Miles & Ornette: Observers of first-class misery

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ornette-coleman-miles-davisMiles Davis and Ornette Coleman are so well-known to jazz aficionados — and even regular folk — that you can just call them by their first names and most people will know who you’re talking about.

Their musical styles were very different, almost contradictory.  Miles mastered chord sequences and scales, then threw it all away; Ornette had his own “harmolodic” theory and practice, where all notes were cool no matter how they clashed.

Each were great composers, however, having written songs that are covered and recorded all the time by jazz musicians.

Ornette, like Miles, went electric ten years after him, in the 1980s with his band Prime Time. But he didn’t attempt to embrace rock stardom like Miles. Davis loved Jimi Hendrix, and once asked a colleague, “If Jimi can make $50,000 in a single concert, why am I only making $10,000?” Ornette, for his part, was asking $100,000 per concert in his later years, but was rarely booked.

I recently read a book of interviews with Miles called Miles on Miles. There was one passage where the trumpeter was musing on wealthy white patrons that he observed on a first-class boat passage to Europe (probably on a French Line ship such as the S.S. France or maybe a Cunard Ship). He said they all were rich but looked like “sorry-ass m…f’s”.

Remember Miles came from a well-to-do family, as his dad and grandfather were both landowners of thousands of acres in Alton and East St. Louis, Ill. Any perceived animus toward white people didn’t come from money-envy. Rather, it came from racism he endured: from his treatment at the Waldorf-Astoria while dining with Juliette Greco; getting clubbed by a drunken policeman outside the Blue Note jazz club, which he was playing (Miles even pointed to his name on the marquee but the cop didn’t know from Adam); from being insulted while at a White House ceremony by some dumbbell woman who asked him who he was, as to why was he there.

Miles lived for himself, indulging his fancies. He wanted and knew how to enjoy life, with music, beautiful women, fine cars, and first class travel. It was on a luxury liner in the first class section that Miles wondered why the rich people there looked miserable. These were rich white people. Miles may well have been the only black passenger in first class.

Meanwhile Ornette Coleman, from Fort Worth, Texas, came to Los Angeles in the early 1950s after a disastrous tour of the South, recently after he was beaten and his horn was thrown into a river. Arriving in L.A. and needing a job, he got a regular gig as an elevator operator at an upscale department store,  L.A.’s original Bullock’s Downtown at 7th & Broadway. He would park the elevator car on emergency stop on the 6th floor and work on his music. Walking through the women’s haberdashery one day, he saw a finely dressed woman trying on clothing and looking incredibly sad. He returned later to the 6th floor and wrote his most famous song “Lonely Woman” for his epochal album Shape of Jazz to Come.

So Miles and Ornette were not totally different. Some odd things in life bound them together.