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“Boxing’s got style like music’s got style,” said Miles Davis. “Joe Louis had a style… and Sugar Ray Robinson had his style – as did Muhammad Ali… But you’ve got to have style in whatever you do – writing, music, painting, fashion, boxing, anything. Some styles are slick and creative and imaginative and innovative and others aren’t.” Miles often likened himself to a boxer. He drew physical parallels between the two worlds – the need for training and discipline, the development of muscle memory, a raw and physical devotion to the craft. Boxing was “like practicing a musical instrument; you have to keep practicing, over and over and over again. A lot of people tell me I have the mind of a boxer…” Some boxing traits he adapted for his own use: when on stage he wore shoes a size too small with very tight laces to keep him gripped and grounded with a sense of place, and he would abstain from sexual encounter or food before a performance to keep himself mean and keen. His health regime was fastidious, his later years monk-like rather than indulgent. He had been vegetarian since the early 1960s (“I figure if horses can eat green shit and be strong and run like motherfuckers, why shouldn’t I?”) and he was holistic enough to indulge macrobiotic dieting and alternative medicine; a deleterious stroke which closed his fist for several months in 1982 and which had remained unresponsive to standard treatment, was cured by acupuncture and herbal medicine. He had a personal trainer throughout his last decade, and Miles himself worked out in the boxing gym from the mid-1950s for nearly twenty years: Gleason’s Gym in the Bronx and Silverman’s Gym in Harlem, where the great champion of post-war America, Sugar Ray Robinson, trained. In fact Sugar Ray was Miles’ inspiration to rid himself of his heroin addiction, cold turkey, when he returned to the spare room of his father’s house. Sugar Ray “in 1954 …was the most important thing in my life besides music. I found myself even acting like him, you know, everything. Even taking on his arrogant attitude.” Sugar Ray was “sharp as a tack,” but when in the ring “he was serious, all business.” Moreover Robinson was free of the mob, rare for his time, he was “cleaner than a motherfucker” and intent on being his own man. Boxing was not only a defining attribute for Miles but also heroic and, importantly, boxing champions were aspirational figures. Miles’ true idols had always been boxers rather than musicians. “I would like for black people to look at me like Joe Louis,” said Miles.
There is an emblematic quality to many of the black, twentieth century boxing greats. Emblems of racial struggle, these pugilist accounts of black ebullience in the face of white prejudice are physical shorthand for struggle and defiance. Jack Johnson’s victory against James L. Jeffries in 1910 (the first “Fight of the Century”) triggered race riots in more than 25 states and 50 cities all across the United States, and Johnson’s personal life swam headstrong against the tide of race convention and form: his taste for fast cars, wine, white women and song (he married three white women and was boastful of his prowess and erectile longevity – best, he said, to “eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts”) was eulogized by Miles Davis in his liner notes for the album Jack Johnson, music he recorded in early 1970 for a documentary film made by Bill Clayton about the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Jack Johnson was fearless. Like all iconoclasts he was a complicated man, highly individual and it is problematic therefore to set him amidst the black protest movement of the time. So too with Davis. His perspective on the Civil Rights Movement and his standing within it became in the 1960s both whimsical and more inspirational. His jazz pedigree and his hardcore persona – embellished by his taciturn disdain for his audience, his peremptory manner with his record company, and through a patina of hard experience and tiresome devotion to his cause – assured his reputation as a potent symbol. He was not afraid to be forthright in media interviews and this, together with his zero tolerance of Jim Crow and audience segregation, afforded him plenty of attention. Miles’ appropriation of the funk and soul musical style that had lit up middle class America, even if vicariously through its mimicry by various white rock and roll bands of the 1960s and 1970s, and his sequestration of the rock and funk chic, was not just musically sound but also socially appropriate and meant that he became a beacon of African American self worth. In a sense he was the cultural equivalent of Jack Johnson, at least as he was perceived in the late 1960s, an example of what Algernon Austin came to call “hypermasculinization,” the manifestation of a need to progress from negro to black, where “black machismo” became the “normative ideal.” Charles Thomas, a founding father of the Association of Black Psychologists, a group founded in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, wrote that only through finding his “blackness” was a man able to find his “competent self,” an engagement that created an African American man who was “aggressive, independent, and at times hostile” in respect of the white social hierarchy; this could indeed be Miles Davis. When asked (much later) by a society lady what he had done to be invited to a White House reception, his reply – that he’d “changed music four or five times, what have you done of any importance other than be white?” – would have been suitably apt, not only to live up to his reputed barbed personality, but also to send ripples of affirmation and association through his coloured fan base and a choreographed shockwave through his white audience, both of whom saw within him the real deal, the man who hung out with both Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, who married black actresses and nearly married the beautiful Juliette Gréco. Miles wrote in his autobiography that he was hated “because I’m black and I don’t compromise, and white people – especially white men – don’t like this in a black person, especially a black man.” This resonates with Johnson’s closing words overdubbed as finale to Clayton’s documentary film: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”
The connection between boxing and jazz is often unspoken but so clearly there, even if by accident. At the beginning of the twentieth century both jazz and boxing might have been frowned upon in respectable society, and participants of both activities as the century progressed may have sought acknowledgement of their worth. Boxing had moved on from bare-knuckle fights and had adopted the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules, referees, stadiums and enticed huge sporting audiences as well as hustlers and gamblers. Jazz had sprung up from the Storyville area of New Orleans, its red light district, and the music remained the natural preserve of clubs, and was well acquainted with the sleazy underworld that prohibition and organised crime revelled in; Earl Hines, whose band was resident at the Grand Terrace Cafe in Chicago in the prohibition years, had to be as adept at chord changes and distributing charts to band members as rolling with the punches of its gang culture, for Al Capone pulled the strings there, and Hines had to survive also many harrowing big band tours in the southern states, run-ins with the police; he even survived a bomb exploding under the bandstand in Alabama (“…we didn’t none of us get hurt but we didn’t play so well after that either”). Both jazz and boxing represented a means to escape from the wrong side of the tracks (Armstrong’s musical gifts gave him direction, ambition and the means to take him away from the Home for Colored Waifs, where he had been sentenced for petty crime and firing a pistol in the street aged only eleven; Terry, the failed boxer in On the Waterfront who had taken a dive to accommodate his hoodlum minders, “coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum…”) And both boxing and jazz came of age through radio broadcast. Miles wrote that all would be “crowded around the radio, waiting to hear the announcer describe Joe [Louis] knocking some motherfucker out. And when he did, the whole goddamn black community of East St. Louis would go crazy…” Similarly Duke Ellington’s ‘jungle music’ broadcast nationwide and weekly on radio station WHN from the Cotton Club was one of the early evangelic tracts of jazz; Earl Hines and his band were broadcast on ‘open mikes’ coast-to-coast sometimes seven nights per week (in fact Hines was the first African American to perform live on radio, in 1921 with singer Lois Deppe). Naturally the architecture of both boxing and jazz affords individuality and improvisation, and, especially in its earlier days, the ethos of the jazz world echoed the prize fighter’s, with ‘cutting sessions’ or competitive jam sessions held in rent houses between musicians passing through with the touring big bands and their indigenous rivals. Jack Johnson (Miles claimed that he “prized a 7 ft. bass fiddle on which he’d proudly thump jazz” – in fact he detested jazz!) opened a nightclub in Harlem in 1920 and sold it three years later to a mobster and moonshine merchant, Owney Madden; Madden renamed it the Cotton Club and Johnson continued to manage there for a while. Fletcher Henderson was its first resident bandleader, Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians, with Bubber Miley, resident from 1927. Also Johnson it was who recorded for Ajax Records: “The Superior Race Record” was Ajax’s marketing logo, jazz and blues impresario Joe Davis its talent scout, and the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Marnie Smith its recording artists. And if not diehard jazz, then certainly softer edged minstrel music for white pocket money is linked historically to the world of boxing. Many world champions opened night clubs; Sugar Ray Robinson retired for three years to concentrate on a singing and dancing career; even Muhammad Ali was nominated for two Grammy Awards and Joe Frazier sang and performed on Miller Lite adverts.
The crowning achievement that linked Davis’ love of boxing with jazz is the album that he recorded from early 1969 to summer 1970, Jack Johnson, one of the truly vital albums in the Davis discography. It was a project that Miles undertook with relish, spending much time reading, discussing and watching archive footage of the boxer; just as he had always kept his trumpet by his side during classes at the Juilliard, a musical placebo so that he could hear the notes he read on a score better, so too he kept a portrait of the boxer by his bedside, as if to get to the core of the man. This also was the only time that Miles himself invested energy in writing his own accompanying liner notes, an indication of the album’s heartfelt intention. Of all Miles’ rock based albums this is the one that carries most spontaneity, propelled at all times by John McLaughlin’s raw and dirty guitar sounds; indeed it was kick-started by a jam session between three of the musicians idle in the studio, Miles rushing from the control room to join them. The finished artefact was an elaborate, woven pleat of mix and match recordings, spliced together seemingly at times like a dog’s dinner by Davis and his long-standing producer Teo Macero. Yet the urgency and thrill of the sessions survived, and the LP, lengthy for its time, was released with just two tracks: the first Right Off, was based on a Sly and the Family Stone riff from Sing A Simple Song, the second, Yesternow, borrowed the bass lines of James Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud; outtakes were recorded citing boxers as titles (including Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali). The music is a tour de force, and to hear it set against visual footage of Johnson makes perfect sense. Davis likened the punches that Johnson packed to a train in full flight, and such urgent force and frenetic motion is so well delineated.