Friday, April 10, 2020

Miles Davis - Tortured Genius

Miles Davis in his later years.

I stumbled upon Miles Davis quite by accident, when I was a young teenager.  It wasn't his music that impressed me at the time - it was his artwork.

Back in those long ago days, there wasn't much on TV.

In New York, we had a handful of channels - 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13.  2, 4 and 7 were the national networks CBS, NBC, and ABC.  5, 9, and 11 were local New York City TV stations.

13 was PBS, the public broadcasting station best known for Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theatre.  For some reason, I was watching channel 13.  There must really have been nothing on the other stations.

They were showing a documentary about, or maybe an interview with, a very strange man named Miles Davis.  He spoke in a deep, raspy voice, and seemed to have trouble getting any words out.

He was thin nearly to the point of emaciation, wearing sunglasses, a loud red baggy suit, and with long hair swept back from a balding head.  To me, he looked a little bit like a frog.  As it turned out later, he was nearing the end of his life.

And he was painting a picture.  It was bold, startling, and in the Picasso-esque abstract style that I love.

It probably looked something like this:

A painting by Miles Davis

"I thought, "Wow.  I like that painting."

But painting was a hobby of his.  

His real job was being one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century.


Miles Dewey Davis III was born on May 26, 1926, into a relatively wealthy St. Louis area family.  His father was a dentist, and owned a 200-acre pig farm. 

Beginning at age 13, his parents hired private tutors to teach him to play the trumpet, including Joseph Gustat, principal trumpeter of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

At the age of 18, Davis entered the Juilliard School in New York City, but dropped out after three semesters.  Soon, he had joined the great saxophonist Charlie Parker's band.  He played with Parker for two years until Parker's 1946 nervous breakdown in Los Angeles.

Davis then played in a series of bands, including one led by Dizzy Gillespie, and he also began to lead his own bands.  His nine-piece from the late 1940s recorded several singles for Capitol Records.  These records are considered some of the earliest examples of cool jazz, but they sold poorly or remained unreleased until the 1957 compilation Birth of the Cool.  

By early 1950, not yet 24 years old, Davis had spiraled down into cocaine and alcohol abuse, and finally heroin addiction.  He survived by playing sessions as a sideman, making his own records haphazardly, and working as a pimp.  

He stayed away from New York City during this time.  He lived in Detroit for a while, and also returned to his father's home, locking himself in the guest house in an attempt to get clean.  

In 1954, Davis kicked heroin, inspired by his idol, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.  He returned to New York, the place that would become his home for most of his life.

On August 25, 1959, Davis was beaten and arrested by cops outside Birdland nightclub in New York City, apparently for escorting a white woman to a taxi.  The cops didn't recognize him, even though he was well-known and riding the success of his album Kind of Blue at the time.  He was at Birdland recording music to be distributed to American soldiers by the US Armed Services.  

Band Leader, Innovator, Iconoclast

Beginning in 1955, Davis embarked on a nearly 20-year period of intense productivity, experimentation and innovation that established and cemented his legacy as one of the great musicians of the 20th century.  

He was invited to perform at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival in August of 1955.  His performance was widely praised by critics.  He is said to have responded to the accolades with: "What are they talking about?  That's how I always play."

More important, the producer George Avakian from Columbia Records was at the festival, and signed Davis to a major label deal.  At the time, Davis's contract was with the much smaller, jazz-centric Prestige Records.  The Columbia deal would expose him to a larger mainstream audience, and make him a lot more money.

In the late 1950s, Davis was releasing multiple albums each year, both with Prestige and Columbia.  Albums like Birth of the Cool, Walkin' (which is thought to be the recording that invented hard bop), 'Round About Midnight, Miles AheadJazz Track, Porgy and Bess (considered a landmark in orchestral jazz), and Kind of Blue were all released during this time. 

Kind of Blue, released in August 1959, and recorded with an all-time great lineup including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, and Bill Evans, received immediate critical praise, widespread radio play, and became the best-selling jazz album of all time.  

To be honest, if time had stopped there, and no one had ever recorded another album of music, we all probably would have been just fine.

The cover for In A Silent Way, released in 1969, an early stab at jazz / rock fusion.

But time didn't stop, and Davis pressed on. 

In 1960, he released the orchestral Sketches of Spain, a collaboration with the arranger Gil Evans, fusing American jazz, European classical, and world folk music traditions.  It is considered one of the most influential albums of the 20th century.

Through the 1960s, he experimented, changed styles, and worked with a bewildering array of musicians and line-ups.  His record sales never again reached the peak of Kind Of Blue, and went into decline.  But he remained productive.

In the late 1960s, he married the much younger groupie and funk singer Betty Mabry.  She exposed him to the music of The Byrds, Sly Stone, James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and especially Jimi Hendrix. 

By 1968, Davis had introduced electric bass, electric guitar, and electric piano to his music, angering jazz purists, and pointing the way toward jazz fusion.  

In 1969, he released the mesmerizing and spacey In A Silent Way, his first foray into the fusion of rock and jazz.  Critics called it a "sell-out," and some suggested that what really interested him about fusion was all the money rock stars of the day were making.  

Betty Mabry, Davis's young wife who was a fixture on the New York City counterculture scene of the late 1960s.  She is credited with getting Davis interested in rock and pop music.  Davis divorced her, accusing her of having an affair with Jimi Hendrix. 

In A Silent Way reached #134 on the Billboard album charts, his first album to chart since 1964.  

Listen to In A Silent Way, in its entirety on Youtube.

Perhaps emboldened by this success, Davis released the double-album Bitches' Brew in 1970, which became the definitive album of jazz / rock fusion.  

It reached #35 on the Billboard chart, and was later certified as selling more than one million copies.  Bitches' Brew also led to the bizarre spectacle of Miles Davis opening concerts for rock acts like the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young, as well as playing at the 1970 Isle of Wight rock festival.

Through the early 1970s, Davis continued to experiment, recording with European avante-garde composers, and making a foray into jazz / funk.

His 1972 funk fusion album On the Corner, was made with keyboardist Herbie Hancock and guitarist John Mclaughlin, and featuring Davis on the electric organ as well as the trumpet.  Davis was bitterly disappointed because he felt that Columbia marketed it to the wrong audience.

"The music was meant to be heard by young black people," he said.  "But they just treated it like any other jazz album and advertised it that way, pushed it on the jazz radio stations.  Young black kids don't listen to those stations; they listen to R&B stations and some rock stations."

The setback sent him into a tailspin.  His next records were wildly experimental and sold poorly.  It wasn't until the 1980s, with his re-emergence as a productive recording artist, and retrospectives on his career and his contributions, that Davis would again attain the spotlight.

Davis and his third wife Cicely Tyson in 1982.

Health and Personal Life

Davis lived much of his adult life with a series of chronic health problems, as well as addictions to alcohol, cocaine, heroin and painkillers.  He was considered quick to anger, unstable, and his relationships were marred by domestic violence.  

His signature raspy voice came about because of surgery to remove polyps on his vocal cords in 1955.  The story goes that the doctors told Davis he would have to remain silent for a period of time, but he was unable to do it, and the surgery didn't heal correctly.  

He suffered from sickle cell anemia, and used alcohol and cocaine to blunt the resulting joint pain.  During his first marriage, he experienced visual hallucinations, searching for imaginary people in his home while wielding a kitchen knife.  

In the 1970s, he went through recurrent bouts of pneumonia, bursitis, stomach ulcers, a hernia, depression, and arthritis.  Combined with his drug and alcohol problems, his repeated hospitalizations led to rumors of his imminent death.

By 1975, he had retreated to his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and disappeared from public view.  He spent the rest of the decade in the grip of drugs and alcohol, and his once-fancy townhouse became a flop house for drug addicts, prostitutes and dealers.

Miles Davis's five-story townhouse at 312 West 77th Street in Manhattan.  He bought it with the proceeds of his early Columbia recordings.  In the late 1970s, it became the squalid dungeon of his lost years. 

In 1978, Davis was briefly jailed for non-payment of child support.  

In late 1979, his contract with Columbia Records was set to expire.  They had been paying him an annual salary to keep him afloat, but he wasn't releasing any new material.  They made it clear that they needed to hear new music from him to continue the relationship.  

Davis invited the English cellist and arranger Paul Buckmaster to come to the house and work on some new music.  Buckmaster had worked with him to produce On the Corner back in 1972. 

When Buckmaster arrived, he was appalled to find Davis on drugs and living in roach-infested squalor, with the lights off and all the curtains drawn.  

He organized an intervention with friends and family, including the singer Chaka Khan and Davis's new girlfriend, the actress Cicely Tyson, that led to Davis's re-emergence during the 1980s.

From the cover of the Miles & Quincy: Live at Montreux album.  Producer Quincy Jones convinced Davis to revisit the music from his heyday (something Davis had previously refused to do) for a live concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival during July, 1991, just three months before Davis died.  

Last Years

Davis emerged from seclusion in 1980.  He had barely touched the trumpet since 1977, and had trouble regaining his ability to play.

He went into a recording studio for the first time since 1975 on May 1, 1980.  The next day, he was hospitalized with a leg infection.  He recorded The Man With The Horn later that year, and Columbia Records released it in 1981.

In June of 1981, he made his first public concert appearance since 1975, with a ten-minute guest set at the Village Vanguard nightclub in New York.  

In January 1982, he relapsed with alcohol, and had a minor stroke.  After three months working with a Chinese acupuncturist, he was able to play the trumpet again.

The albums he recorded during this time received mixed reviews.  Columbia was unhappy with his 1985 recording Aura, and delayed the release until 1989.

He engaged in a public feud with the young rising star, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.  Marsalis criticized Davis's newest recordings as not being "true jazz."  Davis responded by saying Marsalis was "a nice young man, only confused."

Perhaps in an attempt to patch things up, Marsalis made a surprise appearance during Davis's set at the 1986 Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Davis kicked him off the stage.

By 1985, Davis had become diabetic, requiring daily insulin injections.  His health continued to deteriorate, with repeated bouts of pneumonia, and rumors that he had AIDS, which he denied through a spokesman.

Through it all, he continued to tour and release new recordings.  In 1988, he cut a European tour short when he collapsed after a two-hour concert in Madrid.  His marriage to Cicely Tyson broke up in 1989, after further allegations of domestic violence.  

Miles Davis, playing live in 1990.

In 1990, Davis received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.  In 1991, the producer Quincy Jones, who had been friends with Davis for many years, convinced him to revisit the music of his heyday.

For more than three decades, Davis had always insisted on forging ahead, doing new things, and had rejected any requests to play his old music.  In this case he agreed.  

He played a set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on July 8, with Jones conducting, in which they did songs from his 1950s recordings with Gil Evans, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, and Sketches of Spain.  The recording of this became the live album, Miles & Quincy: Live at Montreux.  

Two nights later, he appeared in Paris, for a one night concert with John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and others from his early 1970s funk/rock/jazz fusion era. 

In early September, suffering from pneumonia, he checked into a hospital in Santa Monica, California.  The doctors suggested inserting a bronchial tube to relieve his breathing.  He lashed out in anger at them, and suffered a stroke, followed by a coma.

He was on life support until September 28, 1991, when he died at the age of 65.