Monday, March 3, 2008

MILES DAVIS: The Coolest Cat on the Planet

In the penumbra of the screen theatre, Clint Eastwood, as a Secret Service agent, in the motion picture “In the Line of Fire” enters his dark apartment. He glides carefully like a duelist scenting the air.

There is a psycho out there who has vowed to kill the President of the United States. The scene is tense. The director plays with little light and a great deal of shadow. The audience is on edge. Then Eastwood turns on his CD player and drops back into the shadows as he strides toward the light colored sofa and sits down with a sigh.

“No one is going to pounce on me here. I am safe,” declares his body language. He remains in the chiaroscuro listening to the music that is flooding the room and the theatre.

“Miles” Cinzia my teenage daughter whispered to me and perhaps to no one in particular.

Indeed. It was He. The Incomparable. The Electrifying. The Spellbinding. Miles Forever and ever.

He was blowing one of the pieces from ”Miles Ahead”, which he had done with the arrangements of Gil Evans. No one ever again has played the trumpet even remotely similar to Miles. Not Dizz - Dizzy Gillespie, not Chet Baker and certainly never Wynton Marsalis. I could show off and rattle of several more trumpet players. All good ones. Why bother? We are not going to see anyone like Miles for eons.

Miles had died on September 28 of 1991. We were watching the movie in New York exactly a year after his death. That made Cinzia’s declaration all the more poignant.

He had been working on a rap album at the time of his death.

“Hey Nefertiti, I am sitting here by my window and listening to the sounds and the cries from the street. Man it’s a learning experience,” he told me in his throaty, hoarse and sandy voice. I always found it irresistible. It was the summer of 1991.

That summer was a harrowing time for the Middle East and the United States. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in August 2, 1990. A year later, it was still topic number one. Blah-blu-blah. All the television, radio and newspapers inundated you with nothing but news from the Middle East, panels, round table discussions and talk shows galore. Most did not know f---k all. The best thing was to keep the media from invading your thoughts, opinions and worse – so that you would not be inevitably brainwashed.

Miles the wise did just that. He listened to the laments, the rage and anguish and despair of the young, the old, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the poor. True, the language belonged to the Blacks – whose ancestors had been seized in their villages and taken by force to the Americas. From one moment to the next they found themselves slaves to white Masters.

Now they could speak out, through rap and hip–hop. This was not original in and of itself. The Congolese warriors, shamans and griots had never stopped rapping. The Shona, Yoruba, the Masai, Watusi and Mandingo had never allowed their colonizers to silence their chants and their drums.

It was unique on the streets of New York that steamy summer. Miles without question on that fateful summer of 1991 launched hip-hop and rap. And because the cat was elegant and a once-in-a-lifetime class act, it was impossible for it to be sadistic, cheap and vulgar.

To be sure, it was erotic and full of flair and double entendre, but dear God! It was the closest thing to Heaven divine as Miles blows his 22 carat golden trumpet out of his magical lungs. Miles’s breath, I always called it. No, I will not retract the word magical.

He had mainlined heroin, then quit cold and never touched that venom again (unlike Chet). Then he took cocaine. He had recurrent tuberculosis. Pneumonia assailed him. Miles was frail; he looked frail, a small–boned potentate of Jazz and Music in its every nuance. Make no mistake. He was made of the finest titanium. Notes and rhythm flowed in his veins.

We shall never know what caused his untimely death at the age of sixty-one. Hospitals are notoriously filthy places. Toxic bacteria, chemicals, and infectious diseases abound. Doctors boast of their expensive state of the art machinery but they are as empirical in the diagnostics game as they used to be in the Middle Ages.

This is a racist question but I am going to ask it anyway. Miles Davies or no, do hospitals ever devote the same care and concern towards blacks as they do towards whites? Even if the black individual in question was loved, respected, adored and admired throughout the globe?

A sleek black Ferrari became familiar on the streets of New York and on the highways of the country. The Ferrari was a beauty to behold. As a rule, fire engine red is the color associated with La Ferrari. Miles had ordered a black one. He had ordered it expressly from Maranello. Enzo Ferrari, the Engineer himself as everyone addressed him had personally looked after every detail. This was not unusual. His attention to detail was legendary, but his gruff and almost always brusque nature fitted in wonderfully with Miles curmudgeonly character. This handmade Ferrari attracted attention, just what Ferrari and Miles wished for.

To say Miles Black Beauty upset the NYPD is an understatement. They found endless excuses to stop Miles, search his Ferrari, scratch the pristine leather upholstery, damage the varnish and goad Miles into losing his short fuse.

I doubt I ever watched more than two episodes of the television series - NYPD Blue. The scriptwriters wrote tight and smooth stories, but the images of Miles being harassed, humiliated, insulted and abused gratuitously many times over the years, filled me with disgust. The television series scored high on the ratings. I am told that not all cops are rotten. I still wonder about that as far as New York is concerned. Envy and jealousy pushed the police to ever more indignities towards Miles, who did not always bear them with stoicism. Who of us would?

To this day I hope I never have occasion to encounter an NYPD blue. But then, I am very fair and blonde. In the Metropolis I only ride in limousines vouched for by security companies. That is not so smart is it? I mean many of those limo drivers are former policemen. I avail myself of the services of Latinos and only speak in Spanish. The truth is , many of them are glad that I talk and converse with them in Spanish.  

The point is that Miles did not come from the slums or the ghettoes. I believe the PC word to use are projects and inner cities. His family hailed from Saint Louis, Missouri. Miles was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. The silver was so sterling he almost choked on it. He was raised in the lap of luxury. He was, what one would call well brought up. He went to posh prep schools and vacationed in the family’s vast estate in the gorgeous Missouri countryside. His family paid for his tuition to attend the crème de la crème of Music schools, Julliard in New York.

This surely explains why he never lost his flair even when the most horrible imprecations and obscenities issued forth from his mouth, when provoked beyond endurance. And yet, and yet, he stood out because he emanated class from every pore.

My son Marco and my daughter Cinzia and I for one have never recovered from losing miles and miles of Miles. Without a doubt, the world has never recovered either. It will not do so anytime soon.

He was erudite, well read, highly educated, multi-talented, intelligent and curious. Color was unimportant to him. He worked with artists and musicians of every shade and race. All you needed was to overflow with musical talent and passion.

Yes! He could be a beast if someone in the audience happened to be an ass by uttering surly remarks, laughing or generally behaving in a rude manner when He was playing. It did not matter if one was white, black or any other color. You asked for it, you got it. Miles pulled no punches then. He had a venomous tongue like Voltaire and he used it to perfection.

There is the famous story about the African American with a blonde, white floozy sitting on the front row while he was playing. The couple giggled and fondled one another continuously.

Miles stopped playing. This was intolerable behavior.

"Listen, you lout. Get your f-----g nigger ass out of here and take your f-----g honky assed bimbo with you.”

I was surprised to read an article on Miles in Forbes magazine just before the Millennium. I was a frequent reader and subscriber to Forbes. It was geared towards the Moneymen. Sometimes their forecasts sucked. They could be inane and boring.

Yet someone in Forbes, perhaps Steve Forbes? or a writer he had commissioned? was sensitive and hip. Their stock went up as far as I was concerned. I am still a faithful reader and subscriber, thanks to that piece on the Coolest Cat.

“They had realized that the lolly, to use a cockney slang for money, was not everything. Forbes were not so obsessed with megabucks and mergers after all,” I pondered.

One day in the mid seventies to the eighties Miles stopped playing. He had tuberculosis and his cocaine addiction had made him very ill. He might have been searching for new directions. He was not one for resting on his golden laurels.

Vinicius de Morais, the Father of the Bossa Nova, poet and composer of “Black Orpheus” La Garota do Ipanema” - The Girl From Ipanema who was himself ailing from extreme alcoholism brought him to my Villa of the Saracen in Bellosguardo, Florence. It seems Vinicius’s daughter was married to one of Miles favorite drummers.

In my family. It is almost a genetic requirement to listen to and understand Jazz. You have to love Miles, The Boss Man (Sinatra) Chet Baker, Mingus, Satchmo, Billie, Ella, Sarah, and Bessie. Vinicius, Tony Jobim, Astrud, Ellis (Regina) Gilberto, Gaetano and Milton must inflame you inside and out. What happens if yo don't dig all that jazz. Well, you will not be banished especially if you are amusing but you will never be a part of our beguiling musical pentagram.

The acoustics in the Great Hall of the Villa del Saracen seemed made in Heaven. I had Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez on the stereo. It was the entire Concerto, not only the Second Movement, which was the one Miles, had recorded with Gil Evans in his album “Sketches of Spain.” The soloist (on classical guitar) was a young Catalan, Renata Tarrago, playing with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.

Silence reigned. Musicians always listen to beautiful music. They do NOT treat the music as background tinkles in which to engage in meaningless chatter. For a few minutes after all three movements of the Concerto de Aranjuez had ended, no one spoke or even moved. Then suddenly as if the demonic and bewitching spirits of the Renaissance Villa had possessed us all, everyone began gigging. It was impromptu and thus - not planned. Vinicius set his glass of Chivas Regal down on my concert grand Bosendorfer. I sat down on the piano and began the rhythmic cadenza for “The Girl From Ipanema” Vinicius entered on the 8th beat, Mingus on the 5th and Miles hummed the trumpet solo.

It was midnight, the witching hour. My two youngest children aged six and eight had stayed up, too mesmerized to go to sleep. I did not insist. Occurrences like these are not likely to happen again.

“Carpe diem!” said  the Roman poet Horace over two thousand years ago.
"Dom loquimur fugerit Invida Aetas: Carpe Diem, Quam Minimum, Credula Postero.
While we're talking, envious time is fleeing. Seize the day, put no trust in the future.

 Yes! Seize the day, the night, seize every moment and second. Live the Music. Take deep breaths. Never let it go. Never forget.

The last album Miles made was DOO-BOP. Easy Mo Blues produced it for Easy Mo Productions and Warner Brothers Records.

Buy it. You will find that it will kick you, gas you, cool you, trip you and teleport you to the Land of Miles.

Author’s note” There are literally millions of sites on Miles. Many of them feature several bars of his memorable music. Don’t be satisfied with so little. Buy his works. They are works of art as well as investments.

Remember: he only worked with the finest virtuosos in the firmament. I shall do a post as well on all the breathtaking and fabulous cats who played and collaborated with him. 

By the way, Miles was also a talented abstract painter. Colorful, exotic and sexy. The paintings do not come with inexpensive price tags. Why should they? It’s worth every thousand.

1 comment:

  1. As I'm more visual than audial (my mother and her brother are both painters), your final paragraph about the prices of paintings caught my particular attention. Yes, Miles' paintings are worth thousands, or millions. But price tags seldom if ever reflect a painting's quality, and sometimes the price is inversely proportional to the quality, at least in the short run. (Just consider the kinds of trash which have received Turner prizes.)

    Van Gogh died in poverty; so did one of my literary heroes, Poe. Millions of dollars are spent by venal fools on visual excrement which - according to God's law of the inevitable corruption of all untruth and all evil - will be unremembered a thousand years from now. On the other hand, Andrei Rublev's most haunting icon of Christ, titled "Face Not Made By Hands" (circa 1400), was thrown into a pile of firewood by the Bolsheviks, regarded by them as trash. Miraculously, during the winter of 1918, a poor Russian who was (illegally) pilfering firewood, found that icon in a pile of trash, and saved it, so that it is now in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow. The poor man who saved that icon didn't even know that it was painted by Rublev - but his soul told him that it was worth preserving.

    Here's that icon:

    In 1918, Rublev's icon was worth no money at all. Similarly, in Bethlehem in circa 5 BC, Christ was born in a barn. Such are the places in which Beauty is found - almost as a Divine Law, Beauty is born, and found, far away from the popular fashions of the moment.


Isabel Van Fechtmann

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