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Miles Davis: How 9 Jazz Icons Remember His Genius


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Miles was more like my good friend. He made sure I was eating, he took care of me, gave me money without asking when we were scuffling along. He was really special. He would ask me, ‘Are you reading?’
—John McLaughlin
Like nearly every other jazz fan on the planet, I've long held an unshakeable fascination with the music of Miles Davis. Thirty years after his death, Miles's legacy, innovations and iconography continue to shape contemporary conceptions of the art form more than any other figure—his life and lessons simultaneously a road map, Holy Grail and high water mark combined.

It feels almost inevitable that Miles served as my gateway to improvised music, and yet more than two decades later, there's still no body of work that fascinates me more—stranded on a desert island for the rest of my days, I like to think I'd be at least somewhat content with access to nothing but his formidable four-decade discography, a sure source of inspiration, enlivenment and confoundment for any expanse of solitude to come.

I was six years old when Miles Davis passed away, on September 28, 1991, and never had the chance to see him perform live or engage with his work in the climate that bore it. But I have embraced every opportunity I've had to learn more about how it was made—especially when it has come to encountering its living embodiment, in the dozens of musicians he worked with, invariably still channeling Miles's restless spirit today.

Over the past 12 years, I've been fortunate enough to interview at least nine musicians (for All About Jazz, Time Out Dubai and Eastern Daily Press) who once shared a stage with Davis—from treasured '60s pioneers Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter to fusion trailblazer (and personal hero) John McLaughlin, and a certain former trumpet rival who later coaxed Miles to the stage for his final concert, Quincy Jones—and I've naturally never shied away from asking the questions I most wanted answering. (The late Steve Grossman and Michel Legrand both also once hung up on me, and I've managed to score backstage handshakes with Al Foster and Marcus Miller, but who's keeping score?).

So to mark the looming 30th anniversary of his death, here are selected excerpts of my treasured encounters with some of Miles's Men...

John McLaughlin

On working with Davis from In a Silent Way (1969, Columbia) to 1985-recorded Aura (1989, Columbia)...

[Miles] was more like my good friend. He made sure I was eating, he took care of me, gave me money without asking when we were scuffling along. He was really special. He would ask me, 'Are you reading'? It was really special, in addition to the colossal debt I have musically—I wouldn't be where I am today, not at all.

He's brutal in terms of getting your thing together. He just wants the best out of you. You always know exactly where you are, this is the best place to be. There was never ambiguity, "it has to go like this."

n every way, just to be with him as a lad... I was so happy to be with him, to have an opportunity to work with him and know him and hang out, what a marvelous gift.

And when Miles told me it was time I formed my own group, since he was the most honest man I ever met, I took him at his word.

Ron Carter

On being a member of Davis's seminal "Second Great Quintet," from 1963-1968...

I had no idea [the impact that quintet would have]. None of us had any idea they would be where they are in the music's development. We just played every night, had fun, and tried to find new things to do.

We all had an input to writing songs, making the arrangement[s], every night we were all trying to figure out how this music could work, and we had played the standard library—"All of You," "All the Things You Are," whatever—we played those songs enough times to figure out a lot of the choices that we would not have made had we not had a year or two to play those songs.

And I think the natural progression of the four—the five—of us who were all equally curious about a direction of music. Not that we would be making that direction, but we would be part of something that was not quite the norm at that time. We tried to apply some certain rules of music, and these rules came by how we developed the library that we'd already played. It's just a matter of playing another kind of key, or a faster tempo, or a different song form—we were all pretty aware of those technical things that make music do what it can do, and we found a format for this newer library that a lot of [other people] didn't play.

George Benson

On turning down an invitation to join Davis's band after appearing on Miles in the Sky (1968, Columbia)...

That was very intimidating because I didn't know what he wanted. He had this incredible reputation; very ambiguous, mysterious—he's not like that. He wanted me to be in his band, but my manager said no. He thought I was going to be bigger than Miles. I said, "Bigger than Miles? You can't get bigger than Miles!" He happened to open up for us for a couple of shows [later]—but the respect didn't change.

Gary Bartz

On working in Davis's early '70s band that recorded Live-Evil (1970, Columbia)...

That was a different kind of band. Miles was playing well, really into his health, going to the gym, being a vegetarian, he'd stopped smoking and drinking, in really, really good shape, so we would play two and half half hours. And I only ever had one rehearsal.

Miles used to say to people—I heard him say it to musicians more than once—"I love your mistakes."

When I was working with Miles, I really saw how serious he took this, and it made me take it that much more seriously than I was already taking it. He was taking it so seriously, he didn't care whether people talked about him turning his back, he didn't care about people talking about him walking off the stage. He was always listening to the music— he was one of the greatest listeners ever. That's why he kept changing music, he kept hearing things, hearing more and more. The job of a musician is to hear that which no one else can hear, because hearing is like a fingerprint—everybody is different, [and] the way you'll hear if you tap into it, that's how you'll play, and people will always recognize you, because no one else can hear like you.

Stanley Clarke

Admitting it was Davis who encouraged Clarke to play the unaccompanied bass solos for which he has become notorious...

A lot of early jazz musicians were built into a genre and Miles was the first jazz musician to come out of the '50s and '60s and decide to change—how he looked, everything. We grew up listening to Miles as much as Jimi Hendrix, or James Brown or Beethoven. People like him come along every 50, 100 years, like Louis Armstrong and a few others. When I opened up to him, Miles was the guy who encouraged me to play solo, he recognised something in my playing.

Quincy Jones

On how he convinced Miles to perform an orchestral retrospective at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival, which would turn out to be Davis's final live performance, later released as Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (1993, Warner Brothers)...

I had been trying for 15 years to get him to do that. I've known Miles all my life, we were close friends; I was there in the recording session in 1958 when they did Miles Ahead (1958, Columbia) with Gil Evans conducting—it was amazing. I said, "Dewey, this one we've got to do a tribute to." We kept talking and talking, we were at his home in Central Park West—he was upstairs with Flavor Flav putting an album together—he says "man this [project] is going to be expensive... and it's hard to play."

Finally, I got him to say yes—I know Miles—and it was fantastic. man, he played very softly, with no vibrato or anything. That night, I waved and said "Miles Davis" [to the crowd] and he waved his towel at this audience—I've never seen him do that before—and he growled "screw you" at me.

He was like Sinatra. Those guys both had their big tough thing, but they're extremely subtle, they'll cook breakfast for you, they're beautiful, man. Frank was exactly the same, that's why I always wear his ring he left me. Sicilian family press—I don't even need a passport to go to Sicily.

On the similarity of Davis and Frank Sinatra
With (Miles) and Frank it's all bark and no bite. There's one thing that both of them said to me that I'll never forget for as long as I live—and they didn't even know about each other. Miles was at the house Saturday morning, and said [imitates Davis's trademark growl] "how'd you like your darn eggs?," cooking my breakfast, right? And when I first started going with Frank, I got locked in Dean Martin's dressing room [over the weekend], and he came in on Monday and said [brashly], "Hey, Q—how'd you like your eggs?"

On imitating Miles's trumpet style
I came down to [New York City] with Oscar Pettiford from Boston to do a session for him, at 18. We went to the [club] to see [Charles] Mingus and I heard a guy behind me saying "I was with my girls last night, and I heard some young mofo trying to sound like me"—I was trying to sound like Miles. I was improvising from day one, because bebop was it when I was young—it was like a religion, a revolution—unbelievable.

Larry Carlton

On working with Davis on the soundtrack to the Bill Murray movie Scrooged (1988), which saw both men make a cameo...

I was very intimidated being around Miles, I had so much respect for him, and had been listening to his music and hearing about him since my early teenage years. I was kind of in awe, and definitely intimated and hoped to please "The Man."

Spyro Gyra

On touring with Miles Davis, an inspiration for the band's radio-friendly fusion sound...

People can say whatever they want—the fact is we pre-dated the radio format of smooth jazz by a good ten years. The place we come from is far more Miles Davis.

In 1980, we were his warm-up band—we did all sorts of shows with him. An interesting fact about Miles is he didn't like going on last, so we had the unenviable task of going on after him. It was a great experience; we had the incredible honour of meeting him late in his life.

He was pretty private and had a reputation for being... let's use a nice word... grouchy. The stories about Miles are legendary—there are so many of them. We were young, we worshipped this man, it was such an incredible honour, mind-blowing—so every single show we sent him flowers backstage. The fifth night he popped his head round our dressing room door and said, "Spyro Gyra, okay." It was like being blessed by the Pope. If Miles said we were okay, then we were okay.

Herbie Hancock

On being a member of the great Miles Davis Quintet from 1963-1968...

The great thing about Miles is that not only is his playing brilliant, but that he sets up an atmosphere that is so encouraging for the musicians he's working with. That gave us very young musicians the opportunity to flourish. It was so encouraging and empowering, we were free to really be able to do our best.

...and on the biographical charge that he was fired from the fabled band in 1968...

Well, fired is a strong word. Replaced is actually more accurate, because there was a reason that took place. Miles already knew that I was leaving the band, I hadn't concretely decided when—as a matter of fact he already knew Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter and I were already thinking and talking about amongst ourselves, going out and doing other things. I already had a record contract before I was with Miles [with Blue Note Records], but I never really got a chance to play my songs when I was with Miles—except on occasion if he didn't show up [laughs], then we got to play some of my other songs. But I was kind of looking forward to the opportunity to do my own material—I had already been with Miles like five and a half years.

What happened was there was a situation that allowed Miles to hear Chick Corea with the current band. It was because I had gone on my honeymoon, I had gotten food poisoning, and I couldn't get back to this gig. So Chick replaced me temporarily, and then Miles realised Chick could actually do the job. For him, it would be better to bring Chick in while Wayne and Tony were still there so that the transition could be a smooth one. And then when Chick was indoctrinated, presumably Tony and Wayne would leave—which in fact did happen. But Chick was already integrated into the general sound of that band, so it made sense that Miles would want to have Chick in then.

I understood that perfectly. Because he had a new bassist already—Dave Holland—my last gig with Miles was Dave Holland's first gig. So he wasn't really fully integrated into the band. He was new, Chick was new, but Miles still had Wayne and Tony. If the three of us—Wayne, Tony and me—if we had left [at the same time], Miles would have had to find two brand new guys, he would have had to start from scratch again. So it made sense that when I was asked to make my leave then, rather than later—they actually gave me a choice—they said if you really wanted to stay...

No Miles didn't say it, it was Jack Whitmore, who was Miles's agent, that said it to me. But I understood it. I knew at one time I was going to have to start my own band, but leaving Miles was going to be difficult. So here was an opportunity. Because the band was so powerful... the word comfortable doesn't fit. I would say that we had all really developed a direction which we had carved out and Miles provided the atmosphere so we were all a part of the development of the sound, and the direction we had. And so that would have been very difficult to leave without some kind of kick in the behind [laughs]. So I welcomed it as an opportunity. To say I was fired—it never felt like I was fired. It was just a transition that was made.

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