Tom’s Music Salon: Happy Birthday Miles Davis

Written by

By KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel:

Today, May 26, would have been Miles Davis 84th birthday.   But Miles Davis never really gets old.  I recently found these pictures, taken in 1955 by Tom Palumbo, an Italian fashion photographer no longer with us, with Miles doing decorating and organizing on his first gym.  He is smiling and guileless in these photos, which I’d never seen before.

Miles Davis photgraphed by Tom Palumbo
Miles Davis photgraphed by Tom Palumbo (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Miles was like Picasso. He was restless, never stayed in the same stylistic place for too long, and constantly reinvented his music.  He rarely stood still.  He started as a young kid in East St. Louis, in a comfortable middle class home. His father raised pigs on the farm and was the Dad every person would like to have:  accepting, kind, generous, loving.  When Miles got strung out on heroin in the early ‘50s, he went home and went cold turkey in the barn.

Miles was always stylish.  Sartorially, he went from ivy league (‘50s) to sleek Italian suits (early to mid ‘60s)  to a more psychedelic look (late ‘60s, ‘70s).  He courted beautiful women, drove Ferraris, two of which he crashed and sustained injuries that plagued him the rest of his life.

One of my favorite songs he did was “On Green Dolphin Street“, written by an obscure Hungarian composer named Bronislau Kaper who came to the US in the mid 1930s.  The film of the same name never got above B status, and he would have been forgotten if Miles had not put his name on the map.  Miles played this song for years.  It’s very interesting to compare the original 1959 version from the original Kind of Blue sessions with the one he recorded with the great quintet (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams) at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago in 1975.   In the latter version, he turns the song inside out, redoing it much the same way Picasso dissected reality in his early cubist period.

When I was hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic and writing my first book, “Stolen Moments,” I was trying to meet Miles.  He lived in Malibu and would roar in driving his yellow Testarossa Ferrari.  I swam there regularly (had a pass because I was an LA County Beach Lifeguard), and hoped to meet him in the pool, help him with his stroke or find some pretext to meet him in an unofficial manner.  My timing was bad.  I never encountered him there.

There is no other like Miles.  He had what the Spanish call “duende”, an untranslatable word that means deep, soul searching, almost mysterious pain.

His solos had whip, coil, and surprise.

He got his way when he asked Columbia Records to put his women on the covers of his albums (ESP, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilaminjaro). You would never know where he would go.  His collaborations with Gil Evans are among the greatest 20th century artistic relationships.

Miles Davis is iconic, a symbol of style, coolness, and creativity.  He will always be with us.

— Tom Schnabel