On the 20th Anniversary of Miles Davis' Death, Five Funny Stories About Him You Maybe Shouldn't Believe

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Tom Palumbo
Today is the 20th anniversary of Miles Davis' death on Sept. 28, 1991

John Szwed's 2002 biography of jazz demigod Miles Davis, So What: The Life of Miles Davis, opens with an acquaintance sharing a hysterically funny yet highly improbable anecdote regarding the trumpeter. When Szwed inquires about the story's origins, the acquaintance exclaims, "You want attribution? This is Miles I'm talking about -- he belongs to everyone!"

"Stories about him [Miles] are legion," Szwed goes on to write, "many of them dramatic, and all of them accompanied by strong emotions. That's the good news. The bad news is that many of them never happened. All of which is to say that his life is now, as it was when he was alive, in realm of legend."

Throughout his career and following his death, 20 years ago today, Davis was the subject of a multitude of apocryphal stories -- possibly more than any other musician, jazz or otherwise. The reasons are varied. Davis was quite reticent about his past, so blanks were left to be filled in. Critics and contemporaries often resorted to fiction in order to properly illustrate his genius. There was also the matter of Davis's rather enigmatic personality (a polite way of saying he was a grade-A jerk-off), which often transformed any brash action or expression connected to him from hearsay into veritable truth.

Below are five oft-told -- and pretty amusing -- apocryphal stories involving Davis. (And yes, I realize Szwed's yarn mentioned above could very well be classified as such. In fact, it would be an apocryphal story based on an apocryphal story. Hey, that's Miles.)

1. Fully immersed in his "lost years" (which ran anywhere from 1976 to 1980), Davis cloistered himself in his brownstone on West 77th Street in New York City, gorging on cognac, bad television, and women of questionable repute. During one of his mind-warping benders, the musician mistook the snow falling on his Ferrari for cocaine and allowed himself a quick sniff. Such was the alleged power of Davis' legendary cravings --a power we would see matched by Charles De Mar in Better Off Dead several years later.

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2. Prior to the release of his 1957 album, Miles Ahead, Davis saw a preview of the LP's artwork -- a spiffed-up model posing on a sailboat riding the open seas -- and asked Columbia executives, "Why'd you put that white bitch on there?" The cover was intended to express the idea that Davis was heading into unchartered waters artistically. Columbia already had 50,000 jackets made, so it remained. However, a story involving Davis challenging the music establishment, even at the potential risk of harming his career, was too rich to discount. One can only imagine his reaction had this been the cover.

3. Davis would occasionally come down off his throne and rub elbows with the peasantry, so long as it was on his own terms. He was known for chilling out on the patio of his aforementioned brownstone and chatting leisurely with neighbors. One day, an elderly black man walked past and called over to the musician. "Miles Davis, I love that music of yours," he said, "but I don't like this new shit that you're into" -- a reference to Davis' jazz fusion indulgences. The legend's response was a terse "Should I wait for you, motherfucker?" If there ever was a moment that deserved to be punctuated with a hearty "burnsauce," this was it.

4. Onetime Davis bandmate John Coltrane was capable of life-altering saxophone solos. Hear his efforts on "Psalm," which is like being slowly led by hand to the glorious summit of a cloud-scraping mountain, or "I Want to Talk About You," whose extended cadenza is the musical equivalent of a boxer skillfully working a speed bag. But Davis wanted none of this. When Coltrane tried to rationalize his lengthy solos by explaining that he couldn't find a way to stop, Davis quipped, "You might try taking the horn out of your mouth." (There was probably a "fucking" in there as well, but history has been kind to Davis in this instance.) Folks are enthralled by the idea that only one individual and one individual alone -- Davis -- could inform a virtuoso like Coltrane that his playing was akin to a hormone-soaked 14-year-old boy on a masturbation bender.

5. English critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote about listening to Kind of Blue in his study when his nine-year-old daughter entered to kiss him goodnight. The young girl paused, listened to the music for a few measures, and then declared, "That's Miles Davis." Astounded, Tynan asked what gave him away. "Because he sounds like a little boy who's locked out and wants to get in," she said. The message behind this apocryphal story is simple: Even barbarous little ones, reared on sonic piffle like Raffi and Barney, can appreciate Davis' artistry. (They can also be more colorful than their critic fathers in how they articulate what they're experiencing.)

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