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ARCHIVE   Classic Interview

DownBeat  /  January 27, 1950  /  By Pat Harris

Nothing but Bop? ‘Stupid,’ Says Miles

This is DownBeat’s first interview with Miles Davis.

NEW YORK— “I don’t like to hear someone put down dixieland. Those people who say there’s no music but bop are just stupid; it just shows how much they don’t know.” This was Miles Davis speaking, and he rose to defend the universality of jazz, while decrying the much less than universal respect given the jazz musician.

Miles, whose definitely modern trumpet has been heard for the last month at the Hi-Note here, is a mild, modest, quiet young man of 23, and he has a lot of respect for his elders.

“Sidney Bechet—we played opposite him at the Paris jazz festival last year—played some of the things Charlie Parker plays, particularly a riff on ‘Ko-Ko.’ We talked to Bechet for some time over there, and asked him where he had gotten the riff. He told us it was from an old march, and had been transposed from a flute or clarinet part. I’ve heard Parker do a lot of things that show a Bechet influence, and Johnny Hodges, too.

“No, I’ve never played dixieland myself. When I was growing up I played like Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Freddie Webster and anyone else I admired. You’ve got to start way back there before you can play bop. You’ve got to have a foundation.”

When Miles went to New York and to Juilliard in 1945, 52nd Street was in its heyday. Coleman Hawkins was working on the Street, and Joe Guy was with him on trumpet. But half the time Guy didn’t show up, so Miles sat in. He was working pretty steadily, without pay, and going to school all day. Then his wife (he married at 17) came to New York, and Miles had to look around for a job that would include a paycheck.

First one he found was at the Spotlite, with tenorist Eddie Davis; Rudy Williams, alto; Ernie Washington, piano; Leonard Gaskin, bass; and Eddie Nicholson, drums. He had been playing there anyhow on the nights Guy did show up for Hawkins, so he just moved in on a business basis. This job lasted a month.

Most of the bands Miles has worked with were similar units, and the jobs were none too steady. He ruefully describes his life as months of no work, interspersed every quarter year or so with a two-week job.

“I’ve worked so little,” Miles says, “I could probably tell you where I was playing any night in the last three years.”

It doesn’t seem to bother him very much, though. He likes to play what he believes is non-commercial bop; a middle-register horn, subdued and soft, with a many-noted complexity few other trumpeters can match.

“I play high when I work with a big band,” Miles says, “but prefer not to. A lot of trumpeters, Gillespie is one, have trouble controlling their tone when they play low. I don’t want to have that trouble.”

Davis worked at Minton’s with Sir Charles [Charlie Parker] and a drummer for a short time, and also played, for pay this time, with Coleman Hawkins. Then, two years after he went to New York, Miles quit school and went home to East St. Louis, Ill.

Benny Carter was playing the Riviera in St. Louis, and Miles joined him for the trip to the West Coast. Parker was on the coast then. Miles and Charlie are very close friends, Charlie having lived with the Davises for a while in New York in 1945. Miles says that when he plays with Parker or with Lee Konitz, “it sounds like one horn.”

When the Royal Roost opened, Miles went in with Allen Eager, Kai Winding, Tadd Dameron, Max Roach and Curley Russell. His second date at the Roost was with a 10-piece band, including Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Roach, Al McKibbon, John Lewis, Junior Collins, trombonist Ted Kelly and Bill Barber on tuba. Pancho Hagood sang with the unit. The first Roost date lasted eight weeks; the second, two.

The Capitol recording contract followed, with eight sides cut. Those issued already are “Move/Budo,” Godchild/Jeru” and “Boplicity/Israel.” The fourth release, “Venus De Milo/Rouge,” will be out soon. On Miles’ first recording, a blues with Herbie Fields, he says, “I couldn’t be heard, ’count of I played into a mute and was frightened.” He’s recorded a number of sides with Parker, including a couple of albums, and some things including “Milestones” and “Half Nelson” under his own name on Savoy.

On the Parker tune “Ko-Ko,” Dizzy Gillespie was playing piano and had to double on trumpet for Miles because Miles said he was too nervous to play. The label has Miles’ name on it as trumpet, and has caused some confusion.

The Eckstine band, he believes, was the best of all modern units, with the possible close second of Claude Thornhill’s band when Gil Evans was writing for it and Lee Konitz was in the reed section.

“Thornhill had the greatest band of these modern times,” Miles says, “except for Eckstine, and he destroyed it when he took out the tuba and the two french horns. It was commercially good and musically good. For the Capitol records I made last year, I wanted to get a band as close to the sound Evans writes for as I could.

“I’m going to try to get Evans to do four more arrangements for our next record date with Capitol, and have John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan do some writing, too. I’ll use the same instrumentation, and the same men.”

Miles’ favorite musicians, who form a huge, formidably heterogeneous group, including Lewis, whose composing and arranging skills he greatly admires; Evans; Will Bradley, “who writes like Stravinsky”; Parker; Konitz; Freddie Webster; Vic Coleson (who worked with Hawkins before Joe Guy, and is now out of the business); Fats Navarro, whose ability to play high and fast and still sound pretty he finds amazing; Bechet; Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong; Gillespie, who Miles says is still progressing; and on and on.

In fact, it would be difficult to find a musician for whom the easygoing Miles wouldn’t have a good word.

He has nothing good to say, however, about band promoters (“look what they’ve done to Dizzy”) and club operators. The night club operators especially. “They don’t treat musicians with enough respect,” Miles complains. “They think all jazz musicians are irresponsible drunkards.” DB




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