d like to play an old favourite of ours, featuring our bass player, Paul Chamber,” or something of the sort, would have a long wait. Even when Bill Evans replaced Red Garland on the piano chair, no explanation was made to an audience, which had been crazy about Garland and his block chords.
Davis gave reasons for his stage attitude — reasons which looked excellent on the face value: “I get off the stand during a set because I’m not playing,” explained Miles. “There’s nothing for me to do. It’s ridiculous for me to just stand there and make the other guys nervous, looking at them while they solo. And I don’t look at them, what’s the point of my standing up there and looking at the audience? They are not interested in me when somebody else is taking a solo. I don’t announce the numbers because I figure the people who come to hear us know everything we play. We have a new record about every three months, and they sell, so the audience must know what’s on them.”
The owner of the jazz club where Miles worked frequently had another reason: “Your jazz fan doesn’t care what the tune is.” And the manager continued by saying,” I think Miles is afraid of the audience.”
Psychoanalysing Miles Davis had, in certain circles, assured the status of a party game. It was likely that his unwillingness to remain on the stand would be construed as an act of courtesy, because, contrary to what he said, the audience would probably be interested in him to the detriment of the soloist, as if Marlon Brando was scratching his head in a corner while, center stage, a competent actor was vainly trying to arrest the attention of the audience with recitation.
It could also be argued that Miles Davis was, consciously or not, one of the great public relations men ever known. Audiences obviously loved his treatment of them, and returned for more. His fierce insistence on privacy was a challenge which many people felt they must break down. Many of them were young ladies, as might be expected. But there were others.
However, no matter what you think about Miles, his career was unique, even in its beginnings. To many young Negroes, music and sports used to represent the only ways to recognition and a decent amount of money (even though this myth has been broken with Obama as first Black President). Davis, who some qualified people thought could have been as good a boxer as he was a trumpet player, did not have that need, he was born in Alton, Illinois, on May 25, 1926. His father Miles II (trumpeter Miles Davis’ full name is Miles Dawey Davis III) was a successful dentist and dental surgeon. When the family moved to East St. Louis shortly after Miles’ birth, his father began to breed dogs, and the eventual worth of that venture was estimated at about a quarter of a million dollars.
Miles became a jazz musician almost under parental protest, a situation which was most likely to occur if the family was white. Some observers felt that parts of Davis’ public aspect stemmed from the fact that he could, if he wished, have retired whenever he chose without economic difficulty, or indeed, never had to start.
But he did start at a very early age. On his 13th birthday, he was given a trumpet by his father; and this was the beginning of a career that saw him to the top.
By the time he was 16, Miles was playing with a local band called the Blue Devils. Tiny Bradshaw came through town, and Sonny Stitt, who was playing tenor with the band, offered Miles a trumpet chair at “sixty whole dollars a week.”
As Davis later told the story in a taped interview conducted by Columbia Records publicity department, “I went home and asked my mother if I could go with them. She said no. I had to finish my last year of high school. I didn’t talk to her for two weeks. And I didn’t go with the band, either.”
But he got another chance, and this time, he took it. The Billy Eckstine band played St Louis and in it were two musicians who were to have a profound effect on Miles -- Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Miles eventually left Julliard where he was studying music -- to play with Parker, becoming his roommate. It was probably the most important association, musically and personally, that Miles ever had. Some still feel today that Miles’ public manner stemmed from the laying-on-of hands feeling he had while working with Parker.