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7/28/13

Lunch with Miles Davis redux




The summer of 1971 was drawing to a close when I received a call from the late Irvin Kolodin, music editor for Saturday Review. He had liked the in memoriam piece I wrote for Lil Armstrong earlier in the year, and now he wanted a cover story on Miles Davis. Did I want to do it, he asked, before going into details. A more seasoned writer would have asked what the subject was, but I didn't waste any time accepting the assignment. "It's on Miles Davis," Kolodin continued, in a tone of voice one might use if bringing someone bad news. It was no secret that Miles could be difficult, so I understood why Kolodin might have expected some hesitation on my part, but I was up for the challenge. After all, I had met Miles on numerous occasions, mostly in the hallways of Columbia's studios at 52nd Street, where we had a nodding acquaintance, but we had also small-talked at a couple of press parties, and the year before on a beach in the Bahamas during a Columbia Records Convention. I had even seen Miles smile, so I was fearless.

Irvin gave me a relatively generous deadline, so I waited a couple of days before giving Miles a call, hoping to catch him in a friendly mood. I was in luck, he surprised me by suggesting that I come right over. I had expected to have some time for preparation, but some artists have been known to cancel appointments, and with Miles Davis, it behooved one to not let such an opportunity slip away—besides, he appeared to be in a good mood. Moments later, small cassette machine in hand, I was ringing the doorbell of his brownstone on West 77th Street.


Miles opened the door wide—he was smiling, so the good mood I had detected was still there. He led the way to a fairly large sparsely furnished room at one end of which was a bar. We seated ourselves at a coffee table in a cozy corner across the room. "I hope you didn't have lunch," he said in that low, raspy voice of his. Lunch? that was certainly not something I had seen coming. "No," I replied, placing my recorder on the table. Miles eyed it with a hint of curiosity which I couldn't quite interpret, but several days later, Teo Macero, his producer, told me that Miles did not like to be interviewed on tape. Sometimes, ignorance has its benefits—it can make you act boldly, and that—in turn—can win you some respect. In the case of Miles, whose voice was reduced to a near whisper by a medical condition, a tape recorder was an absolute necessity, and not only did he not balk at seeing it, there were a couple of occasions when he walked over to the bar and carried my recorder with him so that I wouldn't miss a word.

I admire pre-recorder journalists who had to rely on pencil, pad and speed-writing. I recall being very impressed with the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett ten years earlier, when he covered an Ida Cox recording session I produced. I watched him take notes in what I imagine was shorthand. When Jo Jones and Roy Eldridge argued wther Jabbo Smith was alive, or not, Whitney was writing feverishly. It so happened that the tape was rolling and I was thus able to check the accuracy of Whitney's printed quotes. Every word and breath was in place.

Everything was going smoothly with Miles, but lunch was an unpleasant surprise: fish. My childhood in Iceland had completely turned me off to fish, for that's the predominant food in the country of my birth. If it wasn't fish, it still had a fishy taste, even the horse meat, and when the wind blew into Reykjavík from a certain direction, it carried with it a generous whiff from the drying racks on the surrounding hills. I had probably not eaten fish in twenty years, but this was one time when I had no choice. I did the best I could, but the skin was absolutely not something I could deal with, so I discretely pushed it to the edge of my plate. My move did not escape Miles' attention.

"You don't like the skin?," he asked.

"No."

"Well, we shan't waste it," he said, picking it from my plate with a swift fork maneuver.

The interview went well and the article has since been reprinted in a couple of books, but here it is, anyway.


Saturday Review cover story - November 27, 1971.


THE UNMASKING OF MILES DAVIS

When Miles Davis returns from a six week tour of Europe and takes his quintet into Philharmonic Hall this week, chances are that a good percentage of his audience will consist of young black people. This is not a writer's prediction based on a typical Miles Davis following—no one has determined just what that might be—but a request Miles made in a phone call from Paris four weeks ago: Jack Whittemore, his agent, was to take half of Miles’ fee, purchase tickets for the concert, and hand them out to young black people who otherwise could not afford to attend. “Miles has never done anything like this before, but nothing he does surprises me,” says Whittemore, admitting that he doesn’t quite know how to go about distributing over $2,000 worth of free tickets to the right people.

Such unusual gestures are as typical of Miles as they are atypical of most performing artists; they come as a surprise only to those who know the enigmatic trumpet player from a distance. Since his first appearance on the music scene some twenty-six years ago, Miles Davis has ben the subject of controversy; endearing with his music, offending with his personality. That is to say, his personality as it is most commonly interpreted, for the forbidding mask of hostility that in many minds characterizes Miles is just that: an image fostered by his own, deliberate lack of showmanship, and sculptured by reporters who have failed to recognize a serious artist at work. We don’t, after all, expect Rostropovich or Casadesus to warm up their audiences with small talk, and Miles Davis is as serious about his music as were Brahms and Schubert.

The music performed by Miles Davis today has undeniably evolved from that labeled “jazz,” which New Orleans pioneers played sixty years ago, but there are other elements contained in it, too, and if Miles’ music is jazz, then so is Stravinsky’s Ragtime for Twelve Instruments. He himself feels that jazz is “a white man’s word” whose application to his music is tantamount to calling a black person “nigger.” Accordingly, though he still must give performances in noisy, Smoke-filled night clubs, Miles approaches his work with the dignity it deserves.

During club or concert appearances, he never addresses his audience nor announces his selections, generally wears clothing that reflect future fashion trends—Gentleman’s Quarterly named him, “Best Dressed Man” ten years ago—saunters off the band stand or to the rear of the stage when not playing, and occasionally turns his back to the audience while focusing attention on his fellow musicians. “I have been with him on several occasions when he left the stage during a performance,” says Robert Altshuler, Columbia Records’ publicity director, “he either crouches or ambles to the side of the audience and you realize that he is deeply concentrating on everything that his musicians are playing—he is digging his own band, digging it in a the way a Miles Davis fan would. He simply becomes a part of his own audience.”

Club owners and concert promoters have been known to go into a rage over Miles’ seeming detachment, but conformity is not in his vocabulary and, despite the constant criticism, he has for twenty years remained the dark, brooding, wandering loner who doesn’t care whether he is regarded as an eccentric genius or a bellicose bastard, is long as people listen to what he says through his music.

The son of a well-to-do dental surgeon, Miles Davis has never been poor, but money cannot cure the inherent stigma that society has attached to people of dark skin and, faced with prejudices that sometimes are so subtle that only their victims can detect them, he has always sought to fight back on his own. “I am not a Black Panther or nothing like that,” he explains, “I don’t need to be, but I was raised to think like they do and people sometimes think I’m difficult, because I always say what’s on my mind, and they can’t always see what I see.”

One thing Miles never fails to see is someone taking advantage of him. “Back in the days when he was only getting a thousand dollars for a concert, Miles was booked into Town Hall,” recalls Jack Whittemore. “The tickets were selling very well, so the promoter suggested doing two shows instead of one. As was customary in such cases, Miles was to get half fee, five hundred dollars, for the second concert, but when I approached him with this he looked puzzled. ’You mean I go on stage,’ he said, ‘pick up my horn, play a concert, and get a thousand dollars. Then they empty the hall, fill it again, I pick up my horn again, play the same thing, and get only five hundred?—I don’t understand it.’ I told him that this was how it was normally done, but he was not satisfied. Finally, he tirned to me and said he’s do it for five hundred dollars if they would rope off half the hall and only sell half the tickets. When the promoters heard this, they decided to give him another thousand for the second concert.”

If Miles is “difficult,” it is because his honesty and candor are such rare traits in the show business world that few people know how to deal with him. His monumental disdain for the complimentary small talk and instant familiarity that entertainers are exposed to, and his absolute refusal to indulge in such trivia, has earned him the reputation of being unapproachable. “I have found,” observes Altshuler, “that when Miles meets someone new—people from the press I’ve introduced him to—he will check them out first. They don’t always know this, but Miles is actually laying down the ground rules for a totally honest exchange of questions and answers, and he will accept his interviewer only if he can be sure that his time is not going to be wasted with inane questions.” As one might expect, Miles is reluctant to appear on TV talk shows.

“Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson don’t know what to say to anybody black, unless there’s some black bitch on the show and she’s all over them,” he told me while conducting a guided tour of his unconventional but comfortable Upper West Side residence. “It’s so awkward for them, because they know all the white facial expressions, but they’re not hip to black expressions, and God knows they’re not hip to Chinese expressions. You see, they’ve seen all the white expressions, like fear, sex, revenge. White actors imitate other white actors when they express emotions, but they don’t know how black people react. Dick Cavett is quiet now when a black cat is talking to him, because he doesn’t know if the expression on his face means ‘I’m going to kick your ass,’ or if ‘right on’ means he’s going to throw a right hand punch. So,” he continued, pointing out the oddly shaped, multi-level blue tile bathtub, “rather than embarrass them and myself, I just play on those shows and tell them not to say anything to me—I have nothing to say to them anyway.”

Miles makes a good point, intelligent, relevant questions are rarely directed at black guests on TV’s talk shows, and the media’s handful of established hosts relate to his music about as well as Nixon’s “silent majority” relates to the problems of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents. We stepped down into the circular bedroom where a television set, dwarfed by a gigantic bed, silently radiated an afternoon ballgame. “I just put it on because I have nothing to do,” volunteered Miles as he waved his hand towards a long row of flamboyant clothes and boots in dazzling colors. “I have these made for me.” When CBS flashed the image of its night host on the little screen, it served as a cue for Miles. “Merv Griffin is embarrassing to me,” he said. “I felt like yanking his arm off last year.” He was referring to the 1970 Grammy Awards ceremony at Alice Tully Hall, during which, after a superb performance by Miles’ group, Griffin—the evening’s master of ceremonies—brushed him off with a remark that was disrespectful of his music. “The trouble with those cats,” said Miles, “is that they all try to come off to those middle-aged white bitches.”

Such remarks don’t exactly produce invitations to guest on late night TV shows, but Miles aims his fire without such considerations. Even Columbia Records—with whom he has enjoyed a good and fruitful relationship since the mid-Fifties—has been victimized by his public candor. In a recent statement, published by a black weekly, Miles—who refers to himself as the “company nigger”—suggested that his label was not affording black artists equal opportunities in terms of exposure. As we seated ourselves comfortably in the round sunken living room, I asked if there had been any repercussions from Columbia. “No,” he replied, “Clive [Davis, Columbia’s president] asked me why I had said that, and I said ‘Was I telling a lie, Clive? If you can say I’m a liar, I’ll retract that statement.’ You see, all those records I have made with them have been a bitch, and they come out being rich behind all this token shit.”

“You would think that he’s not grateful,” says Clive Davis, “but I just know he is. I’m not sure that it’s his mind that he speaks; I’m not sure that he just doesn’t tell people what they want to hear, because it takes a certain amount of research before you go off making such statements. I’m prepared for all of Miles’ statements, none surprise me. I do mentally treat him differently, not because he’s black—because we have such a tremendous number of black artists—but because he’s unique among people, and you expect the unexpected from Miles Davis.”

Clive Davis admits that he is not totally unaffected by Miles’ criticism. “It bothers me because I think we have really done a tremendous amount to be creative along with him, and we work very closely with him so that we make sure that he sells not only to jazz audiences and to contemporary rock audiences, but to r&b audiences as well.”

Despite his complaints, Miles readily admits to having an unusually close relationship with Columbia, which is borne out by his long tenure with the label, and the fact that the 45-year-old superstar of black music could easily find another home for his recording activities. “The Internal Revenue Service is always after me,” he says, “but I just send their bills on to Clive. I got one for $39,000, but he took care of it.” When asked to verify this, Davis gave a diplomatic reply: “Miles is treated very well by Columbia Records,” he says. “I think he’s really appreciative of it, too—we don’t get Internal Revenue bills from Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears.”

The recent upsurge in Miles Davis’ popularity is mainly due to an album entitled “Bitches Brew.” Released in the spring of 1970, it was the subject of a well coordinated national promotion campaign aimed more at the young rock fan than at the established Miles Davis follower. Of the close to thirty Miles Davis albums that have accumulated in Columbia’s catalogue over the past fifteen years, “Porgy and Bess”—with sales figures approaching 100,000—had been the most successful; other albums have averaged around 50,000 and recent releases have barely crawled to the 25,000 mark, but “Bitches Brew”—a two-record set—-has sold over 400,000 copies in this country alone.

The wide stylistic gap that separates “Porgy and Bess” and “Bitches Brew” is reflected in the sales figures, but it is not just the sound of his music that Miles has changed, for he has also updated the group’s appearance. Surrounded by a young inter-racial group of musicians sporting afros, long hair, headbands, dungarees and dashikis, Miles has transformed himself into a trendy, youthful figure. With his flared pants, leather boots, tasseled Western vest and love beads, he points his shiny horn downward and roams slowly amid the complex-looking electronic equipment. It is no coincidence that the current Miles Davis band has the look of a modern-day rock group—he is determined to win over a new generation of fans, and judging by album sales, the plan is working. Miles’ new music is an abstraction of everything he has played before; it is as if he were summing it all up for us, but we know that he won’t let it end here—this is merely the latest plateau. At the same time, it is a testimony to Miles’ artistry and forward thinking that none of his past recordings—going back to his revolutionary 1949 Capitol sessions—sound outdated in 1971.

If rock groups are not envious of Miles’ musical accomplishments, they perhaps should be, for many of them have yet to approach the stage of development reached by Miles and collaborator Gil Evans in the Fifties. One can’t help, but wonder if, ten or twelve years from now, anyone will have more than a nostalgic nod for the current efforts of today’s musical pop heroes. There is bitter irony in the fact that Miles has to take second billing—as he did last year—to a group like Blood, Sweat and Tears, which sells records in the millions and turns youthful audiences into a frenzy of excitement with musical ideas borrowed from Miles’ past. “I can’t be bothered with these groups,” says Miles, recalling with some amusement how he turned down promoter Bill Graham’s request that he retract a negative statement about Blood, Sweat and Tears, “if they can’t stand constructive criticism, to hell with them. I’m honest in what I say, I don’t lie, so I don’t have to watch my words or take them back.’

There are those who feel that Miles’ attacks on rock groups are unfair and that he, in an odd sense, owes these performers a debt of gratitude. They see his appearances last year at the Fillmores East and West—Meccas for the rock cult—as a turning point in his career, but they seem to lose sight of the fact that these concerts, along with Columbia’s promotional efforts, would not have sold the public on Miles Davis if he had not had something substantial to offer. For over twenty years, Miles has pointed music in new directions, reaching unexplored plateaus, then forging ahead before others could catch up with him. “He has never been bound by convention,” says Teo Macero, who has produced virtually all of Miles’ recordings since 1958. “You wouldn’t expect Miles to go back and do something the way he did it years ago anymore than you would expect Picasso to go back to what he was doing in his ’blue’ or ’rose’ periods.”

One tangible result of Miles’ recent commercial success his been the signing up by Columbia of several black musicians who last year would hardly have been able to get as far as Clive Davis’ eleventh floor office. Explaining this change in policy, Clive Davis makes one momentarily forget that he is running a highly competitive commercial business: “I am very eager to allow Columbia to be used by the most forward looking American jazz artists, to explore what kind of synergy can come out of jazz and rock. What do the jazz giants, the leading jazz figures of today have to say? What is their reaction to the fact that, in attempting to fuse jazz and rock, Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears have reached millions of people all over the world while they, without such an attempt, only reach a few thousand with their music.” He mentioned that the label has signed Omette Coleman, Jack De Johnette, and Weather Report—an offshoot of Miles’ group—and that it was recording Charles Mingus. “Just as Columbia sponsored a Modern American Composer series in classical music—not having any less reverence for Stravinsky, Mahler, or classical music performed by the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra—so we are here exploring a very exciting now development in music, to see where it will go. I don’t know where it will go, but I think that by opening up the company to this kind of exploration of music by brilliant talent, we are providing a tremendous service.”

Columbia’s aims are obvious and Miles is not fooled for a minute: “It’s smart to be with the niggers sometimes. I know what made “Bitches Brew,” but they need guidance: Mingus needs guidance; Omette needs guidance; nobody’s going to tell them what to do because then they might call them white bastards. They have to tell Mingus what to do, otherwise he’ll do the same shit all over again, and they have to tell Omette that he can not play the trumpet and violin. Motown shows you where it’s at, man.”

It is difficult to imagine anyone telling Miles Davis what to do with his music, but he is just as receptive to constructive criticism as he is ready to give it. “Miles lets you be as creative as you want to be,” says producer Teo Macero, “as long as it doesn’t screw up his music. A lot of artists say ’Man, don’t touch my music, don’t do this, I don’t want any electronic sound, don’t use a Fender bass, and so forth, but Miles is so far ahead that he’s on the same wavelength as you are, which makes for a great deal of excitement. When he plays, he does it with such intensity that every note is a gem. He doesn’t make any mistakes, if he doesn’t like something he did, it is usually because it didn’t capture the right feeling. We never discuss the music or how things went in front of anybody else; he either calls me out into the hall or we sort of talk in the comer, and I try to refrain from talking about the piece over the studio talk-back system. That’s something I’ve learned by working with him over the years. Like his private life, he keeps it to himself; I never ask, because if he wants to tell me something, he’ll do it.”
The physical aspects of producing a Miles Davis album are as unconventional as his music. As Macero explains, there are no takes one, two or three, “because there’s something new that pops into the music every time, whether it’s deliberate or just by accident—no one seems to know quite for sure. The group is constantly building toward a final goal and we don’t stop the tape machines like we used to do in the old days—they run until the group stops playing. Then we go back, listen, and decide between us what should be tacked to what—it becomes a search and find routine, and finally it’s all there, it’s just a matter of putting it all together. There are a lot of tapes for each album, but we may use only the material from two or three sessions.”
Two albums, “Miles Davis at Fillmore” and the sound track for the documentary film “Jack Johnson,” have been released since “Bitches Brew,” but neither shows signs of doing as well commercially. This of course provides an incentive to make the next release particularly interesting, and it looks as if “Live and Evil” (one word is the reverse spelling of the other) will be just that. Scheduled for a December release, it is the distillation of ten to fifteen reels of tape, selected from an original working pile of thirty reels. “The album is partly live, and it has an ethereal evil, where the mind is clouded and all these things are happening,” says Macero, “it’s like a wild dream.” Artist Mati Klarwein, who was responsible for the unusual “Bitches Brew” cover, has been commissioned to give the new album a similar look.

If “Live and Evil” becomes another “Bitches Brew,” there will undoubtedly be more demands on Miles Davis’ time, a commodity he values and likes to spend as a part-time pugilist working out in a midtown gym, swimming in some appropriate waters, sleeping in his oversized bed, or simply relaxing with friends amid the international decor of what has been termed “an architect’s nightmare”—his house on West 77th Street.

Unimpressed by critics (“I don’t know any, because I never read what they say”) and disc jockeys (“If we didn’t make any records, they wouldn’t have anything to do”), Miles periodically threatens to quit the music business to avoid the exploitation which he admits is “the name of the game.” Some day, he will undoubtedly do just that, and then a smile the public never knew may emerge from behind the mask.


A footnote: Click here to hear the 1970 phone interview I had with Teo Macero in preparation for the above article.

6 comments:

  1. Whether or not Miles' move to fusion was a positive development in his career (or the the development of Jazz music), the influence of Bitches Brew cannot be disputed. As someone involved in the rock scene at the time, I can attest that nearly every serious musician playing Rock,Jazz and even progressive Country styles listened to this album intensely. Fusion kind of fizzled out after a while, but Miles made the definitive statement of that music on his first try!

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  2. You won't get an argument from me on that—"Bitches Brew" did not please some Miles fans, but I think many of them viewed it more positively once their ears caught up with Miles'.

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  3. It's great to read something that was printed during his time that honored his musical achievments. You make a great point by comparing him to the great classical musicians and how small talk was expected from them. Perhaps the trasition from small Villiage Vanguard type clubs to places like Town Hall and Alice Tully was too big a jump for the for the (prejudiced) press back then. And saw them as B type enetertainers as opposed to "A" type like the Hefietzs of the day...It was great to read. Sorry about the fish but at least it didn't go to waste!!!!

    Take care.

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  4. Thanks for reading the Miles article, K.

    I picked away at the fish, but drew the line when it came to the skin. That was the last time I ate fish, and probably the first time in at least 20 years.

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  5. Thanks for publishing the interview and the audio extract, would it be possible to post the entire audio recording?

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    1. There is more, but it's on a damaged cassette, which I will eventually get to repairing and dubbing. Thanks for visiting my blog, Lexman

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