Mr Miles Davis has been dead for twenty traumatic, sick years. Long live The Prince of Darkness. In his 90thbirthday year, the cultural systems innovator has never been more alive: a new biopic by Mr Don Cheadle; a new record helmed by Mr Robert Glasper; magazine splashes re-evaluating him as a rock ‘n roll icon; and a special tribute show by his arch-nemesis – and part heir – Mr Wynton Marsallis. The following interview from MR GREG TATE’s new book Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, was an in-studio conversation that would prove to be one of his last.
In the winter of 1985, Ms. Collette Valli, Mr Craig Street and this reporter went to hang out with Mr Miles Davis in the midtown NYC recording studio where he was making the album Tutu with producers Mr Marcus Miller and Mr Tommy Li Puma. Miles spent a few minutes before our formal chat praising the boot maker in Italy who had handmade the very fly leather footgear he was gliding around in that day.
Greg Tate: Is it still important for you to be considered an innovator?
Miles Davis: That seems to be the case. Because you know, you can’t always come off with a new style by yourself. I just realised that myself. This record here – TUTU – ain’t gonna sound like the regular run of the mill music because we got those voices breathing and stuff. Have you heard any of it?
GT: Reminds me of Bootsy Collins.
MD: Well, you know Marcus Miller walks like that. He walks like he plays, funky like that. Everything he writes is on the beat. When he talks he’s on the beat. Most people who have good time talk on the beat. My nephew says when I say Motherfucker, it’s different from anybody he knows because I say it in rhythm. You know, ‘That motherfucker’. Trumpets talk like that (taps out a rhythm on the table) the desks want to hear things that are on the beat. Prince wrote me a letter and sent me two cassettes. He said, ‘You can use this with or without the vocal and here is some other stuff I haven’t finished, you can finish it.’ But what I’d really like him to do is go into the studio with Marcus and I. He sent me a song that goes ‘Can I stay with you tonight/Can I play with you tonight’. We did it in California. He sent me the master tape, I cleaned it up a little bit and sent it back. He called me up and said, ‘It’s frightening’. He talks like this (Miles moves his hand across his chest, palm down, a kind of ‘flatline’ gesture).
MD: Not monotone. He’s just saving his energy. You know if you laugh and talk a lot and shit like that it burns up all your energy. Emotions really drain you. Before you play or something, you know, if I have to do something that I feel, I can’t let it out anyplace else. So I know the feeling he talks about like this (repeats the flatline hand gesture).
GT: We talked to Wayne Shorter and he told us how much fun you guys used to have before and after the gig, hanging out, joking. He said that’s what made the music happen for him.
MD: I didn’t do all that shit. Maybe it made it happen for him. Wayne is different from anybody you will ever know. He’s very talented. He can write for anything, but black people don’t get a chance to write a ballet and stuff like that. They still go for all their old masters because all of those white people who have a lot of money they demand it. ‘Play Puccini ‘. Dance theatre of Harlem, I’m going to give them some music.
Did you hear Bill Cosby’s speech? The NAACP gave him an image award. Now I been telling Cicely (Tyson, his then-wife) ‘What the fuck is wrong with Bill? Why he always got to cater to this or cater to that?’ Well he gave the damndest speech I ever heard in my life. I sent him a telegram. I said ‘If I had fifteen minutes to live after Cicely told me to wait on her, then I’d want to hear that speech you made.’
He said the reason Rosa Parks did what she did was because she was tired. He said when he started with I Spy everybody helped him out, but when he took his new show around everybody said they couldn’t believe a black man could bring a story that everybody will listen to at 8 o’clock with no curse words. Cicely breaks up when Bill does something. Me, I don’t. You know I’m a fan of Richard’s(Pryor), but when Bill made that speech, that was powerful. More powerful than Richard’s shit, that kind of style.
As a friend Bill is great, but not as a comic. But that speech? It wasn’t a speech, he just started talking. And he said ‘The Color Purple’s alright, at least it’s a story.’ Said, it’s one story out of a lot of stories of our lives. I never heard no shit like that coming out of him. I knew it was bound to happen one day.
I saw Bill with Phil Donahue and Donahue was talking this shit about how he just didn’t believe Bill was that talented. And I said, ‘Fuck him.’ (I can’t explain anything without cursing, but Bill can). Donahue said, ‘Well you had the gun in I SPY’. So Bill said, ‘That was the first black person to have a gun but I didn’t get no women.’ I couldn’t believe Donahue man. Motherfucker. He don’t believe Bill has that much talent? A man that doesn’t respect you, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. It’s like me trying to tell a white boy how to groove. I can’t tell him because he don’t hear it. I was telling somebody something and my nephew said, ‘He don’t know what you’re talking about, he wouldn’t know if you kept on all day.’ That’s not saying all of them are like that. All of us ain’t like that. But Donahue ain’t never gonna change. But back to the music. Where did I leave off? With Prince? It’ a nice little song. It has that James Brown feeling. He plays guitar and I just play in the background. He made it about ten minutes long and I’m gonna have to cut it. I said, ‘Prince, what’s the last half?’ He said, ‘It’s an epic’. I said, ‘What?’ But he can play. Play just as good as these jazz pianists out here. He’s playing some stuff.
GT: I’m curious about what you think of the music you made between 1972-1975. Haven”t heard you say much about it since you’ve been back. That was awesome music. Way ahead of its time. ‘On the corner’, ‘Get up with it’, ‘Agharta’. How do you feel about that music now?
MD: I can’t remember it. It was good, but that was then. If somebody asked me to repeat yesterday, I’d just say: Man I can’t do that. I wouldn’t care if they were going to give me a reward. The last concert tour we were on, I happened to put that on by mistake and I said, ‘Oh shit, did we sound like that?’
GT: We Heard Some Tapes From Zurich.
MD: (Suddenly turning to Craig Street) Why you looking at me like that?
GT: How Am I Looking At You? It’s Just A Look. No Different Than For Anybody Else. You Can Believe That.
MD: Okay. Zurich was nice, but in my head I can’t make that anymore. You know how people sound when they’re gonna commit suicide or something? Can’t do it anymore. Rubs against everything. Wake up at night and say, ‘Ooh shit.’ What if couldn’t hear anything beyond that? You play music?
GT: I play a little guitar.
MD: Well then you know what you’re talking about then. I heard this guy sounded like Hendrix. What was his name? Violet? (Miles means Jimi’s good friend and teenage protege, now deceased, Velvert Turner) Met him with Buddy Miles. Sounded just like Jimi. I’m gonna knock Buddy out when I see him. I wrote that Jack Johnson for him and he didn’t even show up. You Motherfucker. If he says he got busted, it’s okay. But if he says ‘Well man, I missed this and I missed that’, I’m knocking him out. Step on his foot or something.
GT: Did y’all just go in and hit with Jack Johnson or was that real worked out?
MD: Why do you always think that? Don’t you know you have to work out things? You don’t walk in the studio and just do shit like that unless you’re me. Or Prince. And Marcus. I did write the introduction, what John McLaughlin played.
GT: what was that last thing you did for Columbia records with an orchestra? (Miles Davis – Aura Columbia C2X 45332)
MD: Oh yeah, that was in Copenhagen. That was one of the reasons I left Columbia Records. When you’re talking to somebody and they don’t know what you’re talking about like (former head of Columbia’s jazz department) George Butler.
He said ‘We’re going to call it contemporary jazz.’ I said, ‘No you’re not either, not as much time as we spent on it’. I told the engineer to keep the master tape. I told George, ‘Say something, do something about the music, because it’s not that run of the mill music.’ You can say this is contemporary anything. Talked to him about that three weeks ago and he sounds like he’s going to do justice to that last album. The scale is made out of my name so it can’t be like other music, like just chords. I mean just that new scale will make you play something different. But I hope George isn’t going to say Contemporary Jazz because it has about ten keyboards, four drummers, and the Copenhagen Radio Orchestra and it didn’t cost that much money.
Columbia refused to pay for it to be switched to digital and that only cost $1400. They wouldn’t pay for it, I said Fuck ’em. I finished it with National Endowment for the Arts money. Warner Brothers would die to get that album; Columbia, I don’t know what’s happening up there. I don’t care who I record for but Warner’s, they have access to all the arrangers. In other words it’s like leaving Soho and going over to Avenue A. That’s where the real art is, Not Soho. I mean people from Connecticut go down there just to be hip. Everybody I know that’s slick is with Warner Brothers. And George is still trying to get Wynton Marsalis to play all that classical music. That’s not his roots. They’re going to turn him into a white man. I mean, matter of fact they already have almost.
GT: Now why you say that?
MD: Because like Bill says, you don’t go up into a place just because the white man wants you to dress up in the kind of suit he wears. And you don’t just say, ‘They know what I’m thinking’, because they don’t. You don’t give a man that much credit just because of his colour. You don’t just look at a man and say ‘Well you can dance’, because you got some of us out there who can’t do like this (claps his hands on the 2 and 4). I hate hearing Black people say, ‘They’. Like, well you know they don’t understand me’. They? Who gives a fuck? You do what you feel. Don’t take for granted that Leonard Bernstein knows what you’re playing. He doesn’t. Or say ‘Well now they know I have technique.’ By playing their music you’re wasting your time with them. It’s been played before. But you know some people just don’t have that gypsy in them. To be free and try to learn something and put their own thoughts on records. Something other than interpreting something that black people don’t go to see.
Wynton could do a lot better because he’s a good player. He’s not original or anything but he could play those Black compositions. He could just tell Wayne Shorter, ‘Write me a trumpet concerto’. Or Joe Zawinul or George Russell. Since he’s there now like he is, he could just stretch, just reach, he’d put a wrinkle in that system. There are a lot of geat composers who are Black that he could help. Even Sting hires some jazz musicians. I hate to call ’em that. (former Sting bassist) Darryl Jones told my nephew that Farrakhan wouldn’t let them take out some Black girls because they were playing with Sting and looked like slaves up there. They got all Black, that’s a Black band, right? No, it’s pop. (To himself:) ‘Miles you shouldn’t say those things. (The devil in his ear:) ‘But they’re true.” What I do now? Man I’m not talking to you anymore because I get to talking and people lose their jobs and stuff.
GT: Why did you play a pimp on Miami Vice? (as ‘Ivory Jones’, in Season 2, Episode 6, 1985,’Junk Love’)
MD: Thats’ what they wanted. That’s easy to do, dope and pimps, that kind of stuff. That’s all they do on Miami Vice is street stuff. And if you ever go to get some dope or something, go to cop, that’s what you run into. Pimps and dope dealers, Miami Vice, I know all about that stuff. Cicely said ‘They got you in the right part. It was easy to do, huh, Honey?” And they helped me out a lot, Phillip Micheal Thomas and Don Johnson. They act that way off-camera. The director says, ‘Miles, Miles Miles, you say you want to get these girls? You want this red haired one, you want to touch hair. You want a man? You want a midget and the girl?’ Shit like that. But they didn’t put that in there. But that’s what he meant if you own a whorehouse. That’s the way you talk to a john or a freak. ‘What you want? Two midgets or one girl or what?’ But I didn’t say that.
GT: That would have made it too real?
Yeah, it wasn’t nothing. I did some music for the new Alfred Hitchcock show. Did you hear that? Listen man I wrote some music for when this guy is on his way out and kisses a blind and deaf white woman. Well, the assistant director, That Motherfucker man, took that out, because it was his girlfriend that the guy was kissing. I said, ‘Cicely – White Motherfuckers!’
She said, it ain’t that. It’s just too powerfully strong for that scene. Because the song said they were going to fuck in a minute. The assistant director heard the song and his girlfriend was up there and she played that part, man, and I said ‘Oh shit, don’t let them fuck that song up.’ I was sick, plus he did it without me knowing it. I had all this shit in it. Shit like Ravel. I had strings in there and the part where he got shot they took that out too. So I asked (bebop trombone legend and Hollywood film composer) JJ Johnson if they ever done him like that and he said ‘Man, they do it all the time.’ The shit you think is okay they take it out.
GT: You going to do any more tv?
MD: If they write a part that I can do, I’ll do it. Billy Friedkin asked me to do something he’s doing called CATS, about a group inside the CIA. People ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ Because I do it everyday out here. When I get up, I start. I went into a club man for the first time in four years. Went to hear my good friend Gil Evans. Chuck Mangione sat in. He ain’t got business doing that. He should play what he plays. Herb Alpert wouldn’t do no shit like that. You know when people do shit that ain’t together it embarrasses me. He can’t play like that and he knows it. Man, I had to go.
GT: Are you going to see Patti Labelle?
MD: Yeah. Patti is going to lose her voice the way she sings. That bitch over sings. Went to see her and Al Green do “Their Arms Too Short to Box With God” on Broadway. They’re too much. Now man, y’all have to get outta here so I can get into my thing.
Mr Greg Tate will be In Conversation with Mr Oyama Mabandla, Ms Lindelwa Dalamba and Mr Salim Washington as discussants in an event chaired by the Steve Biko Foundation’s CEO, Ms Obenewa Amponsah at Gallery MoMo in Parktown North, Johannesburg on September 15. “Dewey Did Dad Dang” is part of the Flyboy Goes South Residency, directed by author and noted.man Associate Editor, Mr Bongani Madondo.