February 14 2016
To: Miles Davis in heaven somewhere!
I hope this letter finds you resting comfortably and enjoying the view from up there as well as having time with so many of your old associates and friends. I just imagine you and John (Coltrane) hanging out together talking about old times. I think about you often and of course since you are now iconic and part of the musical history of the world, there are more than a few times that I relate stories covering the mundane to the dramatic from my time with you beginning in the early ‘70s up to your passing. Like when Tony (Wiliams) and I were with you in the pad watching fight films with Sugar Ray and Joe Louis, etc., and you got the two of us up to throw some punches: ”Never look at the hands, only the eyes!!” Well Maestro, you are a cottage industry and I talk about you all the time. EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW ABOUT MILES!!
At your funeral I remember looking around at the audience, noting the thirty or so musicians who had somehow been part of your musical life ranging from Max Roach to whomever your last bass player was (to be honest, I couldn’t keep track of the Miles Davis Sideman Association by the late 80s). I commented to my wife, Caris, who you met when I played with Wayne for a Coltrane tribute in Japan, 1987, that all of us sitting there had at least two things in common. We were young and just becoming formed as musicians but even more important was that the way we played in your band, we never played that like that again, with exceptions of course. Bottom line…..you changed our lives musically for sure as well as the fact that being a sideman to you meant one had arrived at the top of the food chain. After playing with Miles Davis, you were expected to have something on your own to say as a leader.
As I mentioned above Maestro, you are part of the fabric of musical history like Beethoven, Bach, Ray Charles, etc., etc. What you left the world is beyond description from my all time favorite “Sketches of Spain” to “Dark Magus” to “Live at the Plugged Nickel “ and the countless live tapes. The list goes on and on. One thing I always admired in you was the surety and confidence you had when it came to music…no second-guessing. And as I tell anyone who asks me what I got most from my experience with you (and master drummer Elvin Jones) was the seriousness of the work at hand. Everything before or after those sacred moments on the bandstand could be on another planet at times, but when the downbeat was heard, it was all BUSINESS!!
You were never too talkative about music, your own or others, rather leaving it to a few words than a full blown description….much like all the cats from your generation. But one thing you said to me in that off-hand kind of way (meaning a few words, then walking away!!) was “Finish before you’re done.” Like all the tidbits you threw out to me and others it took years to understand but it seemed that you were saying leave a space for the guys to do something…..it might help you to say the least. The lesson being you can and should get a little help from your friends. Also, if you are already thinking about finishing, you’re too late to the party.
There’s one story I tell that is unrelated to music, but for me reveals a side of you that I saw on occasion and that most people did not witness. I always felt you’re supposed “hostility” or whatever it might be called was a front to get people to leave you alone so you could do your thing. You were after all naturally a shy person in my opinion.
In ’81 (I think that is the right year, but no matter, somewhere in that period) I had a confluence of tough things happen to me: divorce, illness, a badly broken leg (my weak one with a cast up to my neck). Drummer Al Foster who was with me during the time I was in your band and was also the drummer for my group at the time (“Quest” with Richie Beirach) came to visit me where I lived, way out about two hours from the Apple in Long Island, just to say hi and commiserate with me. The next day the phone rings and that voice of yours is the greeting:” Do you need any money?” Now all musicians know that if you are not on the stage you are NOT making any money!! We don’t have severance or disability pay.
After assurance that I was doing ok and some small talk you said: ”I got a story to tell you. One day when I was 13-14 years old my Dad took me outside in the garden and pointed up in the tree: “You see that bird, Miles? That’s a mocking bird…..you don’t ever want to be that!” I said to Miles: “Nice story.” You said: ”Yeah, I like that. Take care of yourself.”
Why you told me that and what it meant is still a mystery. But most of all was you reaching out and checking in with me during those dark days. We did get along well and you WERE a nice guy in the end!!
That’s it for now Maestro. As I write on Valentine’s Day I have not seen the movie that is coming out about you. But I did see the trailer and of course I reserve judgment until I see the film in its entirety, but it looks like another tale of an African-American genius who is violent, a drug addict, beats women, etc. Yeah, you had your shit, but Hollywood takes a wart and makes a plague. And if it is again another Hollywood travesty like Bird, Ray Charles, Marvin Gay, Billy Holiday, James Brown, etc., I apologize in front.
So long Maestro….I’ll will be looking for you when my time comes.