WELCOME TO "GOING MILES," A STUDY OF THE TRUMPET LEGEND, MILES DAVIS. FEEL FREE TO SUBMIT TUNES, PHOTOS, OR YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE JAZZ GREAT.
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Alan Goldsher is the author of 11 novels, including "Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion" (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), "A Game of Groans" (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books, as George R.R. Washington), and "My Favorite Fangs: The Story of the von Trapp Family Vampires" (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books). Written as A.M. Goldsher, his chicklit books "The True Naomi Story," "Reality Check," "Today’s Special," and No Ordinary Girl were released by Little Black Dress Books in the U.K. and Marabout in France between 2008-2011. His non-fiction titles include "Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers" and "Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read." And he’s the host of "Book It with Alan Goldsher," the first interactive talk show about writing, reading, and publishing.
As a ghostwriter, he has collaborated on projects with numerous celebrities and public figures, including actor/comedian Kevin Pollak ("A Few Good Men," "The Usual Suspects"), film director Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), and jazz guitarist/vocalist George Benson.
Alan lives and writes in Chicago. Visit him at http://www.AlanGoldsher.com.
Do you have any thoughts on Miles Davis? You favorite record? A tune that influenced you as an artist, a musician, or a person? If yes, send it to GoingMilesProject@gmail.com, and I’ll include it in next week’s entry. And spread the word to your music-lovin’ friends…
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent. -Victor Hugo
When I got into music, I went all the way into music. I didn’t have no time for nothing else. -Miles Davis
It was the mid-1930s when Miles Davis fell in love with his trumpet, and the American music was in a state of flux, which was unsurprising, because the country, still reeling from the Great Depression of 1929, was a mess. Cheery songs like “Heart and Soul” and “The Peanut Vendor” still inhabited the airwaves, but at the same time, artists like Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”) and Huddie “Ledbelly” Ledbetter (“Take This Hammer”) were writing or singing about real issues and real pain.
Another factor in the seismic shift was the proliferation of talkies. Now, instead of merely hearing a tune on the radio or spinning a 78-RPM record, music fans could put a face to the voice or the instrument. Directors like Busby Berkeley, Cecil B. DeMille, and Robert Z. Leonard were turning listeners into viewers, and viewers into listeners. The jazz world was in a transitional phase, although one could argue that up until the early 1980s, the jazz world was always in a transitional phase. Thanks to trumpeter/vocalist Louis Armstrong’s innate showmanship and increasing accessibility, Dixieland was embraced beyond its native New Orleans, while big bands, thanks to the increasing complexity of Duke Ellingon and Count Basie, were slowly migrating from the dancehall to the concert hall. Additionally, due to both economic constraints and the path blazed by Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, big bands would sometimes shed a few members, offering listeners the opportunity to enjoy a more intimate take on jazz. This was the brave new world in which Miles Davis began his trumpet lessons. Miles landed his first gig at the age of either 12 or 13, when the head scoutmaster of Camp Vanderventer in Waterloo, Illinois asked the burgeoning brassman to play taps and reveille. “I remember how proud I was for him to ask me,” Miles said, “picking me out from everyone. So I guess by then, I was staring to play all right.” Considering how many musicians eventually trashed Miles’ early work, one might question how “all right” he actually was. But somebody somewhere must’ve heard something, because once he started at Lincoln High School, he was introduced to his first honest-to-goodness trumpet teacher, a local musician named Elwood Buchanan.
A native of St. Louis—and that’s the St. Louis in Missouri, not the East St. Louis in Illinois—Buchanan was a protégé of legendary classical trumpeter Joseph Gustat, the first trumpeter with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. An intrepid workhorse, Buchanan gigged at every given opportunity, be it on a riverboat that floated up and down the Mississippi River, or in a dancehall under the leadership of bandleader/saxophonist/tubist Andy Kirk. At some point in the mid-1930s, Buchanan got tired of the grind, and took a job as band director and private trumpet teacher at Lincoln H.S.
As was the case with Dr. John Eubanks, Miles met the crotchety teacher through his dad, back when he was attending Attucks Junior High. “Mr. Buchanan was one of my father’s patients and drinking buddies. My father told him how interested I was in music and in playing trumpet, specifically. Later, after I started going to Lincoln High School, he still sort of looked after me to keep me on the right track.” It’s said that Buchanan had a prickly demeanor, and considering that Miles was a self-professed grouch, those lessons had to have been at best contentious, and at worst, bloodbaths.
Eventually, likely at Buchanan’s behest, Davis began taking lessons with Joseph Gustat himself. Little is known about Gustat, but tall tales of his technical prowess abound. For instance, Davis claimed, “Gustat could run chromatic scales in two octaves, seventeen times in one breath.” To put that in perspective, that susses out to 408 notes without sucking in a single puff of air. Sure, with the aid of circular breathing—a trick where a wind instrumentalist breathes in through the nose while at the same time pushing air out through their mouth utilizing the oxygen that they’d stored in their puffed-up cheeks, enabling them to concoct a non-stop series of tones—it was possible…but not probable. Then again, as noted, Miles Davis preferred telling a little white lie to telling a dull story.
Despite Buchanan’s recommendation, Gustat was less-than-impressed with his new apprentice. “I went to Gustat and played one note. He said I was the worst trumpet player I ever heard in his life. I said, ‘That’s why I’m here—I’m the pupil and you’re the teacher.” Eventually, Miles came to respect his teacher’s toughness. “Maybe [Gustat] thought that was the way to get the beset out of me. But it didn’t bother me. As long as he taught me that half an hour for the $2.50 I paid him, he could say anything he wanted.”
The more Miles learned, the cockier he became, but despite his high opinion of himself, he understood that he still had plenty to learn…sort of. “By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I had learned how to play chromatic scales. When I started playing that shit, everybody around Lincoln stopped and asked me what I was doing. They started looking at me differently after that. The way I was beginning to think to myself was that I could play as good as any motherfucker walking. I probably thought I could play better. Some of the best musicians around East St. Louis wanted me to play with them [so] I was beginning to think I was the hippest thing around.”
Miles became so hip that he landed his first paying music job with, as Miles remembered, “…a guy named Pickett,” an impressive feat for a high school student. “[We played] some gigs on the road—Belleville, Illinois, places like that. We used to play shit like ‘Intermezzo,’ [Fats Waller’s] ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ and [the Johnny Green standard] ‘Body and Soul.’” (It’s unclear what “Intermezzo” he’s referring to, as the word refers to opera filler music.) He continued, “I would just play the melodies because nothing else hip was happening. Pickett played that roadhouse music, or what some call honky-tonk…that shit that they play in black ‘bucket of blood’ clubs.” It’s odd that Miles referred to honky-tonk with such disdain, because in 1970, he cut a honky-tonk-drenched song called, logically enough, “Honky Tonk,” a tune that showed up on multiple albums, and remained for two full years in a repertoire that was constantly evolving.
When Miles turned 17, his girlfriend, Irene Birth—a young woman of whom Miles said, “I was really into Irene. I got my first orgasm with her.”—challenged the smug instrumentalist to call a local bandleader named Eddie Randle and ask him for a gig. A fellow trumpeter and St. Louis native son, Randle led the Blue Devils, a band of which Miles raved, “…them motherfuckers could play their asses off.” After a quick audition, Miles Davis had his first regular job.
For Miles, being a Blue Devil was the right situation at the right time: As he was a lesser member of a four- or five-man trumpet section, his musical responsibilities were limited to what were likely simple ensemble passages; if he were allotted any solo space, it would be minimal, which gave him less opportunity to screw up in a public setting; and, relatively speaking, the gigs were plentiful and consistent, giving him the opportunity to build up his chops and confidence.
But possibly the most crucial aspect of his first band was the company. He was surrounded by young, hungry, accomplished musicians who, both verbally and by example, taught him how to find his way down the path towards becoming a professional musician. For young Miles, the most important member of the band was right there in the trumpet section, a fellow teenager named Clark Terry.
“I walked all the way from East Saint Louis, I never had but that one, one thin dime I laid my head in a New York woman’s lap, she laid her little cute head in mine She tried to make me bleed by the rattlings of her tongue The sun would never, never shine I pawned my sword and I pawned my chain Well I pawned myself but I fell to shame I tried to see you in the fall, when you didn’t have no man at all I’d love to meet you in the spring when the bluebird’s almost ready to sing Faree, honey, faree well You can shake like a cannon ball, get out and learn that old Georgia crawl Faree, honey, faree well And I laid my head in a barroom door, and I can’t get drunk, drunk no more Now if you can’t do the sugary get yourself on out of this house to me Faree, baby, faree well I tried to see you in the spring when the bluebird’s almost ready to sing Faree, honey, faree well And I walked on back to East Saint Louis, never had but that one, one thin dime” —“East St. Louis Blues,” Blind Willie McTell
“East St. Louis was so bad that it just made you go out and do something.” —Miles Davis
East St. Louis, Illinois doesn’t have what you would call a great reputation.
In 2007, the FBI cited it as the most dangerous city in the country. Its murder rate was a whopping 101.9, as compared to the United States average of 5.6, and the numbers for rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and car theft were equally ugly. The city’s average median household income was slightly above $20,000, putting over 30% of its citizenry below the poverty level. You can’t drive two miles without running into a so-called urban prairie, an abandoned house or building that’s sprouting unsightly wild foliage.
But that’s the East St. Louis of the 21st Century, the East St. Louis of today. Things weren’t always that bad. As a matter of fact, back in the day, East St. Louis was The Place to Be. “The neighborhood was very nice, with row houses” said Miles Dewey Davis II in 1990, “something like the ones they have in Philadelphia or Baltimore. It was a pretty little city. It’s not like that any more.”
In 1927, the year Miles Henry Davis moved his young bride Cleo, his daughter Dorothy Mae, and his one-year-old son, Miles, the 30 miles due south from Alton, Illinois to East St. Louis, it was a pretty happening town, so happening, in fact, that in 1926—the year of Miles Davis’s birth—jazz composer/bandleader Duke Ellington co-wrote “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” a jaunty swinger that, between 1926-32, he recorded a whopping 11 times. (This repetitiveness as out of the ordinary, or as gratuitous, or as lazy as it may seem; Ellington had a proclivity for cutting the same song over and over again, but on the plus side, virtually every rendition was somehow different, be it a sped-up or slowed-down tempo, or an altered arrangement, or a different featured soloist. Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—this sort of inventive retreading became a hallmark of Miles Davis, who cut at least 19 versions of the blues/bopper “Walkin’,” and nearly as many reduxes of the standard “I Fall in Love Too Easliy.”) “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” was a showcase for the tune’s other composer, James “Bubber” Miley, a canny trumpeter who, thanks to his expertise with the plunger mute, could wah-wah with the best of ‘em. Of the composition, Todd S. Jenkins, author of I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus, raved, “The quintessential document of Duke’s “jungle music,” this 1927 theme was so letter-perfect that Steely Dan paid it groveling homage nearly a half-century later. Bubber Miley’s hot, growling trumpet, the percussive drive of banjo and tuba, and swooning horns form the fabric of one of Ellington’s most memorable tunes. The roots of everything from Cab Calloway to the Art Ensemble of Chicago are audible in this primordial jazz masterpiece.” The fact of the matter is, the tune had little to do with the city itself. “Everything we used to do in the old days had a picture,” Ellington explained. “We’d be riding along and see a name on a sign. We used to spend a lot of time up in New England, around Boston, and we’d see this sign, LEWANDO CLEANERS, and every time we saw it we’d start singing, ‘Oh, Lee-wan-do!’ Out of that came ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo.’” (How the members of the Ellington Orchestra made leap from ‘Oh, Lee-wan-do’ to “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” is unclear to anyone who wasn’t a member of the Ellington Orchestra.) The pragmatic, business-savvy Ellington then mused, “Probably it would have gone better if we had called it ‘Lewando’ and got some advertising money from it.”
Aside from a brief chapter in his autobiography, Miles Davis talked little about his hometown—and when he did comment on the city, it was usually something negative and, predictably, somewhat salty—but it’s fair to assume that East St. Louis couldn’t have looked that bad from all the way up in Alton, because Miles’ father was by all accounts A) an intelligent man, and B) a talented, up-and-coming dentist, and chances are that a sharp young man with a bright future wouldn’t knowingly bring his young family into a harsh environment. But Miles, never one to let the facts or a glimmer of positivity get in the way of a good story, chose to focus on the negative aspects of his childhood.
“About the first thing I can remember as a little boy,” Miles said, “was a white man running me down the street hollering, ‘Nigger! Nigger!’ My father went hunting him with a shotgun.” Miles’ well-armed father wasn’t able to track down the racist taunter, which was fortunate for both the dentist and his family, because if you figure that Miles’ legendary temper was hereditary, there’s little reason to doubt that Dr. Davis would’ve pulled the trigger. “There were gangs all around East St. Louis,” Miles continued, “bad gangs like the Termites. East St. Louis was a rough place to grow up in, because you had a lot of cats, black and white, who didn’t take no shit off nobody.”
Miles home life was equally frustrating, primarily because of his iffy relationship with his mother, Cleota Henry Davis, known to her friends as Cleo. “I didn’t get along with her too well,” Miles explained. “Maybe it was because we both had strong, independent personalities. She had her mind about the way I should be doing things, and I had mine.” Ironically, Miles proudly claims that in terms of temperament, he was Cleo’s son: “I guess you could say I was more like my mother than my father.”
Miles was exposed to music at an early age, thanks to a nearby neighbor and his sexy wife. “Next door [from us] was my father’s best friend, Dr. John Eubanks. Dr. Eubanks was so light he almost looked white. His wife, Alma, or Josephine, I forget which, was almost white, too. She was a fine lady, yellow, like Lena Horne with curly black hair. My mother would send me over to their house to get something and his wife would be sitting there with her legs crossed, looking finer than a motherfucker. She had great legs and she didn’t mind showing them either. Anyway, Uncle Johnny—that’s what we called Dr. Eubanks—gave me my first trumpet.” Considering his future obsession with women, we shouldn’t be surprised that young Miles was more impressed with Alma’s (or Josephine’s) legs than he was the instrument.
But he couldn’t do anything with Mrs. Eubanks’ body. He could, however, use the trumpet.