Gregory Davis: Son of Miles

R.J. DeLuke By

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I remember times we were on the road when I knew he was spitting up blood, coughing up phlegm and this and that. He never missed a note. It was amazing.
Just when we thought it might have been done sufficiently. John Szwed's excellent So What: The Life of Miles Davis (Simon & Schuster, 2002) stands alongside Ian Carr's Miles: The Definitive Biography (Harper & Collins, 1998) and, of course, Miles' own book with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1989) as the best books on the music legend. Paul Tingen superbly captured the trumpeter's significance during his electric years with Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967-91 (Billboard Books, 2001). Even more recently, a pair of books came along, not nearly as sharp as Tingen's, but each adding interesting perspective on the later years and controversial recordings—Philip Freeman's Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis (Backbeat, 2005) and George Cole's The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005).

We thought it was done... for a while. And now this. A book about The Man, written by none other than his eldest son, Gregory Davis—someone heretofore almost entirely unheard from on the subject. In fact, a man who some felt was unworthy himself, due to a checkered past of his own. Gregory Davis said he ruminated on Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis (Backbeat Books, 2006) for sixteen years before bringing it to fruition. It's his right. It's his father. The merits of the book won't be debated here, nor will the family squabbles that left he and his brother Miles Dewey Davis IV out of their archetypal father's will. They are also on bad terms with the Davis Estate that includes his sister Cheryl that claimed, in a short statement, that it find no validity in the book

Gregory Davis traveled with his father off and on. Lived with him. Saw good and bad. Saw tenderness and tantrums, cruelty and compassion. He saw the drugs come and go, as well as the women. And he recounts some of those tales in a style that is straightforward, just as Miles did. Some sound meaner in the book that they may really be, since in talking with Gregory, there appears no sense of animosity.

Miles got him into boxing, which led to an award-winning amateur career. Miles taught him, in stern and uncompromising fashion, the trumpet, which Gregory plays to this day, including being a bandleader in search of a new CD. In turn, Greg was his protector at times, occasionally using his pugilistic skills to keep menacing drug dealers in their place when his father (only 5 foot 6 and often in pain and bad health) could not. Protector in drug situations. It was a hot and cold relationship, as one would expect when it involves the mercurial Miles. But water does travel under the bridge and move on.

It should, anyway.

"Sketches of Pain one headliner apparently couldn't resist above a recent review of Gregory's book. But in speaking with him, he really doesn't project that pain. Surely he went through it, but young Davis had his own problems, including drugs and brushes with the law. Sometimes it was a two-way street as to who hurt whom between father and son. Gregory reveals some of the outrageousness of Miles behavior at times. But speak with him, and it appears to be a "what's the big deal? attitude. He is proud of "father —he didn't call him Dad, as he aptly explains in his book—and feels he wasn't a failure as a father despite uncomfortable situations.

Is there an axe being ground? Are efforts to tour with a band and come out with a CD a deliberate capitalization on the book? One can't imagine Davis having an impact on the trumpet, especially at age 61, even remotely close to that which, say, Ravi Coltrane—a bitch of a player—has on the saxophone. And yet capitalization and manipulation is such a part of any rock star's career, especially when it comes to CDs and tours, that it's a surprise when it doesn't happen. Was Rod Stewart's follow-up of a shit-filled standards album with yet another an attempt at capitalizing? That's really not important when it comes to the book, which offers another perspective on a musical legend. And this music that comes out will hopefully be judged of its own accord. And Davis is a decent guy. Approachable and open.

Gregory Davis spoke at length about Miles, music, drug use, the Miles legacy. The talk deliberately didn't try to hash through the problems among Miles' family. That's for them to figure out.

All About Jazz: What are you up to nowadays besides being an author?

Gregory Davis: Going to the gym regularly. Practicing the horn. We want to bring out a CD as fast as we can. We want the book and the CD to synergize each other. We're gonna hit 'em with a one-two punch if we can pull it off that way. Then probably a book tour. We're trying to set that up now. I've been talking to people on the phone all day about this and that. There are a lot of possibilities. All this promotional stuff. The promotional stuff has got to be set up right before anything else happens.

[In the past] I've recorded with people like Lester Bowie. I did a movie score years ago when I was traveling with my father, called God Is Not Dead. I did a B-flat blues in the movie score in Jimi Hendrix's studio, Electric Lady down in the West Village [NYC] years and years ago. This was when I first came to New York to help him out because he was going through so many changes and stuff. What I wanted to do was learn music at the same time that we were helping each other, father and son. I figured I'm interested in this horn, maybe my father, who is a great player, can show me something.

I wrote a suite and I've written a few songs also that I have copyrights on. They'll probably go on this new CD along with other new material.

I'm calling the band MDX. The X factor is "after Miles Davis.

AAJ: How do you feel now that the book is out? Has there been good feedback?

GD: There was a small book party at Mo Pitkins [Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, NYC], a small venue. Greg Masters, the guy that puts on Miles Mondays [a weekly Miles Davis listening event at Pitkin's], he's a class act. Every Monday he plays Miles Davis music from every paradigm and from every era. He had called me and said, "Greg,would you like to do a little book party at Mo Pitkin's? In appreciation for what he does every Monday, I said okay. [Early December, 2006].

We need bigger venues, that's what we need . This book has got to fly. It's a sixteen-year-old baby. It might be a contradiction in terms, but it's been in the process for sixteen years. Some publishers thought this was gonna be a tirade or some kind of bitter book because he's a guy that was left out of the will. But it shows a different side of the man. It shows a personal side heretofore no one has seen from someone who lived with him, who was his son, grew up with him, cried with him, laughed with him, fought with him, who was in the trenches with him. Whatever he needed, I was there with him. Never been heard or seen before, from someone who really knows the man, who traveled with him from the age of ten years old.

As he got older and started ailing, he would call for me whenever he needed someone he could trust and rely on, out of love and respect. I never looked at him like a piece of meat, like, "We better get his name on this will. I did what I did out of love and respect.

AAJ: What was it like going through the process, going through all these memories? Was it fun, was it difficult at times?

GD: It was really fun at times and painful at times also. But I remember the good times. I have no hang-ups on the bad times. I'm not fused to any bad times. He was a man who went through the gamut of emotions and scenarios, as many different scenarios as you can think of. It was a full life, an extraordinary life. Amazing, amazing, gifted person. I was very honored to be with him and to be beside this man.

He was a social mover. People like Bogart, people like Elvis. These are social movers. He's the man that changed the sound of the trumpet. Louis Armstrong changed it, then he came along after Armstrong and nobody could touch him. You know it was Miles Davis if you heard him. He was in the forefront of every music paradigm. Not for the sake of change, but the music dictated to him that he must do it this way, or that way.

Even when he was in his house for a period of absence from the stage or from touring, the great musicians to the rookies would say, "What should we play, Miles? He only gave that to himself and his band. But they would come to him and ask him that. They knew that he knew.

AAJ: Some of the stories you got from your mom. Is she still around?

GD: She has Alzheimer's. She's in California for a warmer climate than the Midwest and St. Louis. St. Louis is very cold. I have to go see my mother.

AAJ: You mentioned in the book that you didn't like a lot of the other books on your father. I've read just about everything on him. I thought some of them were fairly thorough. Especially Ian Carr's and John Szwed's.

GD: I didn't say I didn't like any of them. Who's the guy that wrote Space Is the Place about Sun Ra?

AAJ: John Szwed.

GD: Yeah, John Szwed. He's a nice guy. I did an interview with him. I was appearing at a place called the Baby Jupiter with a band. He came in and said he was doing a book and wanted to do an interview. We had lunch. He's a nice guy and he wrote nice things about me. I appreciate his book.

AAJ: That's the first book that I read about Miles where somebody actually talked to you. I remember being surprised because writers always gave the impression that Miles didn't have anything to do with his kids, or very little. Then all of a sudden in John's book it talked about how you did this together and that together. I remember thinking, "This is the first time I've read that.

GD: He approached me in a gentlemanly fashion. I complied. It's no problem with me. Even though I was constructing my own book. I'm not funny like that. This [Miles] is a great man. This is a man that's given to the world. He's like public domain.

AAJ: Paul Tingen did the Electric Miles book. He never met your father, but through talking to Chick [Corea], and [Jack] DeJohnette and Dave Holland, I thought he did a very nice job.

GD: The reason I don't appreciate some of those books is because they never extended themselves to try to reach out to me. I'm still living. If you want to speak to somebody that knows the man, speak to his son. Speak to the one who traveled with him, that he called on to be with him, to be by his side. To be his protector, his assistant road man, whatever he needed. Just don't write a book about the man and put something in there that he don't know me. I don't appreciate that. I'm available. Find me.

I've been living in New York for years. There's someone that knows me that can get in contact with me if you're writing a book. That's what I don't appreciate about these people writing these books. They never do interviews with people that know the man, but they claim that the book has some factual material in it. How can it be factual if you don't interview his son?
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