I Flew to New York to meet the enigmatic trumpeter. He felt like talking.
When Miles Davis walked into the Carlyle Hotel in New York City in 1985 I deliberately let him pass me by while he was looking around to figure out who he was meeting for his luncheon interview. He was probably looking for some scruffy dude in jeans like one of those misfits who write for Rolling Stone. I was dressed in a blue jacket and red tie. I remember he was dressed in all black, wearing a black hat and carrying a black cane. He was walking. When he came back by me I called to him — Miles. He looked surprised; I was not who he was expecting. He said — Oh, it’s you? He seemed pleased.
Miles is my legal name, but it is not the name I was born with. My parents named me something no kid should have to go through life with (No, I’m not telling you). I promised my mother that as soon as I came of age I was going to change it, and when I turned 21 I walked into the office of a probate judge and did just that. Had I imagined that I might have even the most remotest chance of ever meeting the man, or that I would someday try to play jazz (at the very least I had to give up the trumpet, so I picked up the saxophone), I would have chosen a different name. I am still haunted by the choice I made. I had heard he hated interviewers, but at the time USA Today was the mammy jammy on the entertainment media scene — everybody wanted to get in it.
The tough sale was with my editors. If you are not the pop culture flavor of the moment you don’t really get into USA Today. I begged for months to interview him. Did he have a Top Ten album? Well, no, but he is Miles Davis. The thing is he had been retired for half a decade and was still just getting back to stride. He had released The Man with the Horn in 1981, hailing his comeback, and Star People two years later, but it was when he released the monstrous Decoyin 1984 that I went to my editor again and, probably to shut me up, she said fine. Go interview him.
He ordered lobster salad for lunch. I have no idea what I ate. I didn’t come there to eat. I sat a tape recorder on the table and we started talking. I do remember asking him about Cicely Tyson, whom he was married to at the time. It was the only time during the interview that he took a bite out of me — Talk about music or don’t talk at all!, he snapped, that fierce look in his eyes. He scared the shit out of me. He saw it. I was young and stupid, and very naive. He lightened up. She balances my life, he said, tossing me a bone. Then he started telling me stories — about the time he was riding a taxi cab with Charlie Parker, who was giving some gal some head and Bird told him to turn his head and not look, to which he replied — Man, I don’t want to see that shit.
I asked him the real story about how he damaged his voice after being told to not talk after vocal cord surgery. According to him, a club manager was pissed because Stan Getz was high and wanted him to do something about it, so he yelled at the guy to go yell at Getz instead of him. After this, he said, is when he began talking in his famously raspy tone. I asked him about death. He said he wasn’t afraid, and offered me as simple an affirmation of belief in an afterlife as I have ever heard — There’s something, he said. He also made a very plain and honest assessment of his career and time on earth, which was simply: I’ve done something with my life.
Near the end of the interview, I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but he offered this comment, which I memorized word for word. He said: If somebody told me I only had one hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man. I’d do it nice and slow. If I got tired I’d stop, have a glass of water, and choke him some more. I was stunned. I had every intention of using it and I asked him if he was concerned people would think him a racist. He didn’t blink. It’s the prejudice white people I’m talking about, he said. If the shoe don’t fit they don’t have to wear it.
Flashback to 1959. Miles is standing outside Birdland in New York where he is playing a gig. He had just helped a white woman hail a cab, and a white cop saw it. Miles decides to have a smoke and the cop comes over and tells him he can’t stand there. Miles tell the cop he is playing there and points to his name in lights on the marquee. The cop doesn’t care. Miles refuses to leave and a scuffle ensues. A plainclothes cop shows up out of nowhere and opens Miles’ head up with a blackjack. He is covered in his own blood. It was an infamous incident that by the time I talked to him was buried in nearly a quarter century of old newspaper headlines, all but forgotten. At the time it was widely covered. Photos of him — wounded, defiant, and indignant — flashed across the country. Years later, I believe he still brooded over the indignities he put up with being a black man in America. In her 2006 portrait of pioneering jazz musicians, Three Wishes, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family (born Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild) and who had been a patron to Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats, asks each of them to tell her three things they wished for. Miles gave her only one: “To Be White!”
When the lunch was over and we were both gathering up our belongings, the CBS publicist chaperoning him asked — Do you want anything else, Miles? Both of us, without looking up, blurted — no. We looked at each other bemusedly, simply having forgotten we shared the same name. He smiled at me. He asked me about the name. I told him my father gave it to me because he was a fan. What the hell was I gonna say? A few weeks later I was sitting at my desk and the phone rang. I picked it up. It was him. I was stunned again. Why was he calling me? Was he pissed at the article? Hardly. He called to tell me he was leaving Columbia, where he had been for three decades, and going to Warner Bros, who had offered him a huge signing bonus. Who’s going to turn down a million dollars? Not me, he said. I called around but could get nobody to verify that piece of information, so my editor decided not to run it. It turned out to be true. I remember him saying to me before he hung up — I’m glad I told ‘you.’
He was letting me know he liked me. ###