The public saw one Miles Davis (1926-1991) but his fellow musicians caught rare glimpses of the real person. David Amram, composer, musician and raconteur, stayed close to the legendary trumpeter from the mid-1950s until the end of his life. He shared his memories of Miles with author/oral historian Paul Maher Jr.
David Amram, musician extraordinaire, has known and worked with all of the greats: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joe Papp, and Elia Kazan. Though he had never performed in a Miles Davis ensemble, Amram was well acquainted with Davis from their mutual interest in music and art. Through the years, they met and talked on numerous occasions. In 2006, I had an opportunity to talk with Amram about this relationship.
The following anecdote that Amram describes took place in the Fall of 1955:
I was walking out on the street, because very often the musicians would walk out just on the sidewalk to get out of the smoke in the club, wander around the Village and come back for the next set. So, I followed Miles out and we turned to the right on Barrow Street, and the walked east all the way to Washington Square Park, and we would walk down Fourth Street eventually. Without saying a word, and Miles like Bud Powell and Monk other people I knew, worked so much by ESP, that he even had one of his records, later on, titled ESP. You could almost hear him talking to you, or you could read his mind, without him saying anything which is the way you operate in music and so much of the time anyway, intuitively, or on some other level that we don’t understand that it’s definitely there––extra-sensory, or added-sensory perception, really. It’s not “extra.” Everyone has that ability, just as birds do when they fly together and turn without saying anything. It’s something that you feel. Athletes have that when they are doing team sports. It’s nothing New Age, freaky, or unusual.
Suddenly, after about five minutes, we were all the way by Washington Square Park.
“Where’re you going?” Miles asked.
“I don’t know Miles, I’m just following you.”
Miles cracked up with laughter. That was the opening salvo of what became an acquaintanceship and then a friendship over the years until he passed way. On the way back, we talked about brass playing. He knew I was a horn player because he’d seen me playing with Charles Mingus. He asked me how often I got to play and practice. He mentioned the fact that sometimes when he didn’t play for a day or two, he just felt that he had lost something, almost like a champion athlete. He commented on what Jascha Heifetz said: “When I don’t play or practice for day, I know it. When I don’t practice for a week, the other musicians know it. When I don’t practice for two weeks, the whole world knows it.”
“I am not a human jukebox. If people want to hear what I did a year or two ago, they can buy the record.
Miles was very concerned about his trumpet playing, aside from his work musically, but technically, and being able to play and very proud on how he was able to play the instrument. That was the first time that I had any indication about those technical concerns like everyone else in the world who plays. He was very willing to share the fact that he was also just another human.
We were talking about playing the trumpet and the French horn. He mentioned how much he liked the French horn and his earlier recordings (Birth of the Cool sessions – 1949) he did with Junior Collins, Gunther Schuller and Sandy Siegelstein, all of whom were horn players. All of whom, all three I knew. When we got back to the Cafe Bohemia, and he came out and he played again.
David Amram recalls many other meetings with Miles Davis over the years:
Every time I would see him, we would just talk a little bit. When he had the wonderful band later on with John Coltrane playing, and the great bass player from Detroit, Paul Chambers, who passed away way too young, Miles would come out sometimes on the sidewalk and have discussions with them about playing music. Sometimes Miles would make me feel welcome to just listen when he was talking in general.
I used to also see Miles very often at different boxing matches. Like myself, he was interested in boxing. I had boxed as an amateur, and while I don’t approve of violence, it was part of the culture of our time to appreciate boxing as a kind of example of skill and being able to react spontaneously at the moment, and what your opponent would bring out in you in terms of movement and activities that you didn’t know was there, realizing that it was a one-time only effort that would never be the same twice. It was determined by what you did in reacting at that moment. And how someone with lesser physical skills could beat someone else using psychology, technique, wit and planning a strategy on how to work within your limitations. Miles used to talk about that, at sometimes having a limitation in range, or power of sound could be compensated for by playing at a different way and using that as a plus.
Of course, physically, Miles, even though he worked out in a gym, often had health problems. He seemed like kind of a frail person. His approach at playing the trumpet was sometimes, if he had endurance problems when he made those pauses, it enabled him to, first of all, to think of new ideas and secondly, to use some of the silence in a way that framed some of the musical thoughts that he had. He was a master, and of course said to me and to countless other people, that it wasn’t just what you played, but what you didn’t play and what you left out that was of equal importance.
Also, Miles was an extremely proud and extraordinarily sensitive person. When he spoke very often about racism, that was only a part of his concern about how everyone in society was treated in a very unjust way, not only by judging their entire character by their skin color, but also by their height, sex, sexual preference, and sometimes by their general demeanor. Miles, even before he hurt his vocal cord, was soft spoken. When he first came into New York, he told me that when he went to Juilliard and was still drinking milkshakes, he was nineteen and playing with these giant musicians, a lot of the African-American musicians, not knowing it would refer to him as some kind of, at that time what they referred to as a “sissy,” because he was well-dressed, well-spoken, and he was smaller and frailer. He seemed to be more genteel than a lot of the people he was playing with, or a lot of people in the audience who were sometimes from real tough street backgrounds. Not being a New Yorker, he had to adjust to the New York way, which was a whole different thing whether you were black or white. Secondly, his father had been a very well-to-do person. Mingus told me that he was astounded, and it was mentioned in the wonderful biography of Miles, that when Mingus and Max Roach toured and went to visit Miles’s house on their way to California by car, that Miles had silk sheets in the house.
When he spoke very often about racism, that was only a part of his concern about how everyone in society was treated in a very unjust way, not only by judging their entire character by their skin color, but also by their height, sex, sexual preference, and sometimes by their general demeanor.
Miles had an enormous knowledge of ballet and painting. He was really a good painter, himself. He said that it was so hard for people, especially when he told me in the 50s, to categorize him when they found out that he liked Ravel and 19th-century European composers of ballet music, painting, French wine, and Italian suits. Eventually he just got disgusted by feeling that he had to defend himself for being a person of good taste. More and more he found it almost unbearable to have to apologize for who he was. He couldn’t stand to being put into any kind of stereotype.
Secondly, being very creative, he always said to me that jazz was all about dealing with a moment and creating on the spot with others. When interviewers or fans would either try to talk to him as if he were someone who couldn’t finish a sentence, or try to sound “hip,” that he found that very offensive before they even knew him, since he was extremely articulate and well-educated. He found it insulting when people would start to speak to him as if he were unlettered, or a complete ignoramus without him even saying a word. They were just assuming that he had to be in that role that they perceived, as being a moronic person. He found that not only racist, but essentially offensive. When I told him that Charlie Parker said, when I met him in ’52, “Man, the hippest thing is to be a square,” Miles really cracked up. Certainly no one would ever accuse Miles Davis of being a square. He would be the last person in the world to ever say that he, or anyone else, was hip, implying that someone was on a higher level than someone else. Especially, as he said, “You don’t have to compare people’s music for people with other people.” Secondly, you don’t judge a person that you don’t even know by what they do or what they look like. Now, I think we’re all much more enlightened. In 1955, that wasn’t the case.
At the same time, Miles always shocked people way back then when we first met. There was this one guy who was a truck driver that came in, an Italian-American guy named Vito. He would come in and say, “Hey Miles baby.” He would sound like he was at some kind of an Italian-American social club and when he spoke to Miles, he sounded as if Miles was one of the guys that he had grown up with on the block, or a member of his family. People would be shocked that Miles was so friendly with the guy. The reason was because the person, when he spoke to Miles, was speaking completely from his heart as if Miles was a regular person in his life. Miles found that so refreshing. Because the person was so real and related to him and would always stop and talk to and go hang out with him.
Eventually he just got disgusted by feeling that he had to defend himself for being a person of good taste. More and more he found it almost unbearable to have to apologize for who he was.
So, it’s difficult to categorize Miles in any terminology, or following a certain pattern, or of being a certain kind of a person. He, like every other person in the world, was unique. He was very determined to remain that way, and not to allow himself to be categorized racially, physically, musically, artistically, or intellectually.
Another amazing evening which I’ve told people about, especially kids who are studying music, occurred in Birdland when I was playing there with Oscar Pettiford’s band in 1957.
David Amram played French horn in Pettiford’s orchestra on this recording:
By that time, Miles’ reputation had grown even more. On an off night, I was there standing at a bar in a part of Birdland called the Bullpen, which was where younger people with no money who couldn’t afford a table, which was very expensive, or musicians who wanted to come to hear the music on their nights off, or sit in and play, perhaps, or who were working there and didn’t want to sit at a table to have a drink bought for them by somebody who was a gambler, pimp, businessman, stranger or super fan who might spend the whole time talking while the next band was playing. If you wanted to avoid that, you would just go to the Bullpen where you could buy a drink at the bar and stay for nothing.
So, I was there at the Bullpen, standing against the bar with a whole bunch of other people when suddenly this big chill came across the room and it was quiet. Miles was walking in. The only other time I heard that great hush come was when I came with Monk one night to hear Dizzy’s band. When Monk walked downstairs and they saw him, Dizzy stopped the band and said, ‘We have a special person in the house.’ There was this incredible hush as if the pope or a Head of State had arrived, and the band played “‘Round About Midnight.”
When I told him that Charlie Parker said, when I met him in ’52, “Man, the hippest thing is to be a square,” Miles really cracked up.
But in this case, nobody said anything. Someone then said, “Miles is here.” Suddenly, there was this huge hush. Miles walked in exquisitely attired in some fantastic four-piece Italian suit with a beautiful hat and a gray overcoat. I don’t know if it was an Armani coat, I’m not that much into fashion. It really was gorgeous and different than anything else. It was some kind of beautiful outfit he was wearing. He came in looking very distraught with huge dark shades on. He kind of crept, because he was very graceful because by that time he had been working out a lot in the gym with other boxers. He came in really slowly and walked towards the Bullpen. People just looked in awe and almost in fear. He looked like he was in a bad mood. So, as he came by, nobody said anything, or said “hello” to him. They were just standing there, kind of frozen. He walked by me and instead of my usual affable “give me some skin” and starting a 45-minute conversation, I didn’t do anything. I just stood there because I didn’t want to “bug” him. That was the word we used at that time, meaning to annoy someone, or interfere with their space, or their mood. I thought it’d be rude, unless he said something to me first, to acknowledge he was there. He just crept by very slowly and just as he was creeping by, he turned his head very slightly, and I saw his eye, a bloodshot left eye, turn towards me and this look of hurt. I felt it through my whole body. I was so shocked. First of all, I felt so bad that I hadn’t acknowledged him and said hello. And secondly, I was so surprised that he would even care whether I did or not, because he knew how much I admired him and how grateful I was when he was always so nice to me. It was such a strong moment that I still could feel it every time I speak or think about it and still feel so bad. Mostly, I was so astounded that he would even care about anybody else, especially about me at that point. I thought about that and realized that he was so hyper-sensitive at the same time, and probably assumed that I would and should say “hello.” It never came from my point of view that I was important enough to make any difference and coming from the fact that I felt that I was even lucky to know him and he knew that I felt that way. That to me was always an example I kept with me on how someone could be so hyper-sensitive. If I hadn’t seen that tiny flicker that one moment, it never would have occurred to me that he was doing anything other than just walking by and in a bad mood and didn’t want to speak to anybody.
Someone then said, “Miles is here.” Suddenly, there was this huge hush. Miles walked in exquisitely attired in some fantastic four-piece Italian suit with a beautiful hat and a gray overcoat.
Every time after that I saw him, no matter what kind of mood he was in, or what the situation was, I would say “hi”. I always got a wonderful response. We used to see each other at boxing matches. He was a good friend of Beverly Bentley, who later became Norman Mailer’s wife. Beverly told me years later, that when Norman’s play was done in New York City, Miles told her my name, when she asked, “Who should write the music for the play?” Miles used to hear my scores for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare In the Park which he always told me he liked.
When I would visit him at his place, he would always play ballet and classical music. There’s a wonderful story of when Sketches of Spain came out, and he told me this story himself before it was printed, that when [Joaquin] Rodrigo, who was the composer had the “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra transcribed for the jazz group, that Rodrigo said to Miles that he really didn’t like the jazz version because it had strayed so far from what he had written. Miles told me that he said that he loved the piece, which he and Gil Evans based their version of it in Sketches of Spain. Miles said, “He’ll like it a lot more when he sees his royalty checks.” Miles knew that that record was there for all time.
When Miles made Kind of Blue, and I went down to hear before the group recorded it, Miles said that he finally wanted to do something that was modal because he would always try to show you something to say, “Try to play this and that chord change.” Often he would write something down in a match book, or tell you a certain scale to play against a certain chord. He told me, “I have done so many different versions of using the blues, “I’ve Got Rhythm” harmonies, 2-5-1 progressions and chord substitutions, I’ve done so much of that and so many people are now using those techniques in a way that sounds dead and not inspired. I’m just gonna’ try and do something using some of those old scales and modes like the Greeks did.” We talked one whole night about the Greek modes as they were expressed in Aristotle’s Poetics where each of the Greek modes represented a different mood. Miles said, “They didn’t have the blues back then, but they had feelings just as we do.” He decided to just use modal harmony and bring it right back to the very ancient roots of that so that he could start with a fresh slate and not have to play something and suddenly realize that what he was playing sounded like an imitation of someone imitating Miles, so that he could no longer hear who Miles was when everybody else was playing like him. Miles also told me what he said later many times in public: “I am not a human jukebox. If people want to hear what I did a year or two ago, they can buy the record. Once I made the record, I want to go on and do something else. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again.” He said, “I’m creative, I’m not a human jukebox. By the time they catch up with what I’ve done, I don’t want to be doing that anymore unless I’m in that mood.”
He was always changing what he did and every time he tried to play, it was always something fresh and of the moment. When he did Kind of Blue in 1959 which was the same time we were doing Pull My Daisy [film directed by Robert Frank] with Kerouac, he indicated to me that it was almost the final farewell to Charlie Parker and that whole era.
There was a new world coming, a new time with a new decade. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Very recently there was a tribute for Columbia Records, with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter . . . I didn’t perform on that record, but I knew Miles and my association with him, we all talked about how that was kind of almost a valentine to the 40s and 50s.
Later on, Miles continued to develop and became more interested in composition. His work with Gil Evans was really one of his highlights, musically. Gil was a neighbor of mine, and it was so great to be with Gil. He was a magnificent musician and a wonderful collaborator with Miles. He was a great friend to all of us. I had some beautiful times with Gil and with Miles and always talking about music, life, art, and painting. Miles was the kind of person that really was able to transcend all of the barriers.
We talked one whole night about the Greek modes as they were expressed in Aristotle’s Poetics where each of the Greek modes represented a different mood. Miles said, “They didn’t have the blues back then, but they had feelings just as we do.”
When he was finally working with rock musicians, he used to tell me that after Kind of Blue, which was the best-selling jazz record of all time, and Bitches Brew and all of those other records he made, he was suddenly accused of not being a jazz musician any more. He said, “This is just what’s been happening to me my whole life. I’m just being me and trying to do what I feel can be done and hasn’t been done. Every time I do that, people get disappointed and then they end up loving it, and that’s even worse, because then they expect me to still be a jukebox. When I do that, they expect it to be jazz, and when it’s not, they’re not ready for it. The main thing is to just be yourself and keep making that self better.” And that’s what he did.
I was at Smith College in the fall of 1970, I was on a bill with a local band, a very good group from Northampton [Mass.], whose name I don’t remember and Miles’ group. When I played before Miles, I had Al Harewood with me, a great drummer from Brooklyn, [bassist] Lisle Atkinson, [saxophonist] Pepper Adams, and myself. Miles said, “I want to hear what kind of band you have.” He had Airto [Moreira], the great Brazilian percussionist whom I had met when he first came to New York. I was finishing composing my Triple Concerto for woodwind, brass and jazz quintet and had basically turned down most work for that fall so I could finish the piece on time, which I was able to do. But I couldn’t resist the thought of not playing at Smith College with Miles. Miles had Keith Jarrett playing piano and a wonderful bass player, a great band. It was so much fun because when we got there, and we all got to hang out before the concert. Miles wanted to go first because he wanted to get home. So he went out before me even though I was supposed to go before him because he didn’t want to stay that late. But then he stayed to hear my set, because he said, “I want to hear what your band is like and Pepper Adams.” He loved Adams’ playing, because Pepper was such a genius at harmonic playing and in that tradition. What Miles played was amazing, because people came from all over to hear him. Again, we were expecting to hear something different than what they heard. A lot of them had just found out Miles Davis for the first time, and here he was playing completely different music than they ever heard before. A lot of what he was playing, he was doing for the first time himself.
Backstage, there must have been over a hundred students, all of whom, not just wanting his autograph, but wanting to talk to and see him and to be close to him. It was wonderful to see the appreciation he had for people that were 18, 19 and 20 years old at that time. It was just one of the highlights to be on the same bill with him and to see his band and to have him stay and hear us and talk to him afterwards before he drove off to where he was going on his tour.
What I did from playing with Bird in the 1940s to what I’m doing now in the rock/pop era is all part of one whole story of my progress and the progress of music and the evolution of what’s happening in our culture.
As life went on, Miles’ health deteriorated somewhat, but he managed to somehow remain creative. He had a terrible period when he was in really bad health and didn’t leave his house for a few years. He somehow overcame that, and when he came back again, he became really interested in the music of Prince. That was the final blow to jazz snobs who couldn’t stand the idea that he would appreciate someone like Prince. But he saw in Prince a very innovative and creative person dealing with some old roots music and making something else that was totally different and also was very skillful in the studio.
When I saw him shortly before he passed away, he said that he remembered what Dizzy had always said, “The trumpet just lies in its case waiting for you each day.” He said that he was really getting a handle just on playing the instrument again the way he had started out as a young guy. He was playing in the upper register more than he ever had in his life. Even though he looked frailer, he was getting stronger. He still enjoyed touring because he loved to play and loved the new band of young musicians. Bill Evans was his saxophonist. He had a band of players that were so much younger than he was, and they really inspired him. He said that he felt now that there was a new kind of musician out there, that could play and respect in the old way, but also had an open mind and ear and were willing to try anything at the moment and not expect Miles or the music to always be the same thing. He said to me, “I’m still searching for what to play.” By that time he had almost become like a rock star. He said, “All the places that I go now, I’ve been to before. I don’t spend that much time hanging out, but I love the playing. I might go to an art museum or just stay in my room and write or think. The thrill of traveling or touring and all that is gone, but the joy and challenge of playing is still there. There’s so much still that I’d like to do. I really wish I could write some of it down.” I think that’s why he started working on his autobiography towards the end of his life, because he realized he wanted to give people some information about how he’d gotten to where he was and what he had done in his life and how much music meant to him.
When he came back again, he became really interested in the music of Prince. That was the final blow to jazz snobs who couldn’t stand the idea that he would appreciate someone like Prince.
He also told me sort of a really sad story. When he did the television commercials and when he appeared on Miami Vice, he said, “For the first time, a lot of young black kids would come up to me and they would say, ‘Hey Mr. Davis, you’re my man. How are you? I wanna’ talk to you. Can I have your autograph? I saw you on TV.’”
He told me that that was the first time in such a long time, that a lot of younger black people would recognize him as a person of distinction. He said, “For all that great music I tried to create and that I’ve been part of, it’s a shame I had to do something like a television commercial or a TV show to finally be recognized by my own people.”
That’s one of the only times that I ever heard him say anything where he really looked sad. When he told me that, he also talked about the interview programs that he’d been on. Only then, people of all colors would come up to him who hadn’t paid all that much attention before. Many of those people who knew him and were rock fans had somehow got to him from a promotion from Columbia Records, didn’t even realize that he had played with Charlie Parker. They were surprised that he had been able to do that because they’d only heard what he had done recently. They had never heard his early fantastic recordings, including “Now’s the Time,” one of the colossal recordings that changed the course of jazz and American sociology to a large extent and what that was the forerunner of.
“For all that great music I tried to create and that I’ve been part of, it’s a shame I had to do something like a television commercial or a TV show to finally be recognized by my own people.”
Miles was right there from the get-go. He said, “It’s a shame we don’t teach history through what we do in music, and it’s a shame we don’t teach music where we’re using that to teach history. What I did from playing with Bird in the 1940s to what I’m doing now in the rock/pop era is all part of one whole story of my progress and the progress of music and the evolution of what’s happening in our culture. In spite of any mistakes I made, I was always hoping that I could be a role model to show that you can be proud, strong, and you could be yourself. You never have to have anybody tell or force you to fit into their slot of what they think you’re supposed to be.”