Sunday, August 22, 2010

Miles from Home

Most of my jazz-loving friends (all three of them) never had much use for Miles Davis. His "cool" minimalist trumpet - which did the opposite of trumpet - seemed counter-intuitive after the bustle and intensity of Parker and Gillespie, whom Davis had adopted as his musical tutors when he quit Julliard. But he had a galvanizing impact on the jazz of the fifties and sixties, forming the greatest ensembles, whose players (Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock) went on to form great bands of their own.

Despite his brilliance and his fame, he suffered the same racist limitations of segregated America just like every other black man. Like many jazz artists, he found refuge in Europe where such racism did not exist. He composed music for a French film (Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows), and had a short, passionate affair with actress Juliette Gréco. He found European audiences more knowledgeable about jazz, but he knew that he had to go home, if only because that was where his music was most alive. His courage in doing this, and in kicking his heroin addiction a short time later all by himself, is incalculable.

In 1962, Davis was interviewed by Alex Haley for Playboy. Haley asked him, "Do you, in your position as a famous Negro, meet prejudice?"

Davis: I told you, someway or other, every Negro meets it, I don't care who he is! . . .

Haley: Have you always been so sensitive about being a Negro?

Davis: About the first thing I can remember as a little boy was a white man running me down a street hollering "Nigger! Nigger!"

Late in his life Davis gave Jet magazine a glimpse of the what he had learned from a lifetime as a black man in America: "If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I'd spend it choking a white man. I'd do it nice and slow." (1) What people experience can't always be controlled. How they respond to it can. Without for a moment questioning the experience of Davis, there were other ways to respond to it.

In another Jet interview in 1995,(2) jazz singer Joe Williams, then 76, spoke his own mind about race prejudice: "A friend of mine once said that hate is too important an emotion to waste on someone you don't like."

(1) Jet, 25 March 1985.
(2) Article reporting Williams's death, here.

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