(Excerpt of a chapter from So What: The Life of Miles Davis, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster, November 2002)
I called him King Tut, and sometimes
King John. What else could I call him?
He had that royal thing.
Miles is a potentate. He's also a puritan,
and the combination can be pretty sadistic.
Beyond anything else he might have been, Miles Davis was the sound of his trumpet. It was a sound that was deeply personal to him, and almost mystical in its source and power to project himself through his music. Amiri Baraka once said to poets, "You have to start and finish there . . . your own voice. . . how you sound." Miles, similarly, could tell horn players that sound was everything: "Believe your sound."
'Voice' is a poet's metaphor, of course, an analogy between the speaking voice and the writing voice, conveying the sense that the poet is not only what he or she says, but how it is said. But Miles went further, and added an African American dimension to the equation by declaring that the instrumental voice is analogous to the human voice. If poets can bring a vocal, tonal quality to words on a page, then the instrumental voice can in turn signify words through its tonality and timbre. Even though Miles knew the words of all the ballads he played, he had no interest in having a singer with his band: better to have sound alone, he said, so that you could make up your own "attitude," and not be put off by the body, race, age, or sex of a singer. (Love songs with words tell you how someone else makes love, he said, like stories in Penthouse or Playboy: they're for people who aren't having sex.
You know, when a singer sings, he gives you a map of what to think when he sings a ballad with a title. But when we play we don't bother your thoughts. You use your own thoughts. What you think is yours. When you hear someone singing a ballad you have to think what he means. He gives you the route. But when you hear I hate to say jazz jazz musicians give you the privacy of your own head.
His sound was not a gift, but something he crafted slowly over time, extracting it like an alchemist from an alloy of breath and metal. Gil Evans was the first to tell him of the importance of that sound, and was the biggest defender of him as a stylist:
He has to exert the most tremendous control to play the way he does. Aside from blowing power, the strength of the embouchure, everything. When he works it's real labor. . . . He couldn't be a musician and sound like anybody else. He didn't know that. That developed. And you go along, you try and start out, you sound like so-and-so various players like Clark Terry and Freddie Webster. . .
The first trumpet player who interested Davis as a boy was Harry James a lead player, a ladies' man, a horseman (and clothes horse), with one foot in the concert hall and the other in the circus tent, a contender for the honor of being one of the first of the cool white men. The second was Louis Armstrong, who was many things father of modern trumpet (and not incidentally Miles' mother's favorite jazz performer), shape shifter, high-C-playing hot dog, modernist, broad comedian, the Walt Whitman of jazz. Miles could benignly ignore Harry James in later life, but Armstrong was an dominating presence in the mythology of black jazz, his hugeness and generosity of sound on the trumpet, the richness and inexhaustibility of his ideas, the alluvium of his voice (echoed on his trumpet), the raw countryness of his stage mugging and clowning, all of them forever bound together. Dizzy Gillespie eventually came to terms with Louis the man as did Miles (though several remarks in his autobiography would make it appear otherwise). On the death of Armstrong in 1970, Davis wrote,
To me, the great style and interpretation that Louis gave to us musicially came from the heart, but his personality was developed by white people wanting black people to entertain by smiling and jumping around. After they do it they call you a Tom, but Louis fooled all of them and became an ambassador of good will.
"Everybody up until Miles Davis played an extension of Louis Armstrong," Gil Evans said. "Even though it may have been camouflaged by high style and all that, it was still the basic sound, it was still based on Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis changed the sound." Armstrong was either a hurdle to get over, or a troubling force of influence to be creatively transformed.
Miles worked hard to get a full, round tone which lurked in the middle register. He practiced across the lake on his father's farm to open his tone up, to get a cornet sound, the sound of Wagner's brass, he said. But some heard it as a naive sound, a beginner's tone on the horn. Even his chosen range was suspected of being the result of his not being able to reach high notes. But Davis said it was more a matter of not hearing the trumpet in that range. . . and for Miles, what he heard, like whatever else he felt in his body, determined what he played. The music had to resonate physically before he could articulate it. (In fact, on many records he can be heard reaching the upper limits of the horn with apparent ease.) Though he described his own playing as free of vibrato -- that wavering of pitch that listeners hear as a sign of sincerity or professionalism -- he often used some vibrato at the end of long notes and phrases, much as a singer would, and his notes could crack or sob like a singer's. Sometimes the notes seemed not to be quite there, ghosted notes, jazz musicians call them, more implied than played. It was a sound that some described as tragic, vulnerable, the essence of the blues -- "a man walking on eggshells," or "a little boy crying in the closet." Kenneth Tynan would call him a "musical lonely hearts club." But there were those, especially among older listeners, were not so happy with his blues aesthetic. Critic Roger Pryor Dodge, for example, missed the rougher, louder blues of the South and Southwest, and what he heard in modern musicians like Davis was a melodramatic, "decadent" affinity with Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine -- singers he disliked for their "whining intimacy, a merging of blues with the torch song." (In later years, when Miles flirted with rock, some heard his blues in a new way -- his singing tone, soft attack, and delayed vibrato, his slurred, sobbed, and bent notes, the buzzing metallic edge of his mute, together suggested to them nothing less than the sound of an electric guitar.)
He took to playing with a Harmon mute in the mid-1950's, a tin device patented in the 1920's by Dave Harmon, owner of the Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago, where trumpeter King Oliver -- a great user of mutes to transform his horn's sound -- first became famous outside of New Orleans. The Harmon was originally used for "wa-wa" effects, a technologically sophisticated version of the toilet plunger employed by some trumpet players for jokey or exotic sounds. It worked by covering and uncovering the stem, or small tube in the middle, by hand, yet avoided the pitch changes that plagued the plunger user. Miles, however, pulled the tube out and played the mute straight, shoving the bell of his horn into the microphone to gain volume and resonance.
The Harmon had a certain mystique to it because it was hard to record. It muted so well, in fact, that trumpet players blew harder, and it subdued the fundamental of the tone, as the engineers might say, giving off high frequency transients which disturbed the lathes that cut the masters and distorted the sound on the records. A punctuated loud note in a fast tune could rattle the metal of the mute and give it the ominous quality of an explosion in the building next door. But Miles used it more cautiously, as a mood-enhancing apparatus: "In the slow ballads," New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett once wrote, "Davis, using a mute, buzzes rhythmically and persistently at the melody, like a bluebottle." Yet the effect was not one of calm, but of repressed emotion: "More often than not," Gil Evans observed, "when people play with mutes, everything sounds relaxed; but with Miles there's an extraordinary tension. . ." The mute also allowed Miles to play the way he spoke, in that grainy whisper that compelled others to lean towards him -- a wisp of a musical tone that could suggest delicate intimacy but also a force barely under control. And by favoring the mute, Davis stepped back from Armstrong's country brashness and exuberance, softening the gruff voice he shared with Armstrong both on horn and larynx, and thus reinforced the perception of his playing as the essence of black urbanity.
Miles was a master of phrasing -- the groupings of notes or words in songs -- the nexus where the voices of both the body and the horn are most clearly aligned. Like Billie Holiday, he divided and regrouped notes by means of silences sometimes of such daring length that the audience was left wondering if he had lost his way. Through phrasing and carefully chosen tempos he could understate a melody to the point where he stripped it of its romantic character ("All of Me"); or giving it a different turn, he could make a straightforward show tune take on a sense of poignancy ("The Surrey With the Fringe on Top"), or, again, play a blues so slowly that it dissolved into a romantic ballad ("Basin Street Blues"). He might erase or hold back some of the notes from the original tune in order to work against its familiarity (as in the four held notes that speak the title of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" which he effaced after a few years of playing the tune). Even if the song were well-known, Miles could make listeners feel as if he were creating its melody afresh.
It was the kind of phrasing that caught the imagination of the literati. When poet Robert Creeley heard Davis' "But Not For Me" in 1954, he wondered how musicians were able to create phrases different from those in the original songs without composing them in advance. In Jack Kerouac's Visions of Cody, Jack Duluoz muses over the structure of Miles' phrases (and maybe mimics them as well):
And meanwhile Miles Davis, like the sun; or the sun, like Miles Davis, blows on with his raw little horn; the prettiest trumpet tone since Hackett and McPartland and at the same time, to flesh some of its fine raw sound, some wild abstract new ideas developed around a growing theme that started off like a tree and became a structure of iron on which tremendous phrases can be strung and hung and long pauses goofed, kicked along, whaled, touched, with hidden and active meanings; to come in, then, like a sweet tenor and blow the superfinest, is mowed enow [more than enough].
Kerouac might be forgiven his excesses, because in Miles' playing the missing note, the auditory ellipsis, the sense of breath being held rather than sounded, the choked-back note. . . all of them are literary in feel, something akin to the rhetorical device called meiosis -- understatement in the service of something less that the truth, a form of withholding which said that you were being asked to feel something which couldn't be explained literally. It signified that you would have to believe more than what you were being offered. Philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, the author of Musica Ficta, a philosophical mediatation on Wagner's operas, said that during a performance he had once seen, Miles Davis had stopped, midphrase, to utter an expletive: "In the caesura not of speech but of music, filling in with an empty word for a musical phrase he could not find, Miles shows how music is simultaneously inside the body, of the subject, and beyond."
Frank Sinatra taught me how to phrase, when [he] sings . . . 'Night and Day'; the way Orson Welles used to phrase . . . the heavy accent that would stop short. . . .
Welles and Sinatra, two men who appeared publicly shortly after the development of the microphone, and who knew how to use it like a musical instrument. Before them, most performers used mikes as megaphones, as a means of making themselves heard at a distance. When he was a child, Miles heard Welles's voice on the radio in many roles, as the pure and disembodied voice of the Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"), the omniscient narrator in The War of the Worlds ("We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's. . ."), but also as a speaker in other dramatic settings in which Welles's voice brought a sense of the body with it, making him seem a physical presence. Welles had a powerful, melliflous voice, and he could use the mike to convey intimacy through whispers and murmurs.
Sinatra, the man they called "The Voice," phrased conversationally, closely, at moderate volume, emphasizing words rather than melody. He stretched vowels and de-emphasized consonants, allowing musical phrases to extend beyond their normal length. Moving into and away from the microphone, shifting position in relation to the hearer and the band, Sinatra learned to avoid the sibilants and pops of microphone use. At the peak of his career, he could record in a studio with a 25-piece orchestra and a hundred guests and still make it sound intimate.
Like Welles and Sinatra, Davis grasped the potential of the microphone to set the body free. He sensed that a mike could be used like a close-up lens in motion pictures, focusing and amplifying small gestures and emotions, making histrionics and grand stagecraft unnecessary. With a microphone, singers and musicians could join the new naturalistic stage rhetoric that was developing in the wake of the Russian director Stanislavsky's plea that actors should cease portraying emotions to the audience and begin communicating them directly. In the same era when audiences were becoming accustomed to closer and more intimate looks at actors on film, the mike removed the need for musicians and singers to struggle to close the physical distance between themselves and the audience. Performers were finding new ways to position themselves on stage, assuming new attitudes (to use the word with which dancers describe the position of their feet and hands). The strongest position on stage -- the three-quarter profile that allows the audience to see actors' expressions while they maintain the fiction that there is no audience there -- could be replaced by any number of so-called weaker positions, such as performing while walking into the corners of the stage, or with the actors speaking with their backs to the audience. (By the beginning of the 20th century, the actors of the Moscow Art Theater and the Abbey Theater had already redefined dramatic naturalism by performing back-to-audience in the United States.) The concept of a fourth wall could be realized by performing as if there were no audience in the theater at all, an illusion in which the performance element could be concealed.
Musicians and their audiences were slower than those in the theater to grasp the possibilities offered to them by the microphone and new forms of theatrical practice. At the heart of jazz performance was the demand that musicians play for an audience's entertainment, whether for listening, dancing, drinking, or various forms of coupling. They were to come on stage in character, so to speak, dressed in band uniforms or business suits, and play with a lively, expressive stage manner just short of choreography. When not playing, they were to stand in place and engage the audience with eye contact, gracious smiles, perhaps even some clowning.
Miles rejected these shibboleths. He not only resented the show biz elements in Louis Armstrong's performances, but also the clowning of Dizzy Gillespie and the stage foolishness of Charlie Parker. At Juilliard, he had learned what an artist could demand of an audience, and it was he who would correct the music, who would purify it of its brothel and tent show origins, and present it as the art it was. And in an era in which a night's gig in a club could constitute another chapter in the discourse on race and manhood in America, this had the weight of a mission.
He was a small man, five feet six, around 150 pounds, but the way he moved, the short cut of his coats, and his slim profile pants made him seem larger. He dressed like a model and walked with a dancer's grace and economy, but with a detachment that hinted at a secret vulnerability. His large, round eyes seemed never to blink, and it was said that he never closed them as he slept. When he played, he stood motionless, like a still life painting, with knees flexed, head bent forward, indulging in the vanity of the slouch. And unlike other musicians who played their trumpets like weapons, horns erect and at the ready, he pointed his down. In a time when the trumpet player symbolized a certain kind of modern man -- a high, loud, and virile player, technically proficient, a master of this piece of instrumental machinery -- Miles played soft and low, turning the trumpet into an organic extension of himself, hitting wrong notes along the way as though to remind the audience that it was a human performance and not a didactic essay on modernism. He brought to mind the Hollywood jazz trope in which sexual impotence is symbolized by missed high notes on a horn in movies such as Young Man With a Horn or Mo' Better Blues. But Davis instead turned such errors (if indeed they were errors) into art, making them seem like sobs and whispers from an introverted, interior monologue being carried out on the bandstand. Despite his Playboy-like appearance, there was a cry of loneliness in his music that, even if it came from deep within himself, spoke to a condition that was felt by many in the 1950's.
He abandoned the banter that kept the audience quiet and engaged between pieces and ceased to announce song titles altogether, shocking critic Whitney Balliett, who once complained that it was like a minister neglecting to reveal his chapter and verse. With Davis, there were no smiles, no bows, no recognition that an audience was even present. Nor did he acknowledge applause, either at the completion of a solo, or at the end of the tune. In fact, he sometimes scarcely allowed time for applause, beginning one piece almost on top of another.
In 1957, a young writer named Joyce Johnson went to the Café Bohemia to see Davis play and to hang out in a club beloved of artists and writers. Afterwards, she wrote to her new boyfriend, Jack Kerouac, and described one occasion on which Davis did thank his audience:
The place was packed, but silent as a cathedral. . . . .Then -- all of a sudden, a car smacked up across the street between a house and a lamppost. . . . . A man at the bar cried 'Crazy!' threw up his arms and ran out into the street, followed by everybody except Miles who kept playing. He finished and said quietly, 'Thank you for the applause,' and walked off. It was like a dream.
Of all Davis' mannerisms, the one that really got to fans and press was what they called "turning his back on the audience." Though he never actually played with his back turned -- films from the 1950's show him standing fully forward to the microphone, or at most, playing into it with an actor's three-quarter profile -- when he finished a solo he often walked to the back of the band or left the bandstand for the bar or a table. Jazz singer Eddie Jefferson even immortalized this demeanor by putting words to it: "Miles Davis walked off the stage!/That's what folks are saying. . .") Whatever he was doing was enough to have the audience whispering, and the meaning of their reaction was clear: had anyone in the history of Western performance ever dared to do that? Oh, maybe Hitler, but everyone understood that was Third Reich stage business, Nazi shtick. . . this, though, was something else. A performer -- and a Negro performer, at that -- was refusing to follow the fundamental etiquette of performance. He was declining to display graciousness and appreciation for the audience's attention and applause, refusing to acknowledge the special nature of their relationship -- refusing to show, in a word, humility.
And what resonance that simple gesture had! During a wind-up doll joke craze in the early 1960's, George Crater, a humorist with Down Beat magazine, asked the question: what does a Miles Davis doll do if you wind it up? Answer: it turns its back on you. Even in the global backwaters of the jazz world, they had heard of Miles' behavior. In Ved Mehta's Portrait of India he describes the vocalist with a Bombay jazz band singing "My Funny Valentine" with her back to the crowd because of the disdain in which she held Indian audiences. When Birdland seemed to be on the verge of eliminating jazz for rhythm and blues in 1964, the New York Daily News columnist Robert Sylvester quoted bartender Oscar Goodstein on "these icebox artists" who were not entertaining anyone. But, if Birdland does close out jazz, Sylvester said, "It's at least one less place in which the arrogant and hostile can turn their backs on people who made them rich and sputter through their sour, slobbering horns." With the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the same era, such a gesture took on added symbolism, that of a refusal to placate whites; and with the appearance of the Black Arts Movement of the early '60's, Miles could be seen as turning his back on all of Western civilization. Asked about why Miles left the stage after soloing, Dizzy Gillespie once said, "Why don't you ask him? And besides, maybe we'd all like to be like Miles and just haven't got the courage." By the '90's this gesture was still emblematic, though of what was not so clear by then. Poet Nathaniel Mackey gently mocks the obsession with Davis' behavior in social science-ese:
This clicked with an idea Derek had been carrying around for some time -- namely that people weren't being precise enough in discussing Miles Davis turning his back on his audiences, that sufficient note had yet to be made of the fact that the angle at which his back addressed the audience tended to vary in relation to a host of contextual factors and coefficients. The upshot was that he set about quantifying and chronologizing based on photographs, films, second-hand accounts and first-hand observation -- the positional/propositional variables attendant upon Miles' posture, or, as he himself puts it, the "semitemporal calculus of Miles' postural kinematics."
Journalists began to let readers know whenever Davis turned away from them when they asked for interviews. Newspaper headlines and club marquees now proclaimed Davis "the prince of darkness," "the angry young man of jazz," "the evil genius." 'Evil' was a word whose black meanings resonated well beyond the obvious -- bad humored, ominous, unnatural, angry, but also thrillingly dangerous. Despite Davis' distrust of most critics and journalists, he offered a select few of them various reasons for his behavior: he turned away from the audience when he wasn't playing because he wanted to hear the band like a conductor; he didn't want to distract from other musicians' solos when he wasn't playing; some spots on the bandstand were better than others for sound; he wanted to be close to the rhythm section; or, while playing at the Village Vanguard, he couldn't stand looking at the flicker of the candles on the tables. Since he normally played with his eyes open, this last explanation is not as strange as it might sound. Musicians who are reading music focus on the page, while those who are playing from memory or improvising have the choice of playing with eyes open or shut. Eyes open in front of an audience presents serious distractions to many players, and Miles' solution was to minimize the presence of the audience.
Charlie Parker often said that Miles was shy, as did Dizzy Gillespie: "You'd never think it, but I've been watching him for so many years. There must always be reasons for actions. So I think that the reasons for some of his actions are a natural result of his being shy." Dizzy told of the time that that they were both playing at the Village Vanguard, and Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore both walked in the club while Miles' band was on the stand. Miles came over to Dizzy and asked him to introduce them when his set started. Knowing Miles was a huge fight fan, he said, "Hell, you're on now. You introduce them. You've got it" But Miles was too shy to do [it], and left it to him." Sonny Rollins agreed: "I hate to use that word 'shy', but he is a shy guy. Which is why he turned his back sometimes, and then people would say, 'Oh, gee, he's arrogant.' Miles wanted to hear the music, and he'd play something that he didn't want the public to hear, because we were getting the music together. It was more the feeling of a workshop, and Miles would take the time to change a note or chord. We were all experimenting, and Miles encouraged it." "Miles sometimes played into the curtain at the Vanguard," according to the club's manager, Lorraine Gordon, "but people didn't seem to mind."
James Baldwin, who said of Miles that he was the only person he knew who was shyer than he, once compared Miles' shyness to Floyd Patterson's reticence, his "will to privacy":
. . . he lives gallantly with his scars, but not all of them have healed -- and while he has found a way to master this, he has found no way to hide it; as, for example, another tough and tender man, Miles Davis, has managed to do. Miles' disguise would certainly never fool anybody with sense, but it keeps a lot of people away, and that's the point.
"Miles' way of coping with shyness," wrote Nat Hentoff, "is to affect fierceness."
"Like all of us," a musician who has known him for many years explains, "Miles only has a certain amount of energy, and he finds it difficult to meet new people. Rather than subject himself to what is for him a tiring discomfort, he tries to create so forbidding an image of himself that he won't even be bothered."
And Miles could be hurt. Early summer of 1956, David Amram was at the bar in Birdland with Gil Coggins, and Miles walked in with his dark glasses and a certain look on his face, and Gil said, "Uh oh, he's not feeling too sociable tonight." David said that "this sort of wave of fear suddenly went through all the musicians, the people who loved him and admired him."
There was this terrible kind of freeze that used to happen at Birdland. I mean it was a terrible kind of cold feeling, because without Charlie Parker being alive, it was almost like a temple named after some religious figure, and that god had died. At the same time there were these big tables where hustlers and gamblers sat who appreciated jazz. It was a combination of a gangster vibe, along with connoisseurs and snobs -- if you can imagine that -- all those combined.
Miles walked in, made an entrance, and instead of walking to the expensive tables, he went in slow motion and started to go to the outer edges, the cheap seats in the bull pen and the bar where the musicians stood.
As he got closer, I kind of tried to make myself invisible so I wouldn't be offend him. And when he was about five feet away I thought to myself, "I better not even say hello." So he went really slow, and just when he got almost right in front of me I saw through the left side of his dark glasses a bloodshot eye, the left eye, and it flashed over for a second. And I didn't make any effort to say hello like I always would. I just acted like I didn't know he was there -- and I knew in that millisecond I saw, and I felt, this hurt. And it completely freaked me out, because that was the last thing that I thought that I or anybody would be capable of doing, of hurting his feelings or rejecting him since I felt like a nobody in his presence . . . I understood at that moment why he would often be the way he was when he was rude with people, or when his behavior was erratic: he could actually sense what other people were feeling and thinking. So the point was, that he had a sensitivity that was so acute that it made it impossible for him to let things slide, and they sometimes became unbearable to him . . . . A lot of his toughness on the outside came from a combination of pride, understanding his value as an artist, and not being able to deal with the way he was treated in some of the envirnonments that he had to be in.
Whatever Miles meant by leaving the stage, and whether it ultimately derived from his shyness or not, his behavior and his explanations asked the audience to focus on the music, not on the performers or on the audience's relation to them.
Another joke went around about Miles, and this one, David Amram said, Miles liked so much he even told it about himself:
A guy said , "I've been waiting to hear Miles Davis all my life. I've saved up a month's salary just to be able to stay the whole night for all the sets. I go there," he said, "and Miles comes in wearing this beautiful suit, turns his back on the audience for the whole set, doesn't play a note." He said the second set the same thing happened, so he turned to his friend who had introduced him to Miles' music, and said, "He hasn't played a note!" He said, "I want my money back. This is a bunch of bullshit." And his friend said, "No, man, it's not what he's playing, it's what he's thinking!"
Offstage, Miles was a sight to see. Sunglasses worn against the night, he aestheticised his vision, turning himself into an artwork, into a minor deity of some sort, a Greek daemon, perhaps, silently observing humanity's foolishness from his seat at an empty table or at the end of the bar. Or merely observing his band's behavior: trumpeter Eddie Henderson sat beside him at the Blackhawk in 1961, and whenever saxophonist Hank Mobley squeaked or fluffed a note, Miles would half-humorously feign hitting Hank over the head with a trumpet. Mike Zwerin said that Miles complained to him about the rhythm section one night at Birdland in 1959, "What's Paul doing with the time?" But Zwerin could hear nothing wrong.
Another Miles joke: a jazz fan dies and reaches the other world and meets St. Peter, who takes him to a club with bad lighting, crowded tables, and bored waitresses. But when he sees that the customers include Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Monk, and Bird, he cries out to St. Peter, "This is heaven!" Then he notices a figure sitting at the end of the bar, dressed all in black, his back turned to the audience. "Who's that?" asks the fan. "Oh," says St. Peter, "that's God. He thinks he's Miles Davis."
© John Szwed 2002