/ Music & Art /
I started my jazz collection ten, twelve years old. The guy who owned the record store paid attention to what I bought, offered guidance. My collection swiftly morphed from raw juvenile to quality Creole, from formerly popular swing to modern jazz that few knew even after a decade of exposure: Brubeck, Charlie Parker … I bought Bird records, Charlie Parker, before I ever heard of Miles Davis: that’s how I heard of Miles Davis: he was on the Bird records. I noticed Bird and Diz from the beginning: but then I noticed Bird and Miles also. Later I learned that Dizzy delibearely sat down (at the piano) so Miles, just a kid from St. Louis, could develop his trumpet. Those geniuses saw Miles’ genius, and made room. Bird loved Miles’ counter-melodies. I didn’t hear them, at first, my jazz ears were yet developing. (And the development needed is without limit!)
In 1974, starving because I’d founded FLEX, 1970, the world’s first internet: dumped by my wife as well as by my society, I took a job with Circle Gallery, hoping to learn to sell as well as to survive (so I could still try to explain FLEX (as I still do) (as I still fail to). Anyway my first night on the job I found the guy they’d hired to wrap purchases tring to befriend me. He wanted to tell me about his Bird collection. He had everything: only better: he’s deleted from the tape everything that wasn’t Bird: Bird, no Diz; Bird; no Miles. No Monk, no Al Haig: no nobody, except Bird.
Well, the first thing I decided to learn with regard to salesmanship was not to insult anybody trying to make friends with me. Arghh, what a terrible thing to do: even Bird from the grave couldn’t stop Miles from being a jerk as well as a genius.
I just listened to Miles’ Sketches of Spain. Tears streaming down my face, so moved I couldn’t even listen any more.
I remember when Miles was making that album. I already loved the stuff he’d done with Gil Evans: Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess … Jimmy Cobb, the drummer to be on the Sketches album told me it was in the works, told me he needed a place to practice. I had five rooms on W 188th off Morningside: of course he could set his drums up there: Myron had a piano in his room, I had all my records in what used to be the dining room. When Sketches came out I bought it immediately, but was disappointed in it: I didn’t know yet how to listen to flamenco rhythms, Moorish soul, Islam / gypsy esthetic. Of course don’t trust me, a white kid from Long Island, don’t trust me no matter what I say I can and can’t hear; but trust Pedro Almodovar: when he wants to show quintessential Spanish, what does he put on the sound track? That’s right: Miles!
In the 1950s there were two kinds of jazz bands: modern jazz that is. On the one hand Horace Silver wrote his songs and rehearsed his troops witnin an inch of their lives. By the time the quintet recorded each cat had every micomoment of every note perfect. So funky, so beautiful: how could anyone not near-worship Horace? On the other hand, diametrically opposite in philosophy was the Miles Davis sextet. Those guys would show up for a recording date, they have no idea what the tune was going to be: only that they’d feature in it. Miles would scribble a couple of chords on the bar’s napkin, pass the napkin among the players. The rhythm section would start in, the keyboard would explore the couple of chords, treating them modally, not harmonically: the sound engineers would record … and that night in Birdland the Miles Davis sextet would improvise off of what they remembered recording earlier that day. Now that was jazz; wholly improvised.
I give a real example: I was in Bridland that night Miles first played All Blues before a public, announcing they’d recorded it just that morning. Horace perfected perfection, using harmonies jazz guys knew; Miles forced instincts to be instinctive. Listen to the Kind of Blue album and try to imagine that: listen to Gil Evans piano, unbelievable. No jazz had ever been greater. Horace’s perfections were left in the dust. Wonderful, great; but not new species.
In the 1950s all my jazz friends loved Horace; but we near-worshipped Miles. Miles compositions weren’t the best of the month, or the best of the year, but seemed to be the best of all time. And so it want until he made Bitches Brew. No, no: electronics were not welcome. But the record buying public didn’t wait for the jazz nuts’ permission to buy Bitches Brew. People bought it, and played it, and listened. Next thing you know Brew was out-selling our vaunted favorites: including Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. Personally, I was offended, it was an affront.
This is all highly ironic since as a kid, living in a Gernsback sci-fi fantasy world, I would have automatically preferred the electronic music; but acoustic music had its claws deep deep in my flesh, in my soul. Years later I compared notes with my friend Myron: he’d stopped listening to Miles at Bitches Brew! He’d never heard Jack Johnson, never once listened to Agharta!
I didn’t listen to Bitches Brew in the 1960s. I didn’t listen to it in the 1970s either! but man did I listen to it in the 1980s. Actually let me narrow that down a little bit differently. I bought Agharta in 1975. I got in the car in NY, put Agharta in the player, and listened to Agharta continuously till I arrived in Los Angeles, December 1975. I got back to NY the following spring: and then I listended to Agharta, and Bitches Brew: and Agharta, and Bitches Brew. Then I bought Jack Johnson, then I listened to all of it, over and over: including the 1950s stuff: Kind of Blue, and Sketches.
I remember reading in Downbeat about how Miles lost his voice: he was standing in front of Birdland, on Broadway, just off 52nd Street. Cop told him to quit loitering. Miles tried to explain to the cop who he was: that was his name on the billbaord: there, the picture was of him! he belonged there. The cop told him to quit loitering. Miles started screaming at the cop. He’d ust had something scraped of his larynx: Miles screaming his vocal chords away, forever. The cop beat im up with the billy club. That’s what cops were for in the 1950s, and before, and since: impose racism. Don Cheadle showed the story in the movie, but shuffled it with other stuff: wrong stuff: he wasn’t married to Francis yet, I don’t think he had met her. I went out with West Side Story cast members, Frances wasn’t in the show yet, we didn’t know her. The movie made no coneection with his voice!
In the 1960s cops beat people up even when they were white and well dressed: but were white and well dressed in the wrong place: like my old buddy Brian getting wholloped in Washington Square: the crime was folk singing. The moron cops didn’t even show down when they saw they were being filmed! I’d like to see those two incidents explored by someone who knows and understands both. Shoulda been me, had I been allowed to make a living.
1956 or so I’m walking down Seventh Avenue around 52nd Street. I see Cozy Cole: permanent headliner at the Metropole, the bandstand with his drums above the bar exposed en plein air to the street, no front window interfering with the music: 7th and 51st. I say Hi. Cozy scowls, looks confused. Oh, he falters, “How’s yer father?” He probably thought I was his accountant’s son, his lawyer’s. Black peole aren’t used to being recognized by white people of any age.
A favorite Miles memory just slips up from deep down: Downbeat Magazine, mid-1950s, a Stan Getz story. Stan and some cats are at his nice listening to Miles on the hifi. Getz’s little boy, only five or seven or so makes a comment about Miles. These guys, all stars themselves, all knowing perfectly well it’s Miles on the horn, smile and tease the kid: Howdja know it’s Miles? they ask. Getz’ kid doesn’t miss a beat: “Because he sounds like a little boy, all alone, and he’s crying.
You got it, kid. Exactly. Profound.
Getz had a beautiful home, classic, even then.
But now I think of an unpleasant Miles story. It’s Clark Terry’s story, the great CT. Clark runs into Miles. Miles is a mess. CT invites Miles to his house, feeds him, lets him clean up. CT goes out, comes back: his apartment is empty, cleaned out: no TV, no hifi, no furniture.
Clark Terry took it philosophically: You do a good deed, you get punished.
Miles had no excuse for becoming a junkie and a thief. He was a middle class kid from St Louis, not a poor black kid from a ghetto. His father was a fancy accountant, had land, horses. He wasn’t middle class, he was upper-middle class. But he had to go and become a dumb hop head.
Miles of Goya
By an extraordinary set of coincidences I wound up re-watching the great bio pic Goya (1971) the other day: Miles much on my mind and in my ear and Goya never very far from it. When Miles’ Sketches of Spain came out I was already used to obsessing on Miles recordings with Gil Evans. I thought I already listened to Miles Ahead enough when Porgy and Bess came out. Porgy had the first free-form Miles-soul, Doctor Jesus. The world has heard Miles do free-form a zillion times since, but that was the first. I was in college, surrounded by fellow Miles freaks. And for once I was listening to what was contemporary, not ten years old, not five years old. For a couple of years I’ve been listening to flamenco: Estrella Morena: very very difficult 6/8 variations. Then I watch a flamenco movie: great use of graphic Spanish, flamenco as theater, as architecture, as staging. This past week I’d been listening to Solea every day, going out of my mind. Now all that Miles, all that flamenco, all that Spanish soul is in my head, Miles’ rhythms, every measure unique, every pair of measures, every stack of measures: no two sounds identical, few otes notes ever heard before: these are not trumpet sounds, these are not any sounds ever heard before. And now I’m watching Goya: and seeing Goya: and seeing Spain. And seeing Spain before and after Goya, and during, and Spain, and the universe, can never agin be the same.
And I think for the first time ever: Miles sculpts sound and rhythm the way Goya sculpts line, and area, and color, and rhythm.
Go thou and do likewise.