Meeting Miles: Face to Face with the Prince of Darkness

This article was originally published in the January/February 1985 issue of JAZZIZ Magazine. The feature photo of Miles Davis is by Jeff Sedlik. Text by Eric Snider.

Miles and I made a deal. In the music press, his career has been analyzed, scrutinized, chronologized and categorized over the years, and he thinks most of it is “bullshit” anyway. Frankly, I was getting a little tired of reading it. There had to be more to Miles Davis than musician/bandleader/trendsetter/mysterious intimidator. He’s a man after all, and he puts his pants on just like you and me — though his pants are probably more stylish.

So even though it wasn’t a condition for doing the interview, we struck a gentleman’s deal that he could speak freely, and I would render our conversation as it happened.

The original plan to do a post-show, face-to-face interview never materialized. Instead, I was given a phone number to call the next morning. One, two, three, four, five rings before he picked up and croaked a barely audible, “Yeah.” We started out a little slow — as any two strangers are bound to do. But soon enough I made a discovery, which will be the only analytical point I make in this introduction. Miles Davis is a pretty nice guy. He’s not Mr. Warmth, but he’s witty — often funny — opinionated and open. Our interview gradually became a conversation, and our discussion covered more than music. [Publisher’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.]

(Photo by Pool BENAINOUS/RENAULT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Eric Snider: The tone on your horn sounds so good now, so improved. How did you get it back?

Miles Davis: Practice every day. And play a lot of long notes. Go swimming every day. It was hard.

When did you feel it really came around?

After I had the operation. Last year. When did I have the operation? I don’t remember.

How did you come to add “Time After Time” to the live repertoire? Why that particular song?

If you followed my musical career, I usually always played ballads that I like. It’s not a big thing. I hear it the way I hear all ballads — on the radio, on television. I heard this on a video.

How did the video for “Decoy” come together?

What do you mean how did it come together?

Did Columbia want you to do it? Did you decide to do it? Did you like doing it?

Yeah, it was OK. It takes a long time. You can spend your whole day on things like that. You have to get everything together.

I saw it on HBO and they introduced it as a “jazz video.”

When you say “jazz,” it always limits a musician. I was talking to my drummer [Al Foster] about that last night. I don’t like the word, ya know, because it’s really a disgrace to be labeled a jazz musician because they don’t do anything. Everybody can see that they don’t do anything — that they’re just comfortable playing the same old thing. You have to match these different synthesized sounds. You can’t just play these clichés that even the commercials don’t use anymore. That label, “jazz,” takes the “why” and the “what” out of the music. They don’t try anything new because it’s labeled. “Well, what do you do?” (Apathetic voice) “I’m a jazz musician.” What the fuck is that?”

I think there’s a problem with the word because people want to call so many types of music “jazz” that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. There’s a lot of confusion.

There’s no confusion. If [music critics] can put their finger on “jazz,” it’s, “Well, we don’t like jazz.” It’s the same thing with rock and roll. What the fuck is rock and roll? I hate those terminologies, man, because I’m tired of seeing my people fucked with in all areas.

What’s the remedy for it then? If someone wants to talk about a record to their friend, or someone wants to write about it and describe it, what’s the alternative?

I don’t know.

I understand you’ve been using the term “social music.”

You know that’s what it is. If you look at it like you do dances or something. Those are just social things that people just do. I don’t know what you could call it.

In this particular time when a lot of people want to make skin color less of an issue, it still is very much a topic for you. Why do you feel it’s necessary to keep it up?

I see Sidney Poitier and [my wife] Cicely [Tyson] — they don’t have any projects. The only movie [with a black male lead] this year is A Soldier’s Story. It makes me speak up because I know how that business works. … There’s something that gets to me when I see my wife look at 50 different scripts, and there’s nothing there. We should find some black writers — although I told somebody the other day that I’ve never been on a black magazine cover. In Japan, I’m on the cover. In Europe, I’m on the cover of Vogue. But not over here.

You’ve been on several music magazine covers.

Not any black magazines. … I can walk down the street in Paris, and they say, “Hey, Miles,” ’cause I’m on their TV. Every time I go there and play, they film it and show the people in Europe. The government does. Here, I’ve been on a couple of these shows with Bryant Gumble [the Today Show], and then some people start seeing me on the street, and they say, “Hey, Miles” in this country. But I’m 58 years old, and I’m better known in Europe. It’s either that or here they know me because Cicely married me.

That can be a problem when you’ve got a famous wife.

Half the motherfuckers, when they come to interview me, they say, “Where is she? Maybe we can get her in on this.” I ain’t shit.

To change the subject drastically, I noticed Teo [Macero] is not credited with producing Decoy. Why did you decide to do it on your own?

Because he’s like an old maid, man. I could have let Teo go years ago, but kept him around for a while. He doesn’t do anything so there’s no reason to carry him. He never did anything.

I understand he likes to do a lot of splicing and editing.

Teo does lazy shit, man. I hate a lazy man. I can’t stand that. I kept telling him to do something and it’s, “Oh, no, we got a deadline.” “I don’t feel good. I gotta go to the doctor.” “My wife this and my wife that.” People eliminate themselves, you know what I’m saying? I don’t say “Teo, you’re fired,” or “I don’t wanna work with you no more.” He eliminated himself by being so slow and backwards.

I get the idea that you don’t listen to a lot of current acoustic “jazz” — for lack of a better word — but do you ever go back and listen to the classic jazz stuff?

No, man. I don’t listen to any instrumentalists, ’cause they don’t do anything. I mean all you have to do is get a synthesizer, read the fuckin’ manual, maybe take a couple of lessons or something. I mean there’s always something to learn which makes it very interesting. These new sounds that are comin’ out are great. You have to realize that you are a musician and that is your thing. Appreciate things that you have to look into.

It seems that you like to play live, versus the studio.

That’s right, there’s no spontaneity in the studio. Musicians tighten up; they have to go pee. Or they step out and get high. They don’t do that shit on stage.

Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1969.

Why do you make studio records; why not make all live records?

The record company says they want quality. So people can turn up the bass or turn the trumpet up. Things like that.

If you were to tell CBS that you wanted to do another live album, that this is the way you preferred to do it …

(Interrupting) That’s not the way I would tell ‘em.

What would you say to them?

I don’t tell ‘em, I just do it. I’d say, “Have your equipment ready in such and such a place,” and they do it. They respect my judgement. I don’t go up and ask anybody about my music. I know how the shit’s supposed to go.

Do you spend much time with individual members of your band — telling them what you’d like from them?

I give ‘em little hints. Sometimes they’ll say, “Miles, I’m gonna put this right here,” and sometimes I’ll tell ’em what to do. But see, it’s my band.

They would do well to listen to you. But they have to be able to express themselves. Al Foster seems to be the backbone of that group.

I keep tellin’ him that, man. He’s incredible, the way he plays. I’ll just sit there [on stage] and listen to him sometimes. He don’t wanna play solos ’cause he said I’ve heard everything. I said, “I haven’t heard you, man.” He’s fabulous. He’s a helluva composer, too.

Miles Davis in 1970 (photo: Sandy Speiser/Sony Music Archives)

With your keyboard rack back there [located in front of the drums], do you feel more a part of the group if you are involved in the rhythm section as well as being a soloist?

Right. We always leave a little mystique in the composition to explore and make different sounds. Different sounds come in your head and you have to have the reflex and the knowledge to be able to do ’em. If you hear these ideas, it’s gonna help what’s happenin’. You have to do it on the spur of the moment.

By having keyboards available, you can add more to the music.

Yeah. Because music changes when you have bad weather. Or if it’s too hot. Or if it’s Thursday. It changes. If you have a three-fourths black audience, it changes. If you have a lot of “let’s-get-a-cold-one” white kids, it changes. It changes from the vibes they send out.

My love for ballads always carries me anywhere, because you can tell when a person is playing from what he feels or if he’s playing from an image he wants to project. Like I go to these things with Cicely and sometimes they have singers — like Florence Henderson. And they sing these songs that they can’t sing, ’cause it’s an image they want to project.

Who are some people that you really think make it as singers?

Oh, Jeffrey Osborne. Luther Vandross. Of course Michael [Jackson]. James Brown, Rick Springfield. All these guys that sing what they can sing and project. Like Stevie [Wonder], Earth Wind, and Fire. Jennifer Holliday. Joyce Kennedy, Melba Moore, Chaka Khan. Ya know, all the black singers get down.

There’s a lot of artists out there that mention you as someone they would love to work with. Milton Nascimento said so recently. Could you see yourself collaborating at this point?

Well, Nick [Ashford] and Valerie [Simpson] called me up to do something, but I wasn’t in the country. I wouldn’t mind. You know that goes back to the jazz bullshit. I’d say no if they wanted to play “How High the Moon” or something. I can’t do projects like that ’cause it’s not my turf.

But if you liked the project you wouldn’t rule it out.

I would want to do it, but the money business — I don’t want to talk about money. Mick Jagger wanted me to make a session, and when my money people told him what was happenin’, he went and ([chuckles] told us, “Well I only gave Sonny Rollins this amount of money.” And then … uh … anyway. But then they called back and now they want me to do something.

A year ago, there probably would have been no way that I would have gotten this time with you. Why have you loosened up some?

Partly because my health has improved. But also people usually say things that I don’t think about. Like turning my back on the audience. Fuck that. How many times can you say, “I’m not doing this for money” and “These 40 chicks are waitin’ on me outside.” You know what bullshit they write about musicians.

If I go into a club now, all the musicians — drummers drop sticks and all that shit. I don’t go out anymore. Or if I go out I don’t let anybody know I’m there.

There’s this perception that you try to — for fun or because you’re bitter or something — that you try and intimidate people you talk to in the press.

That’s the white press’ interpretation.

You haven’t been all that scary to me. But I can see your point about drummers dropping sticks and stuff. They do it to themselves.

A lot of it comes from being ignored years ago — when I was with Charlie Parker. The way they ignored him, man. I just figured there’s nothing to say. People usually write the wrong thing about me, so I just look at it and laugh. I realize that we have to sell records. I don’t mind making the video. There are a lot things I would do, [but] nobody asks me. Like the United Negro College Fund, they never asked me. I told one of them I’d do it and they said, “Now when you get this call you’re gonna remember what you said.” Then they never called.

Well, Miles, thank you for your time.

It was nice talking to you, man.

Nice talking to you, Miles.

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