On Miles Davis’ Passing On (written after the funeral 1991)

If I had to sum up Miles Davis in one word, it was timing. For example in the musical sense playing eighth notes directly in the middle of the beat. Or knowing when to hire someone new, just having a feel for change. Even in the dramatic pacing of his life, like those retrospective concerts he performed two months before he died, he knew when to do things—when and who and what to use in his life—and when to bow out….the ultimate producer/director. Everything he did, he did with an incredible sense of timing.

Miles had always been at the edge of the music, staying current, always searching. In the 1980s, when he was in his 50s and 60s, at times his health may have prohibited him from doing too much, but he took the time to do other things than music. He became more outgoing, more willing to share his knowledge and wisdom. He gave many interviews in those last few years and talked openly. He co-authored his biography and got heavily into painting, at a pretty high level by the way. I felt that in his last ten years Miles was acting more like a grand master of the art than he ever had before.

My mother noticed an article in the New York Times in August saying Miles Davis was ill in California with the nature of the illness not disclosed.  For me, he was always in the hospital so that wasn’t alarming. What was scary was to read that his ailment was not reported and that his family would not talk about it.

Miles had been touring all summer right through the end of August. In July he performed two serious events: one produced by Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival that celebrated the music that Gil Evans and Miles did together. The other in Paris was even more special: a small group situation that focused on Miles and his former sidemen, from Jackie McLean to Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Jon Scofield and Kenny Garrett, playing things like “All Blues” and “In A Silent Way.” He received the Legion of Honor award from the French….their top award—it was a big summer.

These concerts were truly remarkable. Both would have to be considered retrospective, something Miles had refused to do in the past. When he returned from his hiatus in the ‘80s, he was offered a million dollars from the Japanese to reunite with Herbie, Tony, Ron, and Wayne…..the great second quintet. He wouldn’t do it. Instead it became the group VSOP, with Freddie Hubbard playing trumpet. Miles refused because it wasn’t in his nature to look backward. He looked upon these retrospective events with skepticism.

The day after Miles died there was a concert close to where I live in Pennsylvania  with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock. It was a really great performance. After the show I went backstage and we were all sitting there shocked. Jack said, “The thing that we all got from him is to: “Stay on course, and don’t let anybody throw you.”  I asked if anyone had heard anything about the funeral. He said, “No.  But they would have to have it in Madison Square Garden.”

That Wednesday, I got a call from Jim Rose in George Wein’s office. He had been Miles’ road manager while I was in the band and for many years after. “It’s an invitation-only memorial service. Can you come?” The service was at St. Peter’s Church on 54th Street and Lexington Avenues where Reverend John Gensel had presided over jazz memorial services for so many jazz players—Coltrane, Monk, etc.  It’s a well-known church, very modern, almost non-denominational. The service was on that Saturday, a week after Miles died.

When I arrived, it felt like Hollywood. The press was lined up outside, lots of limousines. everywhere and so on. Inside, it was like Miles was there. They had gigantic pictures of him playing, receiving the medal from the Knights of Malta, all looking great and smiling.  It was so dramatic. It was also eerie in a way because it’s a large church and they had the speakers on low, playing  “All Blues” and other tunes, while the whole place was hushed.  Everyone was quiet. I was sitting next to Monty Alexander. We just looked at each other and I said, “Oh God, this is so weird.”

I looked around in the room. I’d say there were four or five hundred people—quite a few I didn’t know, and a lot of the musicians from my period with Miles whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years, as well as familiar faces like Jack DeJonette, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and Herbie Hancock. I realized the common bond between all of us was we had been with Miles when we were young and impressionable, not fully formed. For each of us, he had been our first big break. That bonded the fifty or so musicians attending who were lucky to have played with him over the past forty-five years.

David Dinkins, New York’s mayor at the time, was the first of many speakers. He called Miles the quintessential New Yorker, saying that he had had come from East St. Louis to attend Juilliard and lived here all his life. Quincy Jones talked about how Miles was his great idol way back in the ‘40s and 50s. Max Roach spoke about how they’d been together for years and how he helped Miles kick dope. Others talked about his influence, about his personality….how he was good looking, a great dresser, the cars, women, and boxing.  They talked about how charismatic he was.

Bill Cosby, being Mr. Entertainer, was the best. He lightened the atmosphere immediately: “It’s OK to applaud,” he said. “Miles is fine, everything is OK.” Then he told some great stories. He said that news of what Miles did at 3:00 in the morning in a club in New York would get to Philadelphia by 3:30. The cats would all be running around talking about what he wore, what he played, who he hired, who he fired. Bill: “That’s how important he was.”

At one point, Cosby was saying that some people said Miles had AIDS. Then he said, “But in what order? It took fifteen things to knock this guy off.”  It was true. It was an incredible testament to Miles’ strength. He was a frail person in some ways but in more ways he was very strong.  There were always those two sides to him—he was a boxer who he had a hip replacement, sickle cell anemia, diabetes. I heard that seven strokes in a 24-hour period was the final bell.

I would say Jesse Jackson was the best speaker, I had never heard him speak live but immediately you could tell this guy was a trained speaker—loud, a real preacher with a voice like the Force. He gave a written eulogy, finishing with a beautiful poetic analogy for Miles. “He was our music man…blowing out of his horn, out of his soul” and so on. It was extremely uplifting.

Finally, Quincy got back up and said, “I’m going to show a little bit of this Gil Evans film from Montreux.” At first it was so strange.  Miles got up to play, he’s smiling and waving, but there was no sound.  Then the actual performance of “Summertime” came on. He played the melody and one chorus—and that was how the service ended after about one and one-half hours. I am sure everyone feared that it would be disorganized but in the end it was dignified and inspiring. It had not been a circus.

Afterward, everybody hung out, and it kind of cemented the bond between those of us who had actually worked with him. James Williams came by and said, “I guess school is out.” Wayne Shorter had a great smile on his face: “I saw Miles…he visited me… everything is OK.  Don’t worry, everything’s ok.”  I felt that summed up what we all were feeling—which was that Miles left when he wanted to leave. Although he had only been 65, he had lived a good, full life and he checked out at a good time. Look what the man left behind.

I agree with Wayne and Cos. It was not a tragedy—it was really OK. That was how I felt, and that’s how I will feel forever I’m sure.

Miles requested that he be buried next to Duke Ellington in Woodmere Cemetery in the Bronx. I think it’s fitting that they are together because if anyone affected 20th century music through the voice of jazz, it’s definitely those two artists. With a few other cats (Bird, Pops), they are still head and shoulders above everybody for what they accomplished by bringing jazz into the world.