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The personas of Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali have fascinated the world always. Both men are iconic: you would expect to see them in any poster shop in any far-flung corner of the world for both are visually beautiful and there is a magnetic allure attached to each. If they moved, eyes followed them; if they spoke, a room was silent; and if they ran their fingers over the valves of a trumpet or skipped and shuffled across a boxing ring, the world stood still and watched. Miles died twenty-five years ago, Ali boxed last at the highest level forty-one years ago, yet their presence is overwhelming to this day. Interestingly both are known by names that suggest an intimacy that has lasted even after their careers and lives were over, as though we know them still: Miles, Ali.
Davis’ character is pitted intensely on to his face, his coiled silhouette too; his face is a chiselled portrait of brooding pain, his frame is as curved and arched as his trumpet and stretched as taut as a snare drum. Miles was the coolest man on the planet, natty Italian suits in a jazz club, cravatted in a studio, robed as rock star manque, framed always with menace and intent. He was referred to readily as the Prince of Darkness and not just because he famously turned his back upon his audience and spoke little; stories of his intransigence, his peevish and capricious nature, his meanness and fits of violence litter his biography, though so too tales of kindness and friendship. His cracked voice, said to be the result of losing his temper after surgery on his throat, was in turn amusingly petulant or quizzical, the sound of emery paper being rubbed against glass or metal.
Ali was almost transcendent, certainly preternatural. His face was smooth and velvet, his body masculine and marbled, graceful and, for all the steam and aggression his sport represents, he is still the epitome of all that is gentle and beautiful. This is counter-intuitive, yet everything about Ali was counter-intuitive. He was supposedly a punch-drunk boxer yet he stalked the limelight like a matinee hoofer; at school he graduated 376th in a year of 391 yet he ran rings round inquisitors of his draft dodging with a bravado, a brio and a simple and coherent logic that stumped white America; he boxed with such a wayward technique and scant defence yet he rarely took a tumble, and when he did he returned to his feet like an improbable bungee jumper. Feted as the most famous man on the planet throughout the 1960s and 1970s, his forceful demeanour displayed no hint of weakness, yet he was possessed often by an honest and frail humility even if it was cloaked with commercial chutzpah; his tongue was as relentless as his left jab. When met by the Beatles at their high tide, when the first six places in the American single’s chart were theirs and when Ali was written off as an arrogant and ne’er-do-well contender before he met Sonny Liston for a world title fight, it is Ali who stole the show.
I am yet to find any meeting between the two men, although their lives and experiences would have dovetailed. Miles’ boxing hero and great friend was Sugar Ray Robinson (Miles boxed at Silverman’s Gym in Harlem, where Robinson trained), and Sugar Ray it was who was courted initially to be Ali’s manager; Miles’ personal trainer in the late 1960s was Bobby Allah, a retired boxer who had known Ali before he was world champion; Ali’s doctor was guest of honour at a party Miles hosted in late 1975; his close childhood friend, trumpeter Clark Terry, had Archie Moore as best friend, a boxer Ali admired, had trained with, and fought against in the early 1960s; and so on, cross references abound. An Ali and Miles encounter almost probably should have happened, but if it didn’t then it is hardly surprising for America is a large enough continent, and both men were feted worldwide, international and shop window figures and as such zigzagged busily from arena to arena, continent to continent. The closest they ever came to meeting that I can see was in March 1971 at Madison Square Garden, the occasion of course allocated “Fight of the Century” billing when Ali was to attempt first to regain his world championship crown that had been taken away from him in 1967. Miles Davis is photographed at the ringside as a front row celebrity (and as a fevered boxing fan himself). In the media jostle before the fight begins, the TV commentators ask Miles who he believes will win the fight. Disappointingly he gambles for Joe Frazier, the defending champion; Muhammad Ali was the romantic choice, seen at the time as the king over the water, and as Miles is a figure who is often at odds with the white-dominated entertainment industry and who makes very provocative statements himself, you would have thought that he would have sided, at least emotionally or out of loyalty, with Ali. Of course his hunch is proven right: Smokin’ Joe Frazier is exultant and Ali is shown to be ring rusty after his boxing absence and his lustreless display against Oscar Bonavena just three months before.
If Miles and Ali were not exactly contemporaneous (Miles was born in 1926, sixteen years before Ali), their timelines shadow each other significantly. Curiously the midpoints of their respective careers coincide. Miles came of age in 1949 and 1950 with the recording sessions for Birth of the Cool, he dies in 1991 still touring actively; Ali won his first world title in 1964, he boxes last at the highest level in 1975. So the midpoint of both their careers is in fact 1970. For both Miles and Ali the years leading up to 1970 witness their careers in crisis, even in jeopardy. So 1970 is a pivotal year for both, not just because it is the midway point, but also because there is a need for reinvention. And this reinvention perhaps can be focused to one month: August 1970.
In August 1970, Ali, whose world championship boxing title had been taken away from him for his refusal to accept the army draft, was granted a license to fight in Atlanta after a federal court victory in New York has reinstated his boxing license (his conviction is not to be overturned until the next year). He had in his sights a boxer with strong credentials to be one of the finest ever, a worthy world champion in Joe Frazier, undefeated as a professional and an Olympic gold medal winner in 1964 (just as Ali had won a gold in the Rome Olympics of 1960). When 22, Ali had avoided his army conscription because he failed the writing and reading tests in his military exam. (He quipped humourously that “I told you I was the greatest, not the smartest.”) Throughout the decade the army lowered its standards as the need for young men to fight in Vietnam became exaggerated, and he was issued notice of conscription in 1966. His response was that he would rather go to jail than fight the “Vietcong,” and for the last year of his championship reign he was forced to arrange most of his fights abroad as American states withdrew from him their license to fight. When called for his induction to Houston in April 1967, he refused to step forward at the call of his name in total four times; in June 1967 he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for draft evasion and received a $10,000 fine. A bond was paid and he remained a free man whilst his U.S. Supreme Court appeal was underway. This means that for more than three years Ali did not box whilst at the height of his career.
If the accolade of being the “greatest” is disputed ever, Ali could at least lay claim without contradiction to have been the most athletic and graceful athlete to box ever. To watch him dance through his mid-1960s fights is a wonderful thrill: agile and balanced, he is balletic charm peppered with bellicose explosion. During his boxing holiday Ali toured the United States speaking out against the Vietnam War, taking on all and sundry in the television studio, the newspaper press and the university campus. The tide of public opinion was to turn and Ali’s stance attracted less opprobrium as the decade unfolded; as the Vietnam escapade unhinged the American resilience and as the conscience of the nation’s youth moved in ever more doubting circles, Ali was at last seen by many to have been standing on the right side of the fence.
Also in August 1970, the third Isle of Wight Festival took place. The rock festival programme included a galaxy of headline acts, its net had been cast wide to catch the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Joan Baez and ELP amongst many others. A late addition to the bill was Miles Davis, riding high on the recent successful release of Bitches Brew (“a midlife crisis played out through experimental jazz,” said drummer Jack de Johnette, not inappropriately) yet skirting with career danger as he had set his musical stool too far into thoroughbred rock territory for all to follow, his impulse to chase an audience, a dramatic gesture in its intention and execution. Encouraged by his wife Bette, his rock and funk influences and friendships included Jimi Hendrix (whose music previously he had not know and with whom it was planned he should record – with Paul McCartney), James Brown and Sly Stone. This rock courtship was a reinvention of himself, a much needed rite of passage as jazz became a minority sport, its venues and hinterland in retreat and assaulted by both rock and a new style of recording technique. Jazz, with its berets and shades, flattened fifths and its coterie club land, was in comparison old hat and dull, and its economy reflected that. Hereafter Miles refused any jazz prescription (for Miles jazz was dead, he came to refer to it as “social music”), surrounding himself with funk, the National Grid, wah-wah pedals and, for this occasion on the Isle of Wight, his first foray before a devoted rock audience (supposedly 600,000 were present), a trumpet coated in black lacquer, perhaps his own customized variant of the Hendrix Stratocaster. His new vocabulary, demeanour and ward-robe became appropriate to his new lifestyle. After a career hiatus from 1975, caused by exhaustion and illness, his return to the public arena six years later saw him feted as a true rock star, the culmination of a near fifty-year career whose trajectory was always one of restless innovation and forward momentum.
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There is a level of one’s experience of Miles Davis that can never be classified or resolved. In his day he was a promoter’s pay cheque and the jazz world’s bonanza; since he died he has become an historian’s field day, a discographer’s delight, and, for raconteurs, prime source material. Feted as the most innovative jazz musician of all time, his musical achievements weave a rich tapestry. More important than what he did, however, was what he stood, and still stands, for. And what he stands for is the momentum of the moment.
Miles walked off the stage at the Isle of Wight Festival, random and unscripted after 34 minutes; his band follow him desultory style. But he had been contracted to play for the full hour. This act confirmed for him a habit of his lifetime: he was so often disdainful of formulaic expectation and this element of surprise is writ large throughout his life. In the recording studio he would rehearse his band with one set of charts and then spring another on them at the last moment; his set lists were impromptu; his choice of musician was serendipitous, even casual – he would decide on a band member based on a few, instinctive minutes of their playing or how they held their instrument. If the architecture of his musical life was fluid and based on surprise, so to unsurprisingly was his performance.
During the Isle of Wight concert Miles stood gladiatorial and bold, bemused perhaps by the rapt stillness of the crowd but quietly confident in the thrust of his music and attentive always to the moment. His bands throughout his kaleidoscopic career were required to think in circular motion rather than be restricted to any linear construct: “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.” Finality was always one step ahead. His blithe musical wind down and nonchalant exit from the stage [from 33:15mins] is demure theatricality, understated and lackadaisical, so of the moment, so at one with his generous and creative spirit, that it whets a pang for fulfilment and becomes also an aftermath of wonder. It was unlikely that the Isle of Wight performance was truncated because he felt the audience was growing restless (in fact the band had been received by thunderous applause) or that he wanted to leave its appetite keen rather than sated. His motivation must have been simply that at the time it just felt like the right thing to do, to indulge in an aesthetic choice of the moment and to leave finality one step ahead.
So, too, with Ali, and witness the crucial point of his most important fight, against George Foreman in 1974 when he has his second (and this time successful) tilt at regaining the world title. Ali had been declared an underdog worldwide, just as when, ten years earlier, he had fought Sonny Liston, a barbarous boxer who was at the behest of the mob and whose gloves were primed like a mobster’s machine gun. This time round Ali was held to be too old, too slow, no killer punch, a shadow of his past; Foreman, like Liston, was a brutal boxer, a gloved and ravening ball in a nine-pin bowling alley who felled all who came his way. Norman Mailer’s account of Ali’s backstage charisma and self-belief is jaw-dropping: his training camp, like the press, had issued him all but last rites and could barely look him in the eye. Yet his pre-fight address was compelling and inspirational. His training, as reported by Mailer, had been strange if not lacklustre. Ali had made no great effort; he had spent time soaking up punishment from his sparring partners, being hit and leaning on the ropes and certainly not indulging the proactive sparring expected of a world championship contender. He had, however, worked hard to belittle Foreman and galvanize the crowds in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Congo); so too in his dressing room he whipped his entourage into last minute support, almost as though the fight itself would turn on intent and self-belief rather than fitness and strength. The fight itself is a tactical masterclass, one of those rare brilliant and defining moments of twentieth century sport when David overcomes Goliath. Ali taunts and angers Foreman in the first round with an audacious and coruscating drove of boxing embarrassment: he strikes Foreman outrageously with six right hand leads, boxing of the highest order and bold effrontery that sits Foreman in a humiliating ducking stool. Ali blocks up a lengthy wake of retaliatory and intemperate punishment from the shamed Foreman, and for seven rounds Ali rests on the ropes – a slovenly style of boxing called rope-a-dope, just as he had rehearsed in his training (and as had inexpertly practised against Joe Frazier in 1971) – supposedly the act of a beaten boxer. But his intent was to tire his younger and stronger opponent until, with twenty seconds left of round eight, as he chisels Foreman weakly with his gloves and spins his tired and beaten opponent, he moves away from the ropes and lands five telling punches in rapid succession as the disorientated Foreman follows the Pied Piper Ali into the centre of the ring. The last right-handed punch rocks Foreman to his core. Foreman twists around Ali and Ali recoils. Ali’s reaction is best seen on the second camera angle, which is shown in slow motion after the referee has stopped the fight and both boxers’ camps had rushed clamourous into the ring. Foreman’s dazed and twisting loop before tumbling to the floor is a man in free fall. And as Ali follows Foreman’s cascading contour, his right glove is closed and his forearm is cocked ready to strike another blow. Norman Mailer it was who, at this point, observed that Ali resists the impulse to strike again. Of course Ali is tired beyond belief, but still he decides in a split second to pull back and to let Foreman fall unaided, as if the magic of the moment should not be tarnished. This is where, ultimately, Muhammad Ali meets Miles Davis: when the task to hand is allowed to hang in the air above careless intervention, consideration or concern. As Miles departs the Isle of Wight stage, as Ali allows Foreman to clatter to the floor like crashed crockery, the impulse is that the momentum of the moment holds sway.