By Mike Zwerin International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, July 17, 1991
Miles Davis is playing the soundtrack for the unproduced movie of my life. He has been inescapable, continually emerging (like bit-player Richard Nixon) from dark corners.
This summer he blanketed Europe under kliegs, playing not only a bass-heavy backbeat but also his hits of yesteryear ("Boplicity," "Sketches of Spain") and leading an all-star assortment of ex-employees (Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock). For at least a decade he has refused to look back, and I cannot help but wonder if this unexpected flurry of eclectic activity at age 65 is some sort of last roundup.
His current working sextet has been playing pretty much the same set and solos night after night, including Michael Jackson's tired "Human Nature," which has become his "Hello Dolly." The band has lacked creative energy since freethinkers like Al Foster and John Scofield left in the '80s. No longer leading the way in the '90s, he is getting by on his (considerable) charisma, which is holding up better than his boredom-detector. When the French minister of culture, Jack Lang, made Miles Dewey Davis a knight of the Legion of Honor on Tuesday, it seemed somehow like final punctuation.
I certainly hope I'm wrong. When he stops, my movie's over. Maybe he's getting ready to turn a new page; he's done it many times, starting with "The Cool."
In the summer of 1948 I was in New York on vacation from the University of Miami, where I was majoring in sailing. No! I was playing swing music for dinner in the student cafeteria, cantilevered over an artificial lake. It was sort of sailing, at that.
In those days I played my horn with more courage than sense. Never imagining that somebody might dislike me because I was white, I jammed in Minton's in Harlem with Art Blakey, a fearful dude, I later learned. As I packed up, Miles emerged from a dark corner at the end of the bar. I went into a cool slouch. I used to practice cool slouches. We were both wearing shades - no eyes to be seen.
"You got eyes to make a rehearsal?" he asked.
I tried to make it clear that I couldn't care less for his stupid rehearsal: "That's cool."
"Four. Nola's." Miles was cooler than I was. I played with his first band, which came to be called the Birth of the Cool.
"Don't play what's there," Miles has said, "play what's not there." Legends make legendary remarks, although he doesn't look at it that way. "A legend," he once told me, "is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it."
And the Prince of Silence is still being royally rewarded for doing it. His Highness's treasury is overflowing. Money is every bit as important to him as creativity. Or rather, they are inseparable. Obliging record companies, promoters and broadcasters to pay top dollar also commits them to saturation promotion, which encourages business and maintains the price. Money is a symbol of reality, even - especially - money for nothing.
Miles said he could put together a better rock band than Jimi Hendrix. He advised young musicians to learn rock, rhythm and blues and funk tunes rather than jazz standards. "I have to change," he said. "It's like a curse." Miles goes to the money, but it's more complicated than that: The money comes to him.
He has been paid millions to expand frontiers, to reflect the best of our urban experience, to do exactly what he wanted to do and did better than anyone else - to "play what's not there." The artistry with which he relates to money is an art in itself, an integral part of what makes him - whether he likes it or not - a living legend. His multimillion-dollar mansion in Malibu is one of his greatest hits. Miles Davis plays money with as much conviction as he does the trumpet.
After college, I worked in my family's business. Jealous of Miles for making money and music, I compensated by eating and drinking. Coming out of the Russian Tea Room after a three-martini lunch with Bethlehem Steel one afternoon, I crossed Miles stepping out of his Ferrari on the way in. Wearing a Savile Row suit, a Billy Eckstine shirt collar and leather driving gloves with belts on them, he punched me harder than playfully in the stomach and said: "You're getting fat, Mike."
He'd lay his world-renowned salty act on me every time I crossed him. He wooed away one of my girlfriends, but she was ready to leave anyway. Somehow I could never take the Nasty Miles number seriously. It was obviously a game. For example, he'd tell the press that white people couldn't play jazz and then hire a few to play with him. He loved going out of his way to bug the right people, and I loved him for it.
In the late '70s, he stopped performing and retreated into his Manhattan town house. Occasionally, he would be spotted around town emerging from dark corners well past midnight. He took every drug from the Golden Triangle to Cali by way of Cognac, Basel and Virginia. But his health was declining - sickle-cell anemia; a police-inflicted head wound; broken ankles when he crashed his Lamborghini. There was an ulcer, insomnia, a serious hip problem. Miles is so hip he gets hip diseases. The removal of polyps from his vocal cords gave birth to his trademark hip hoarseness. Finally, he had a stroke and cut out all the dope.
Flash forward. We were in his Central Park South duplex. (I was a journalist now.) "Music is like dope," he told me. "You use it till you get tired of it." Trying to decipher that, I looked down at the park stretching expensively into the distance. He had hugged me at the door. We are not friends, but he has become friendlier - a drug-free life improves the disposition. He was wearing rose-colored glasses and a white shirt of thick linen. The only jazz giant with a weave had a full head of curly hair. He looked sensational.
The carpets were covered with his paintings. He paints a lot, and his works sell for healthy sums. He sketched fiery, bright-lipped women as he spoke: "These are Parisian women...sunken cheeks....Speaking French does that....They speak with their tongues out." He stuck his tongue out at me.
I asked him if painting had affected his music.
"You mean do colors flash through my head when I'm playing? No. There's always music in my head. I hear music on the street. When I'm swimming. Going to sleep. I hear it now talking to you. You'd be surprised what flashes through my head."