Miles Davis and his role in shaping the present and future of American’s native music of jazz is very well understood. He helped open the door for a new instrumental ethic for the music that remains as controversial today as his personality was during his lifetime. I believe it was Norman Granz,founder of the Newport Jazz Festival himself who once said that unlike with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington,he never loved Miles Davis. Miles was a man who forced people to get to know him. He never revealed a great deal of his heart and soul to anyone. Not the musicians he worked with,and certainly not his lovers. Yet he remains a figure of great mystique. And as Granz pointed out,generations of musicians of all sorts have themselves become difficult personalities emulating Miles’s attitude. Yet I know at least one friend who said they learned a lot of positive things from Miles’ life and mode of thinking. This article is not about Miles Davis’s music in particular. But more about how his persona was so intricately linked with the enormously expansive musical odyssey he left behind.
In one of my favorite books Generations, to which I owe one Henrique Hopkins eternal thanks for recommending to me a few years ago, Miles Davis’s entire oeuvre is explained relatively well when writers William Strauss and Neil Howe on their chapter about the Silent Generation. It is only fitting that Miles is depicted here suggesting quietness in a whisper due to himself being part of this Silent Generation. Miles was born on May 26th,1926. In fact it is his birthday today. 1926 was according to this book the second year of this Silent Generation-which ended in 1942. Many amazing and often rebellious people who helped instigate the social changes in the 1960’s were part of this generation. Martin Luther King Jr,Jesse Jackson,Abbie Hoffman,Bobby Kennedy,Clint Eastwood,James Dean,Barbara Streisand,Gore Vidal,James Brown and John Lennon among many other icons of that period were from the Silent Generation. In a nutshell these were people who experience the Great Depression and the second World War from the viewpoint of children and adolescents. They were generational middle children as it were. Too young to go to war by and large in the 1940s. And they didn’t seem to have a voice with three very powerful generations before and the baby boom afterwards. Some of them were the parents of the 1950’s. Many either lived in denial or with their eyes all too wide open. Miles was one of the latter.
He was born Miles Dewey Davis Jr,son of a prominent dentist in St.Louis. During the 1920’s,the very concept of a dark skilled African American man such as Miles the first coming into a prominent profession was almost a contradiction in terms. His family in general were very successful fiscally . On this level I relate because my mother,though a generation younger is from a similar type back round only from the East Coast. Miles on the other hand was embarrassed as a young man not merely of his short stature but his elegant persona and handsome face lead him to be called “pretty” by his peers. Miles was not from a ghetto community. And therefore he saw the racial discrimination of the times from opposite point of view. He saw it from the point of view that oppressive white people seemed to be trying to manipulate the black community into thinking they have invented no art and no industry of their own. He wanted black Americans to be praised for their own contributions to society. His father openly admired Marcus Garvey,his blunders and all for his basic goal in that regard. He never believed in taking anything from anyone. He was so outspoken in his very non conformist,actually proto Black Power social viewpoints that many (mostly white) people today easily dismiss him as having been a racist.
Miles’ personal life was always an uneasy road. While displeased with his former boss’s Charlie Parker’s excessive heroin use,his life changed much after a visit to Paris-hobnobbing with Picasso and having a romance with the singer Juliet Grecko. In France Miles was treated as an honored guest-with no racial discrimination whatsoever. Dealing with the oppressive Jim Crow laws still in effect when he returned to the US became too much to bare. After all he grew up knowing from practical experience African American’s could achieve success on their own and even innovate. Seeing so few people believed that was true, he began to follow Parker’s heroin habit. Though he eventually kicked that habit, he then went into using cocaine. This deeply affected his turbulent marriage to the musical theater ballerina Frances,who he demanded leave the production of West Side Story she was in as well as physically brutalize her. It was Miles brief marriage to a far stronger willed women Betty Mabry in the late 60’s that turned him towards the music of Jimi Hendrix,Sly Stone and James Brown-and therefore his innovation of jazz rock fusion. So his love of women played the duel role alternately of both a source to bare out his own inner frustrations and to expand forth his creative innovations.
If Miles were alive he would be 87 years old today. His music endures in an enormous way,and he’s become an iconic figure beyond probably his own dreams and hopes. Knowing Miles’ no nonsense manner, I am not sure he would think much of trumpet players such as Chris Botti being so heavily influenced by him. On the other hand I am convinced perhaps that he would be actively involved with musicians such as Robert Glasper,who very much in the spirit of Miles Davis is seeking to create a new set of popular standards for the future of jazz music. Even a certain end of the hip-hop community are inspired by Miles,the music itself being something he embraced at the end of his life. Many hip-hop giants of the past decade or so have taken on not only Miles’ socially maverick attitude but his insistence on presenting themselves with a sharp and classy image-with suits and pressed hairstyles. Miles was an art gourmet,even painting himself some of his own album artwork. He was a bon vivant who presented himself with enormous class and dignity. His many eccentricities and flaws of character have sometimes been made to seem the main thrust of his nature. Somehow I have this feeling Miles has already joined the pantheon of innovative and gifted artists from Picasso to Prince who will be equally understood and misunderstood far past my own personal lifetime.