Because I Like It. So What?

Miles Davis & John Coltrane

The first time I saw Miles I didn’t really see him. Not to play, I mean.

I was in high school and I heard Miles was coming to Boston again for the first time in a number of years. This was New Hampshire – not exactly a hot bed of jazz lovers, and not a black face inside 50 miles. I was in the band and I managed to talk a couple of other people into bearding the band teacher in his den. He was planning a field trip anyway and we hit him – hard – to make it Miles’ appearance at the War Memorial Auditorium. One of the greatest jazz players in history? How could he say no? I admit I may have gotten in his face a bit.

It was, I think, the last time Miles ever played Boston, and it became his most famous Boston gig because he didn’t play it.

We were sitting in our seats, waiting for the show to start. The house lights were up, the stage curtain was closed, and it was late. Fifteen minutes, twenty, a half hour after start time and nothing was happening. Suddenly a tall black man (I thought he was tall, anyway) came through the curtain and took centerstage. From the third balcony, I couldn’t see his face, didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t carrying an instrument. We thought he was an emcee or something and was going to introduce the band.

He didn’t. In a voice that somehow managed to be both raspy and all breath, he made a short statement. It was Miles. I’d never heard his voice before. This was, what? ’64 or ’65.

“This place has the worst acoustics I’ve ever heard,” he said, “and I won’t play here.”

Then he turned around and walked through the curtain again. Ushers came down the aisles to lead us out of the theater and show the band teacher where to go to get his money back. We were disappointed, of course. Some people were mad. I wasn’t mad but I wasn’t happy. On the other hand, I knew enough about Miles that I wasn’t particularly surprised.

A few years later I went to the War Memorial for some other music thing, I don’t remember what, probably because I didn’t stay. I think it may have been an opera. Before a half-hour had elapsed, I walked out. Miles was right – the acoustics were terrible. There were echoes, ringing, metallic echoes, echoes so deep that everything that came from the stage got lost in them. You couldn’t hear much of the music and very little of the words. It was like trying to listen to a symphony inside the Callahan Tunnel. I couldn’t stand it and I left, one of the few times I’ve ever walked out on a ticket. I didn’t even bother to demand my money back, though I should have. I just wanted to get away from the noise.

I didn’t see Miles live until ’69 or ’70, post Bitches Brew, post-electrification. The jazz community was as pissed off at him as the folk community had been at Dylan when he went electric. I didn’t care. Like with Dylan, I thought it added whole new levels to what he could play.

Of course, people were always getting pissed at Miles. He pissed them off when he left the stage while other people were playing. He pissed them off when he turned his back on the audience to solo. One night, I hear, he left the stage entirely and played his solo from the wings. When a critic (Nat Hentoff, I think it was) asked him why he did that, he said the audience was making so much noise he couldn’t concentrate on the music, and if they weren’t going to listen, why should they care if they couldn’t see him? Asked why he left the stage when other people were playing – it made him look like he didn’t care what they were doing when he wasn’t the center of attention – he said, “I don’t want to be a distraction.” He’d noticed the audience watched him instead of the guy playing, so he just took himself out of the equation.

That was Miles. He didn’t care what people, any people, thought. He didn’t give a damn about anything but the music. He was an authentic jazz star, one of the few left from his era. Bird was dead, Billy was dead, Clifford was dead, Trane was dead, Monk was sick and to all intents and purposes retired, and Diz had gone commercial. Mingus was still around, but of the true stars, that was about it.

This is the way I finally saw him – prowling the stage, free of a static mike stand (the mike is on the end of his horn, you can see it in the video), bent over almost double half the time, whining and growling and singing in that oddly lyrical tone that baffled everybody, making a simple melody into something at once beautiful, sad, angry with joy and joyous with rage. A cry from the crypt, a giggle from the playpen. How did he do it? Nobody ever figured it out, not even him, not that he ever tried.

So this is more or less how I remember him, physically, anyway. The late Miles, the Miles of over-the-top costumes, alien shades and harem shoes, prowling his own private world. There’s a place where you can see him raise his head from the music and look out at the audience as if he’d forgotten they were there. A Miles moment if ever I saw one.

Time After Time

Jazz fans hated this final stage of his career. They thought he had sold out, like Diz. The last few notes are an echo of his past, deliberate, somewhat mocking – a sop or a slap for all those who thought he’d lost it.

How anybody could listen to this and think he couldn’t play any more is beyond me and always has been.

4 responses to “Because I Like It. So What?

  1. I like the first video better but I’m so bad at appreciating Jazz that I don’t even trust myself to know if that’s good or bad or what. It is what it is.

  2. You sound like Miles.

    The first video is a classic, maybe the best ever made of Miles’ most well-known group. The second is stripped down Miles, Miles going for the limit of emotion in the fewest possible sounds, and I suppose a familiarity with his past styles would help make what he’s doing more clear. It’s one of his subtlest performances, but I can understand why it might sound unfinished or even haphazard to a novice.

    Jazz fans don’t have that excuse, however. They should have known what he was doing – it’s instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent any listening-time with him: the choked notes, the sliding of one note into another, the seeming technical flaws, but most of all the bare emotion of his lyricism unhampered by superfluities. There’s less flash, as if Miles had morphed from a musical Norman Mailer into Ernest Hemingway, spare, lean, everything extraneous removed. It’s not in the notes so much, and certainly it’s not in the technique. It’s in the tone, and I think that’s harder for people, even fans, to recognize.

  3. So I have to listen to the notes he’s not playing? ;)

  4. Sort of. Think of it as a Harold Pinter play where the silences are as or even more meaningful than the written dialogue. And if this makes any sense, don’t listen as much to the notes as the sound of the notes. Pretend it’s like when somebody’s talking and all they’re saying is one cliche after another but you can tell from the tone of their voice that they’re sad or scared or worried or pissed. That’s the level he’s working at.

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