The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Miles Davis battled various physical ailments throughout the last twenty years of his life until his death in 1991. He had spent five years sidelined in the late 1970s, holed up in his apartment with rotting food in his fridge and cockroaches on the floor, reclusive and in physical pain: a life of drug appetite, sexual peccadillo, being beaten and arrested in 1959 by the New York police, being shot by hoodlums having left a club in 1969, two broken legs when he crashed his Lamborghini in 1972, relentless travel and concert engagements, all had left him fatigued and indolent. An accumulation of ulcers, a hernia, sickle-cell anemia, depression, bursitis, and multiple hip replacements in the mid-1970s were compounded by worsening and numerous narcotic and sexual addictions, and led to an exhausted hiatus from performance; Rolling Stone even ran a story reporting his near death in 1976. The years immediately prior to early retirement were marked by a reluctance to play his trumpet much on stage, a disdainful turning of his back to the audience, ham-fisted and frenetic attacks on his stage keyboard, and a steely-eyed glare at his band to cajole. Yet both his playing and his band had remained remarkably fresh and truly vibrant even amidst such physical torment, and in many ways 1975 was a grandstanding year.
He returned to performance in 1981 with a ring rusty and slipshod embouchure. He was barely able to stand through a concert and he remained solemn and brooding, living up to his nickname as the Prince of Darkness, yet keen to be the still centre of his new and exciting band. I have come to see it more and more as the best band he ever had, not only because of its ability to play for each other and adapt as its membership changed, but also because its ethos dovetailed Miles’s musical philosophy so perfectly. “When I’m playing,” said Miles, “I’m never through, it’s unfinished, I like to find a place to leave for someone else to finish it, that’s where the high comes in.” His final decade was remarkable as he gained strength: he toured the world, was feted as a rock star, and still so supremely confident that it was of no concern if he chose to play without concession at the Grammy Awards ceremony to a bemused, if respectful, audience of rock grandees. Derided often by diehard jazz fans, he renewed his concentration on melody, seeking not just to chase an audience but to move forward, and he came to despair of the term “jazz,” he preferred the term “social music.” Personally provocative and still keen to harangue those less keen than him to move on, his put down of Wynton Marsalis, ordering him off the stage after his uninvited walk on during a concert in Vancouver in 1986, was the definitive Miles, angry to the end.
If Duke Ellington, in Brian Priestley’s words, “cannibalized” the members of his band, honing his compositions for their specific musical personalities, Davis sought to set his band free of all restriction. He cited how his choice of musician – and Miles was mercurial as a talent spotter, a stay in his band was an assured catapult to stardom – was determined by how the musician picked up his instrument, if it seemed natural to him, if its contours resembled the musician’s body. He entreated them to play less rather than more: “If you jump on a horse and see he’s on the wrong foot, you keep checking him until he gets to the fence – that’s what I do when I’m playing.” And he sought for that streamlined reticence in his band, and he sought to create ebb and flow. In his last decade, a weak Miles (it is often rumoured that he was battling AIDS) resorted more and more to play his band as his instrument, and here is Miles with his band in their last performance together (although Miles was to perform publicly one more time, he was dead within a few weeks). Even though it is Kenny Garrett who takes the soloist’s limelight, it is Miles, of course, as éminence grise who sets first the melodic tone of the solo, and who then is the engine driver behind the stoker, stopping the train from stampeding to a crash as he holds back the band and then releases them near the end with a final flourish. And he’s at his best.