Miles Davis

By Philip Watson

(UK) Esquire, September 2001


In 1964 Miles Davis had a party. Held at his sprawling five-storey townhouse on West 77th Street in Manhattan – a former Russian Orthodox church converted into a modernist playboy pad of abstract paintings, leopard-skin rugs and electronic gadgets – the celebration was partly staged for Robert Kennedy, who was running for senator of New York.

As well as attracting leading figures from politics, music and the arts, including Bob Dylan, Quincy Jones, Leonard Bernstein and James Baldwin, it’s likely (although Miles claimed later not to remember even Kennedy being there) the party was also attended by a smattering of Hollywood celebrities. Miles’s club dates had become increasingly popular with stars such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner (there were even rumours of Ava and Miles having an affair), and his slim and graceful good looks, his diffident yet magnetic demeanour, and his figurehead position as the apogee of the aloof and uncompromising jazz artist had led to him being fêted as “the coolest man on the planet”.

Aged 38, earning around $250,000 a year (an equivalent today of at least ten times that amount), and married to one of the most beautiful women in America, the dancer Frances Taylor, Miles seemed to have it all. Dressed in the sharpest Brooks Brothers and bespoke Italian suits and driving a white Ferrari convertible, his image became synonymous with the notion of the elegant outsider. In 1964, he was the James Dean of jazz and the very embodiment of the term “hip”.

Almost 40 years later, in the 75th anniversary year of his birth, and ten years this month after his death, that iconic status has, if anything, only strengthened. For one thing, Miles Davis’s life makes those of other famous musical rogues, roisterers and reprobates seem pale and insignificant in comparison. As well as his formidable contribution to changing the nature and direction of jazz and modern music several times during a 45-year career, Miles also found time to partner more beautiful women than Frank Sinatra, live harder and take more drugs than Keith Richards, and get into more scraps with the authorities than Eminem and the Sex Pistols combined.

Mostly, Miles Davis refuses to go away. From fragments of his music heard in coffee bars and fashionable restaurants, to references to him made by Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen and by Prince (“I’d go round to his place and he’d come to the door butt-naked,” said the Purple One of his friendship with Miles during the 80s. “See that, and you wouldn’t want to eat for a week”), to his primary position (with Kind of Blue) in the Independent‘s recent “50 Best Recordings of the 20th Century”, Miles Davis continues to make an impact on contemporary culture.

Miles is name-checked by musicians as diverse as experimental producer Bill Laswell, Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May, ambient maestro Brian Eno, British electronica bands such as Squarepusher and μ-zig, US rap masters Public Enemy, and classical saxophonist John Harle. More than 40 years after its release, Kind of Blue remains the best-selling jazz album of all time, shifting 5,000 copies a week. Recently, as well as the screening of a major two-part documentary on Channel 4, there have been rumours of a Miles biopic, with Wesley Snipes playing the lead.

The film will have plenty of material to draw upon should it ever get made. Miles was, for example, generous with his attentions towards women. He was stylish and charismatic – to borrow a phrase once applied to Jimmy Cagney, Miles dented any room he entered – and had three wives, four children (none of whom were conceived with any of his wives), and countless lovers. “I love women,” he says in his autobiography, published in 1989. “I never needed any help, or ever had any trouble, finding women.”

As well as Frances Taylor, Miles had relationships with many beautiful African-American women – some of whom feature on album covers from the 60s. He also enjoyed a much-publicised affair with singer Juliette Greco in Paris in 1949 and throughout the 50s (during which time he also met Sartre, Picasso and Jean-Luc Godard). Miles was a devotee of the doctrine that (as he stated it) “a hard dick has no conscience”, and it seems he was never faithful to any of his many women, admitting in his book that he slept with a lover just five days after marrying actress Cicely Tyson in 1981.

His sexual appetite reached its peak between 1975 to 1980, when Miles lived in reclusive and largely degenerate exile in his home in New York. Although he claimed his withdrawal was for health reasons and because he felt tired and drained artistically, rather than resting during those years, he took large quantities of cocaine (as much as $500 a day, at one point), injected mixes of coke and heroin (“speedballs”) into his leg, became addicted to Percodan and Seconal, and each day smoked six packets of cigarettes and drank two cases of Heineken. He also said he “fucked all the women I could get into my house”.

His behaviour towards women led to frequent accusations of misogyny, and that the “Miles Davis mystique” has been perpetuated by men at the expense of the dissenting women in his life. Certainly Miles could be possessive, critical, jealous and short-tempered – attributes that perhaps fuelled his sobriquet “The Prince of Darkness”.

In his book, he admits to hitting Frances Taylor simply because she had referred to another musician as handsome. In the 50s he failed to support his first wife and served a few days’ time in Rikers Island; non-support caused him to be jailed again in 1978. One disgruntled woman, Pearl Cleage, was even moved to assert, in her (self-published) book Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide To Truth, that “Miles was guilty of self-confessed violent crimes against women such that we ought to break his albums, burn his tapes and scratch his CDs”.

Suggestions were also made throughout his life that Miles also had sexual relationships with men, and it has been alleged that he died of an AIDS-related illness. It’s true that he had fine features, a certain feminine manner and allure, and an attraction to a dissolute and Dionysian lifestyle, but he never in his life admitted to any bisexual tendencies. In his autobiography he stated that his brother Vernon was gay, but put it down to the fact that “the women – my mother, sister and grandmother – always treated him like a girl”.

Perhaps boxing was the perfect counterpoint to these rumours and it played a major part in his life; he once confessed that “boxing was and is my heart”. Miles grew up in East St Louis listening to Joe Louis’s fights on the radio, and from his late teens onwards he followed boxing, was friends with boxers, trained in boxing gyms, and at one point was a boxing student of one of America’s great trainers, Bobby McQuillen.

The relationship between his boxing and music was significant. Not only did the training help him cope with the physical demands of playing the trumpet, but he also saw similarities in boxing’s grace and movement, and in the improvisational adjustments boxers have to make in the ring. In 1970 he also recorded the music to the film Jack Johnson, a biopic of the great black boxer who was world heavyweight champion from 1908-15.

Boxing also influenced other areas of his personal and professional life. Some of it was positive. A great admirer of the self-discipline of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles has said that it was his example which helped him kick his heroin habit in the 50s.

But often his training in the ring led to more pugilistic encounters, mostly, as he saw it, “to protect who and what I am as a person and musician”. He could be aggressive and ruthless with his own musicians, whom he seemed to be continually firing or seeing walk out. He hit and punched saxophonist John Coltrane for being “strung out on heroin and drink”, and once knocked out drummer Max Roach. He would physically fight with bartenders, waiters, promoters and club owners. “I’ll fight at the drop of a hat if I think someone has wronged me,” he said.

Boxing also mirrored his political assertiveness. Born to a comfortable middle-class family (his parents had a cook and a maid), Miles was bright and articulate from an early age. Not only was his upbringing rare within black musicians of the pre-60s in that he had never known poverty, but it was also highly politically conscious and active. His father was a successful dentist who was an admirer of the political radicalism of Marcus Garvey, and he ran for State Representative for Illinois in the 30s.

Miles grew up in a city that saw race riots and segregated schools, and he had a very early sense of black pride and respect. Throughout his life he saw it as a personal crusade to fight “Uncle Tom-ism”, and from the 50s onwards he mostly turned his back on audiences when he was playing, and refused to announce songs, take bows or introduce his band.

He railed against the racist American system (and the notion of what James Baldwin once called “these yet to be United States”). Not only did he deliberately set out to make his music appeal, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, specifically to a young black audience, but he played benefit concerts for the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality).

More often than not, however, Miles sparked controversy. Possessing a self-confidence and self-belief that undoubtedly bordered on arrogance, Miles could be ill-tempered and dogmatic. As Charlie Parker’s biographer Ross Russell has written: “Outwardly Miles seemed unemotional and unconcerned, but inside he seethed with hostility.”

He would often argue in public and in the pages of magazines about other musicians’ abilities. He once described 60s’ avant-gardists Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy as “some sad shits”. He attacked the 1971 Grammys because the awards “went to white people copying black people’s shit”. He suggested there should be a new award system for the black artists: the Mammy Awards. And he once turned down an invitation to pose for photographer Richard Avedon simply because his record company had expressively asked him to accept. “When people ask you to do something,” said the wilful Davis, “all you can say is no.”

His outspokenness could also get him in trouble. In 1959 he was hit violently by a policeman and arrested outside the very club in which he was about to perform, and in 1969 he was shot at while driving his Ferrari in New York.

Yet, for all this conflict, one thing abides: the majesty of the music. Because of his chameleonic ability to change, it has often been stated (originally by Duke Ellington) that Miles Davis was “the Picasso of modern music”. If that sounds like hyperbole, what is true is that, like Picasso, he was hooked on the dynamic of change. He demanded a lot of himself, his musicians and his audiences, and he often placed himself in opposition to prevailing forces. Staying ahead was his guiding principle: “I have to change – it’s like a curse” becoming his most famous maxim.

It is undeniable that his protean verve changed modern music many times. Having been apprenticed in the 40s’ bebop revolution by playing in bands that included Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus, Davis went on to forge “The Birth of the Cool” by integrating classical ensemble and tone elements into jazz with long-time associate, arranger Gil Evans. He assembled pioneering small groups in the 50s which led to the all-time classic session Kind of Blue.

Miles made the classically-influenced albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain at the end of the 50s, records that significantly expanded the jazz repertoire. In the 60s he stretched post-bop jazz to a knife-edged intensity with his quintet featuring Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He embraced electric instrumentation in the late 60s and 70s, being the most prominent musician of his generation to successfully combine jazz with rock, funk, Indian music and even the European serialism of Stockhausen. And in the 80s and early 90s he returned with a characteristically open-eared approach that saw him lead bands that assimilated such musical elements as pop, funk, rap, hip-hop and blues.

While his technical wizardry may not have matched virtuosos such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, Miles’s other major musical achievement was to elevate the sound of his trumpet into something as instantly recognisable and influential as Louis Armstrong’s. Spare, brooding and intense, Miles’s timbre had an ability to transmit profoundly felt emotion.

“Piercing and orphaned, and so devoid of vibrato that it recalls to one’s inner ear the virginal clarity of a Sistine choirboy,” was how Kenneth Tynan once described it. That was his sound. It was a long way, however, from being his life.



Birth Of The Cool (1949)  The pioneering album, recorded at the age of just 22, that set Miles on a separate path. Assembling a nine-piece band that sounds closer to a small chamber ensemble that a hot jazz group, and with subtly textured scores and arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, Miles and this music still sound mesmerisingly fresh more than 50 years on.

Kind of Blue (1959)  Featuring an all-star group that includes John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, this is the one jazz album that every music fan of any persuasion should own. Recorded in just two short sessions, Kind of Blue is an peerless celebration of the sound of surprise, a plaintive masterpiece that will forever be an ultimate expression of the art of improvisation. So famous that it now has an entire book devoted to its creation written by critic Ashley Khan (Granta).

Highlights From The Plugged Nickel (1965)  The album that gets closest to capturing perhaps the greatest small group in jazz – Miles’s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Recorded live over two nights at The Plugged Nickel club in Chicago, this is the shimmering sound of harmony and rhythm being rethought and rebuilt before your very ears. A seven-CD box set is available for those who want more.

Bitches Brew (1969)  The modern era starts with this volcanic and hugely influential electric jazz record featuring Miles with such young turks as Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. Flawed and largely fused together in the editing suite, this is nonetheless a seething, jostling edifice of new sounds, directions and possibilities. It also has some inspired playing; Miles has rarely soloed with such strength and fire.

Star People (1983)  A personal favourite from the much maligned 80s’ comeback period, and a vastly superior album to the more commercially successful Tutu and Doo-Bop. A dramatic summation of all the music that has come before it, from delta blues to inner-city funk, and with guitarist John Scofield on stunning form, this proved Miles had lost none of his creative élan and originality.

© Philip Watson, 2001/2023