Miles trumpets with style
New York — `PEOPLE ask me, `Why did you play ``Time After Time''? Are you going pop?' When I used to play `Bye, Bye Blackbird' and `My Funny Valentine,' nobody said anything.'' Veteran trumpeter Miles Davis, who rose to prominence during the heyday of bebop and has now single-mindedly moved ahead with the times, leaned back into the sofa in his gray-carpeted split-level Manhattan apartment and made it clear that he plays what he likes, and if it happens to be Cyndi Lauper's hit ``Time After Time'' or Michael Jackson's ``Human Nature,'' well ... so what?
The interview was supposed to have taken place over lunch at the Carlyle Hotel. But when the limo hired by Mr. Davis's press agent drove the two of us around to pick him up, he had changed his mind. Instead, we were invited up to his apartment.
``You've got 20 minutes,'' said Davis, as I reached for my tape recorder. ``Ohhh,'' he said, when he saw the recorder. I sat down next to him on the sofa and pulled out the mike. He moved back, then got up and walked away.
Now what? I had heard about Miles Davis's reputation for being uncooperative and sometimes rude with the press.
Well, 2 hours later, after talking congenially about his music and other matters, demonstrating some chord patterns on his Yamaha DX7 synthesizer (``Do you want to take a lesson?'' he asked, laughing), graciously showing me his imaginative and colorful drawings and paintings, and even letting me try on some of his designer jackets and coats, he growled, ``Your 20 minutes are up.''
We were supposed to talk about the Miles Davis television special, ``Great Performances,'' coming up on PBS (Oct. 17, 9-10 p.m.), but when I asked him about it, he said he hadn't seen it yet. ``I don't know how the idea came up,'' he said. ``They asked me to do it. I probably won't like it.''
Why? ``Because what you see yourself doing doesn't look the same as you think you look. ... You know what I mean? I'm not so sure I want to see it right away.''
The next day I had a chance to preview the show, a thoughtfully produced and deftly edited musical journey that traces Davis's career from his youth in St. Louis in the 1930s up through his New York years, where he studied at Juilliard during the day and played on 52nd Street at night with Charlie Parker, and on through his own groups, up to the present. Davis himself appears on screen, talking about his career and his music.
In person Davis looks fit, sipping mineral water and eating sugar-free candies. His bout a decade ago with various health problems, including injuries from an auto accident, kept him out of music for more than five years.
``I was sick,'' said Davis. ``I was an alcoholic. I took a lot of coke. If I had kept on playing, I'd be dead.''
Asked if he had thought about music during his illness and recovery, he said, ``No, I didn't think about it. I put it out of my mind.'' But he added that when he came back, it was with a fresh, new approach.
Davis's way of playing and living these days has a lot to do with style and keeping up with the times. He has the air of a man who fits comfortably into everything he does, and he gives the impression that those things fit him to a T -- music, drawings, clothes. In fact, references to clothes pop up constantly in his conversation. We got into a discussion about the old and new in music, and he jumped in with the remark that when you're not keeping up with the times, you end up with ``bell-bottom music.''
Davis's wardrobe is a matter of pride, and he happily invited me to take a close look at his beautiful jackets, many of them made in exquisite fabrics that look like soft bird feathers, or shimmer with silver and gold threads, or sparkle with tiny reflective black studs. He has an eye for design -- both in his clothes and his drawings -- that's not unlike his ear for musical notes and chords. ``Some people look wrong in these new clothes,'' he said. ``Music is the same way. I play styles. If it's reggae, I play reggae. If it's calypso, I play calypso -- I don't play the blues [when I play] `My Funny Valentine.' When you play styles, you'll always be up to date, but ... I won't force [one] style on top of another style. It's like wearing a sweater over a tuxedo.''
He was displeased with the picture of himself that appeared on the back of the latest Billboard magazine, a promotional photo for his new album ``Tutu,'' because it didn't show his clothes. He remarked, ``I can't play if I don't have the right clothes on!''
Some Davis fans who fondly remember his days with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are upset by his foray into the world of rock, funk, and fusion. But Davis is undaunted. He's found ways of expanding his sound through electronics, and he's fascinated with the potential. ``What electronics does is push the melody right in your face. With acoustics, the sound is gone..., but with electronics the note can go on....''
Davis finds electronics a help in the recording studio, too, where things can sometimes get pretty tense (``It's like walking a tightrope,'' he says). There a synthesizer can prove more manageable than a human collaborator. ``That way you don't have to look at 11 guys and say, play this....''
But would Davis do a live performance with a bunch of machines? ``No, I like to play off people.'' Musicians, he said, ``feel like they haven't done anything if they don't feel that `Yes!' when they play. That happens when you play off each other.'' As he thought about this, Davis mused about whether someday it might be possible, by some electronic invention, to extract music from the air, music that had been played at some time in the past but had never been recorded.
``It's out there somewhere,'' he said, turning the conversation to some sessions he remembered from the Three Deuces club, back in the '40s on 52nd Street. ``Maybe they could pick up the heat or the aura that Charlie Parker gave off,'' he added.
What about those days, and that music -- are they gone forever for Davis, as he suggests in his comments in the PBS special: ``That age is gone -- it doesn't do anything, it's flat. I'm glad I don't think like that now.''
As far as jazz in general is concerned, said Davis, ``In the States it means you're black, but in Europe it's a style. Here the word `jazz' cheapens music. When you sell it as jazz, people just walk past it.''
He brought up Wynton Marsalis, today's celebrated young trumpet player, and said that he can't play like that anymore, that his days of playing all those notes and holding his breath forever are over. But he added, ``I've finally got my tone back.'' And ``I sometimes hit a high note, but I don't hit it like a trumpet player who plays high notes -- I hit it like Ptew! -- like that -- like a gun.''
After our conversation, we headed for the closets and tried on jackets until it was time to go. A friendly kiss on each cheek from Davis, and I was off. Miles Davis rude and uncooperative? Who ever said that?