The images of Miles Dewey Davis III were as numerous as the musical phases of his diverse--and legendary--career.
To some, the jazz giant who died Saturday at age 65 in Santa Monica was the restless innovator whose radical changes of direction took one jazz generation after another into uncharted territories.
To others, he was a renegade be-bopper who had sold out his musical principles--a theory propounded by Stanley Crouch last year in the New Republic, in one of the most violent attacks ever launched against him.
But the controversy surrounding Davis was not confined to his music. He was seen by some as a racist with contempt for the whole white world. To some women who knew him, he was a violent and unpredictable lover and hater, an incurable sexist.
To set these claims in perspective, it is appropriate to point out that last month, when he was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, Davis was referred to as “the Picasso of jazz.” The analogy is significant, since Picasso was reviled by some as a reprehensible human being, yet his paintings have outlived any conceivable failings in his character.
What matters most about Miles Davis is that, in the course of a career that lasted almost a half-century, he was responsible for at least five revolutions in the concept and performance of jazz. This made him arguably the most influential figure in this art form since Duke Ellington.
The first of Davis’ phases passed almost unnoticed. In an attempt to escape from the strictures of be-bop--much of which had been played by five-piece groups with very little written music--Davis became the nominal leader of a workshop group that was more ambitious in size (nine musicians) and performance (intricate arrangements interwoven with shorter improvised passages). The 1949-1950 recording sessions by these experimentalists were considered so unimportant by Capitol Records that some weren’t even released until they were all collected in 1957 under the title “Birth of the Cool.”
After a fallow period, Davis recorded his acclaimed blues “Walkin’ ”; around the same time in the mid-'50s, he introduced the stemless Harmon mute, bringing to jazz a delicate sound heard in such memorable records as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “ ‘Round Midnight.”
A third and even more vital innovation was his series of large-scale collaborations with Gil Evans, the arranger whom he always referred to as a genius and his best friend. Out of this in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s came “Miles Ahead,” “Sketches of Spain” and “Porgy and Bess,” all orchestral masterpieces--the most tuneful and subtle works of Davis’ career. A further innovation during this period was his switch from trumpet to the mellower sounding fluegelhorn, which consequently became a double for most trumpeters.
In 1958, it was Davis who, along with pianist Bill Evans and saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, made the change from chords, which had dominated jazz, to the scales (modes) that eventually became common coinage, along with the vamps and drones that marked such works as “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches.”
Could many of his fans tell a chord from a scale? Surely not, but it sounded right, and Davis had an uncanny ear for the right sound at the right time.
His chordless, tonally ambiguous small-group recordings took on a powerful character during the 1960s, when he assembled his greatest small combo, with Wayne Shorter on saxophones, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.
The fifth and final breakthrough was a move in 1969 from acoustics into the world of jazz/rock, electronics and funk. After his “Bitches Brew” album, his musical values would never be the same, but as he knew (and this was his reason for the move), his record sales would soar. He took to doubling on synthesizer, played pieces that were based simply on an electronic bass vamp rather than melodies. If he alienated many of his older fans, it was a fair exchange, because he acquired a new audience that enabled him to command up to five or even six figures for a one-night stand.
Thus Miles the revolutionary--roughly one major turnaround to a decade.
But what of Miles the man?
Probably the most hurtful event in his declining years was the publication in 1989 of “Miles: The Autobiography.” A collaborator, Quincy Troupe, clearly played a major role in this portrayal of Davis as a foul-mouthed, wife-beating, white-hating, grudge-bearing, coke-snorting semi-illiterate.
When I questioned Miles on a vicious remark about Charlie Parker attributed to him in the book, he reacted in surprise. “Did I say that? What page is it on?” This and other comments left doubt about how much he had contributed to writing, or even reading, this farrago of inaccuracies. Although dismissed as trash by this reviewer and others, the book was widely circulated and may well have been taken at face value.
Troupe, however, was right on one central point: Davis found out early in life that it is not easy to be born black in America--not even when your father is a wealthy dental surgeon who owns 200 acres of land, not even when, instead of trying to escape from the ghetto, you spend your childhood riding horses.
An incident Davis never forgot began one evening in 1959 when, while playing at Birdland and standing outside the New York club between sets, he was ordered by a white policeman to move on. Within minutes he was hit over the head by a white detective and was dragged, bleeding profusely, to a police station. It took months for a judge to rule that the arrest was illegal.
Miles Davis, whom I knew well, did not suffer white fools or white racists gladly--or, for that matter, black fools and racists, who also felt the sting of his wrath.
Those who knew other sides of him saw an evil-image cult figure, yet, as Cicely Tyson said when she was married to Davis, “He uses that facade to protect his vulnerability. Beneath that false surface you see what a sensitive, beautiful person he is. Nobody could play the way he does without having a great depth of soul.”
Tyson might have a different view today, but the only Miles Davis I knew was friendly and articulate. He was capable of speaking standard English, not the endless stream of curses found in the book. He was not easily offended; after I gave him a highly negative review in The Times, he brushed it off with a laugh--"You were right, Leonard; I was sick that night.”
He enjoyed athletics, particularly boxing and swimming. One frigid February night while he was visiting my wife and me in Studio City, he disrobed, dove into our pool, came out looking refreshed and helped my wife make dinner (he was a knowledgeable cook). In 1983, he took up painting; some of his brightly-hued abstractions decorate his later album covers.
My best memory of him is a day in 1982 when he sat, comfortable in a wine-red gown and slippers, sipping Perrier in his suite at L’Ermitage in Beverly Hils. Even his rasping vocal cords had cleared up a little.
He grinned and told me, “I guess I had a voice lift. I stopped smoking and drinking. I drink about four gallons of Perrier a day. Cicely said I should swim every day, so I swim every day. I have to get plenty of exercise to fight off arthritis in these 56-year-old bones.
“A few months ago I had a stroke and couldn’t move my hand, but Cicely took me to a Chinese acupuncturist and he cured me. Now I take some kind of Chinese herbs every morning; makes you strong. I owe it all to Cicely; if it hadn’t been for her and that doctor, I don’t know where I’d have been.”
Many of us who knew him from the first New York years still sense in our hearts that--beyond all the controversy--the gentleness and humanity he showed during that period did indeed represent the real Miles Davis.