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- September 28, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 13
After Five Years of Silence, the Lonely Voice of Miles Davis' Trumpet Is Once Again Heard in the Land
Happily, the mourning was premature. When Davis, 55, returned to live performances this summer, and released The Man With the Horn, his first new recording in six years, he was accorded the kind of greeting reserved for a demigod. Almost immediately, the album soared to the top of the jazz charts, then became a pop hit as well. Davis had demonstrated once again that as a composer and stylist, he is one of the few jazz artists capable of reaching beyond the genre for an audience. His 60 recordings, so widely imitated by other musicians, wed emotional sophistication with a rare simplicity of form.
It is a tribute to his own steely pride that Davis managed to overcome the physical obstacles that reduced him to silence. In 1972 both of his legs were broken in a car crash. Three years later his general health began deteriorating rapidly. In exhausting succession, he underwent surgery for an artificial hip implant, a recurring problem with polyps in his throat, a painful leg infection and gallbladder trouble—ailments further complicated by a bleeding ulcer, a bout with pneumonia and chronic insomnia. Constantly in pain and drugged into torpor, Davis gave little thought to his music. "I was so disgusted, man, by those operations," he says. "The doctors were giving me codeine and morphine and I didn't even know it. I didn't feel like playing the trumpet, didn't feel like listening to music. Didn't want to hear it, see it, smell it, nothing about it." His solitary confinement during recuperation took on a numbing monotony, and there were reports that he had sunk into a deep depression. Characteristically brusque, Davis dismisses the notion as nonsense. "Bored is the word," he says. "So bored you can't even realize what it was like. I just didn't come out of the house for four years. I was nuts. I wasn't doing nothing. I didn't even go to the store."
Before his bizarre confinement, critics had fumbled for superlatives to describe Davis' playing and his prolific contribution to musical literature. For decades it was his music that signaled the dawn of new eras in jazz—from bebop to cool to fusion. Imitators have yet to match the impact of such seminal Davis albums as Sketches of Spain (1959), Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Kind of Blue (1959) and his controversial gold LP, Bitches' Brew (1970)—still the biggest seller in his catalog. His immense influence reached beyond jazz to color the music of Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Rickie Lee Jones and scores of rock-fusion groups. His genius for recognizing unheralded talent was equaled only by his generosity in sharing the spotlight.
Fortunately, Miles never gave up the idea of a comeback. "I knew that if I felt like playing again, I'd play, even if it was just once," he says. "You never actually retire from an instrument, because if you've been playing since you were 12,' it's always in your mind. But I wasn't getting any melodies or anything in my head, because I wouldn't let myself hear anything. Then suddenly all these melodies came back to me. I just felt like playing a little again." His young saxophonist, Bill Evans—no relation to the late jazz pianist—helped get Miles' creative adrenaline flowing again, and a romantic reunion with actress Cicely Tyson revived his interest in life. That wasn't all, says Miles. "The real reason I came back," he says mischievously, "was because my manager, Mark Rothbaum, didn't think I could do it."
Now completing an 11-city U.S. tour, Davis is soon to leave for jazz-crazy Japan, where he will earn $700,000 for seven performances. Though pacing himself carefully to preserve his delicate health, he has made few concessions in matters of style. He still favors the eccentric but impeccable wardrobe that once earned him high praise from Gentlemen's Quarterly, and he drives a $54,000 canary-yellow Ferrari. He also uses the same tarnished mouthpiece he has played with since childhood. The moody, intimidating mystique and onstage glowering that earned him the nickname Prince of Darkness have not been dispelled, but he has astonished recent audiences by facing them rather than turning his back as he did in the past. After concerts last month in Chicago and Detroit, he shattered precedent further by returning to the stage and taking a bow to thunderous ovations.
However electrifying his performances may be, they exact a grim physical toll. By mid-concert, the chainsmoking Davis is racked by cramps caused by poor circulation. He begins signaling his road manager for Tylenol with codeine, which he washes down with a Heineken. Woozy with fatigue by intermission, he revives himself with oxygen from a portable tank. "Sometimes, watching him after a performance when he's so totally spent that he can barely walk, I wonder if it's worth it," admits Cicely, who attends every concert. "He's very fragile. His history has been his image, which is only his way of protecting his vulnerability. He is basically a very shy, very introverted, very sensitive human being, but few people take the time to look behind his facade."
Those who have looked speak of the man's piercing loneliness. Miles often turns to his family, placing 4 a.m. phone calls to his older sister, Dorothy Wilburn, a Chicago schoolteacher, and his younger brother, Vernon, an IRS employee in East St. Louis, III. Davis' road managers, James Rose and Chris Murphy, know the peculiar thrill of being awakened in their hotel rooms in the predawn hours by one of the world's great musicians and ranking insomniacs, and being asked if they would care for a cigarette. As desperate as those long dark hours may seem, they are also the source of Davis' art. "Music comes to me mostly in the night," says Miles. "I write it down on anything as soon as it comes—I'd write it on your hand. Then I tape it, and I never turn the recorder off because I might stumble onto something and later not know what I played. It's my memory bank."
Inevitably, critics straining to come to terms with Davis compare him to originals in other fields—Picasso, say, or Brando. Even such manifest flattery taxes Miles' patience. "I'm in a class by myself," he says. "I play very strange—the way sanctified people will play in church or a hillbilly sings. The words fall on funny beats. It's not a burden. It's just that I can't play like anybody else and I can't write like anybody else. I don't mess around with music because I love music. That is 90 percent of my life, and the rest is Cicely and a few others."
Among those "others" are his young sidemen, toward whom Davis is fiercely protective. Irritated by criticism of his band during the current tour, Miles defends his men as "good musicians and professionals who could each have their own band right now. I don't listen to critics." How does he choose the men he will play with? "I look at a musician's carriage first," he says. "I can tell whether he plays or not by the way he carries his instrument. And then I look at how he talks and acts. If he's acting too hip, I know he can't play shit so I don't bother with him." History has vindicated his credentials as talent scout. Pianists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter of Weather Report are only a few whose apprenticeships under Davis marked the beginning of brilliant careers.
Miles learned about exacting professional standards from his father, Miles Dewey Davis II, a successful oral surgeon. His interest in music was the legacy of his mother, Cleota, a piano teacher. Born in Alton, Ill., Miles grew up on a farm in nearby East St. Louis, where his father raised horses and pedigreed pigs as a hobby. "My family was strict," he recalls. "I couldn't fool around. I knew that whatever I did, if it wasn't good, my father was going to strangle me."
When he was 12, Miles received his first instruction on trumpet from one of his father's patients, Elwood Buchanan. He taught the youngster to play without vibrato and suggested a unique mouth exercise to improve his technique. "He told me to spit rice all the way to school," Davis remembers. "So I'd have a mouthful and spit for a mile and a half." Maintaining a straight-A average at all-black Lincoln High School, he played in the marching band, had a newspaper route, and worked in his father's office after school mending dental plates. By the time he was 16, Miles was earning $100 a week as musical director of Eddie Randle's Blue Devils, a local jazz orchestra, and jamming with musicians who traveled by boat up the Mississippi from New Orleans. When Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came to St. Louis, Miles sat in with them, and the excitement of their sessions together helped seal his future.
Married at 18 to his first wife, Irene Cawthon, Miles left East St. Louis for New York, where he enrolled in the celebrated Juilliard School in 1944. "Oh man, I was excited," he says. "I had never seen a city like that before. I used to walk in the rain and dig the subways and all sorts of pastry in the windows." He quickly tracked down Bird Parker, who moved in with him and Irene and shared their $40-a-week allowance from Miles' father. After 18 months at Juilliard, Davis left to make his mark in the then-thriving 52nd Street jazz clubs as a sideman with Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Billy Eckstine. Forming the first of his own groups in 1946, he quickly discovered his own meter and phrasing. Then came the celebrated recording sessions that yielded his watershed LP, Birth of the Cool. Yet his success was by no means assured. "Miles was young and he had ideas and we were doing new things," says drummer-composer Max Roach, one of the few survivors of that turbulent era. "But the critics didn't like it and we weren't making records. New York is tough—even if somebody is touted as a prodigy."
Like Parker and Hawkins, Davis eventually fell prey to drugs and liquor. By 1949 he was a heroin addict, supporting his habit with a stable of seven prostitutes. "I was a pimp and I made a lot of money," he says bluntly, "but I got tired of looking at myself. I went home to St. Louis and quit cold turkey. My father and I were out walking, and he said, 'If you were with a woman and she left you, I'd know what to tell you. But this you have to do by yourself.' I went into a room in the farmhouse, shut the door and didn't come out for about two weeks. I didn't scream, because my father was next door and I wasn't going to let him hear me. I thought about jumping out the window to break my leg so they'd give me some drugs. But then I thought I might break my arm and not be able to play the trumpet, so I forgot the idea. Each day it got better and better, but that was the worst thing I've ever been through."
"When Miles put that needle into himself, he put it into the whole family," says his sister Dorothy. "Miles has lived through more pain than anyone I know. Sometimes I think it's a miracle that he's alive at all." It was his legendary hair-trigger temper, she recalls, that cost him his speaking voice some 25 years ago, reducing it to the raspy whisper that has become one of his trademarks. Disregarding orders not to speak for two weeks after polyp-removal surgery, Miles got into a shouting argument with a record industry executive and heard his voice fade to a croak in mid-tirade. Today, his temper no longer at flash point, Miles claims reports of his moodiness are greatly exaggerated. "It takes a lot to make me angry and very little to make me happy," he insists. "But because I don't lie and I'm straining to talk, people think I'm drunk or high or just mad."
Fiercely and unrelentingly private, Miles regards most of his life story as no one's business but his own. He acknowledges, however, that he has been married and divorced four times. By his first wife, Irene, he fathered three children: Cheryl, 37, now a preschool teacher in East St. Louis; Gregory, 35, a trumpet player in New York; and Miles IV, 32, a St. Louis steel-worker. Later he was married to Frances Taylor, singer Betty Davis and Marguerite Eskridge, the mother of his only other child, Aaron, 9. His romance with Cicely began in the mid-1960s, and ended four years later when, at his urging, she resumed her acting career. They were reunited this spring, are now living together, and both have been hinting at marriage. "I'm happy now, but I could have been happier years ago if I had married Cicely," says Miles. "Yet if I had, she wouldn't be a star now. She was too involved with me to put all her mind and body into her work."
Obviously, the years of separation did not cool the attraction. "We're two opposites and I wouldn't have it any other way," says Cicely. "I like the unpredictability—it keeps the juices flowing. And even though we were apart, I never felt there was a break in our relationship." A fitness and health food fanatic, she has limited Miles' drinking to beer and permits no drugs except those prescribed by physicians. Under her care, he is fit enough to resume boxing workouts for the first time in five years, and to put an end to his life in seclusion. "I had enough of that," he says. "I did what I wanted—stopped for a while, gave the trumpet and my head a rest. I'll stay active now until I die."
November 23, 2015
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