Miles Davis, who would’ve turned 85 today, was, without dispute, a giant of late 20th century music, fronting two of America’s great quintets and developing several streams of modern jazz. He was also my first major assignment for The Wall Street Journal.
This was back in the early ‘80s when the paper was introducing its Leisure & Arts section. I had written a review of a book about Davis and was encouraged by my then-editor Raymond Sokolov to seek other assignments. At the time, Columbia was investing in introducing Wynton Marsalis to the jazz world and I offered to do a story about him. Then, I had the idea, which fell somewhere between inspiration and idiocy, to ask Davis about Marsalis. They were about to share a double bill at Lincoln Center and Marsalis, who was in his early 20s, would be playing with some members of the second great Davis quintet.
You have to understand that there was no reasonable expectation that Davis would agree. He didn’t seem to like critics and if he wanted to open up, the greats like Whitney Balliett, Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff could offer him a platform. But I had underestimated the pull of the Journal and, more to it, Davis’s desire to discuss his electric fusion music – in case anyone expected he would return to the past to play ‘50s style jazz with Marsalis and his old friends. Word arrived that Davis would meet me in a restaurant near the United Nations.
Overly prepared and properly terrified – I was well aware Davis could be contentious – I turned up at least a half hour early for the interview, and then said nothing as Davis, fresh from swimming for exercise, walked past me. I didn’t know what to do – what’s the protocol when you’re dealing with a legend? Finally, a publicist arrived to introduce me. I was quaking when Davis and I shook hands.
I was relieved to find him in a playful mood. He asked the publicist if she liked his new publicity photo. When she allowed she did, he asked her if she put it up in her bedroom. When she said her husband might disapprove, in his raspy voice, Davis replied, “Give him one too.”
He ordered coffee with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and the interview began. I asked, with little grace I’m sure, what he thought of Marsalis’s music. “Somebody must like it,” he replied. “But I don’t.”To my surprise, he began to talk about how he enjoyed playing acoustic hard bop in its day – and then launched into a long story about Fats Navarro, a trumpeter who I knew only a little about. When I asked about what we might expect from the Davis band at the Lincoln Center, he put his Walkman on the table, slipped the cushiony headphones over my ears and let me hear an excerpt from his latest rehearsal. With warm eyes, he watched as I listened. Coming to jazz from rock, I focused on the rhythm section featuring Al Foster on drums. Removing the headphones, I mentioned how I could feel how tight Foster and bassist Marcus Miller locked in. “You got to have a black drummer,” Davis commented. I had no idea what he meant, but, to hide my ignorance, failed to ask him to explain.
Soon the publicist returned and the interview ended. From the moment we met until I left, Davis was gracious, funny and most of all forgiving – he knew I was a kid and in way over my head. After following up with phone calls to Marsalis and Davis, I wrote the story and it ran. Everyone seemed pleased. I never spoke to Davis again.
The coda: I taped the conversation with Davis and was particularly proud of the moment when he asked me if I knew music. “Yes,” I replied, though what I knew at the time was what I’d learned playing folk guitar and triads on piano. “Good,” Davis replied, before moving on to explain how his compositions evolved in rehearsal. I played that section for many friends.
A few years later, when my family and I were moving, I put about 100 cassette tapes, including several interviews I’d done for the Journal, in a plastic garbage bag and put in among the boxes to be loaded on the moving van. Months later, I discovered the movers had tossed it. Though some of the particulars of what Davis said have faded from memory in the subsequent decades, I’ve always remembered how sympathetic he was to me. Over the years, I’ve learned by talking to many members of his various bands that I had met the Miles Davis they knew – and had a glimpse of the man whose sensitivity and spirit was conveyed in his most memorable music. It was an experience I’ll never forgot.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.
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