Miles Davis: Early, Late, Real, Yours

We are talking tonight about Miles Davis: Early Miles… Late Miles… Real Miles… Your Miles. With musicians and others who knew him, it would be easy to do an hour just of impressions of Miles’ rasping voice and lightning wit. Charlie Davidson of the Andover Shop in Cambridge, who tailored Miles’ and the band’s Ivy League clothes in the ’50s and ’60s, is a storehouse of casual Milesiana, like this from Charlie: “One day I asked him: ‘Miles, do you really like Frank Sinatra?’ ‘Do I like him?’ he said. “If he had one tit I’d marry him!'”

The hook of our conversation tonight, as if we needed one, is the 50th anniversary summer of Miles’ breakthrough performance of “Round Midnight” with Monk at the second Newport Jazz Festival. (“Monk plays the wrong changes,” Miles complained to the Newport impresario George Wein. “Miles, what do you want?” Wein shot back. “He wrote the song!”) The other critical anniversary is of the Isle of Wight concert of 1970, now on a brilliant DVD by Murray Lerner, when the recently electrified Miles performed for 600,000 Europeans on a bill with Jimi Hendrix and The Who, with yet another new band of his own on stage, including Jack DeJohnette on drums and both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards.

With protean Miles (as in the Greek myth of the waterborne Proteus who could change his shape at will) the spectacle of self-reinvention goes well beyond the mere matter of late-60’s electrification. Miles came onto the scene chasing Charlie Parker in the late ’40’s. If he’d lived, not died, in 1991, he might have made his last recordings with Prince! In between, through cool jazz, the ineffable highs with Coltrane and the modal revolution, the ’70s fusions with rock, Sly, Santana and Hendrix, and the “chromatic funk” of his comeback in the ’80s, Miles was the biggest star — and star-maker — in the story of jazz. And the subject still of the most heated arguments.

The hope tonight is not to be definitive or even adversarial, but passionate about the essential Miles, who seems so much alive in music to this day.

George Wein

Founder, Newport Jazz Festival

Author, with Nate Chinen and Bill Cosby, of Myself Among Others: A Life in Music

[in the studio with Chris]

Marcus Miller

Bassist, a kind of music director of Miles’ last “period,” 1980 to 1991

George Cole

Author, Last Miles: the Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991

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