Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Last Miles

One more post from my recent reading and experience of Miles Davis. It was part of what molded him into the kind of artist he was- and what earned him some of the disdain of others who found him aloof and not willing to engage.

It is the issue of racism- and, as recent months have seen, it is an issue that is still very much with us.

Davis had a deep and abiding anger at the American racist foundations. He speaks of returning from Europe in the 1950s and 60s where he was accepted on a different level- as a human being. He speaks of the way white musicians took what the black musicians developed and earned more money doing the same type of thing.

He did not begrudge the great white Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, among others. But he always was aware of the racial divide in the country.
jazz musicians, composers, etc. He welcomed them into his groups, even when black colleagues didn't like him to do that. His ongoing work with composer Gil Evans, for example, produced

He recalls the time when he was arrested outside the NYC club where he was headlining because he reacted to the white policeman who didn't think a black man should be hanging around there. He knows he was often treated as less than the whites even though he grew up in an upper-middle class life in East St. Louis, IL, the son of a successful dentist. He refused to "perform" on stage in ways that would reinforce the old stereotypes of the black musicians. He had great love for Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but regularly took them to task for their racially stereotypical grinning. It is hard to find official pictures of him that show him smiling. He refused to give white America that satisfaction.

In many ways he refused to be anything but Miles Davis, as he understood himself. His continued openness to white musicians throughout his career was as much a part of that as his unwillingness to be a sideshow clown or black version of the black-faced expectation of many whites. He paid little attention to most white critics who he felt were judging his (and most black jazz music) on white standards that were irrelevant.

Remember- he lived the 50s and 60s and all the preceded them. His racism-radar was finely tuned. He put up with no BS, especially when racially based.

Let's be willing to admit that some of this was Miles' personality. It was what made him who he was, and what made his music so exciting, innovative and never the same from year to year. He did not suffer fools- nor was he willing to wait for what he saw he should be doing. The jazz world - and all of us even these many years later - continue to reap the benefits.

In this ongoing time of renewed racial tensions, challenges and counter-challenges in the United States, reading Miles' words reminded me that no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to get inside the feelings of racism from the black person's experience. I blend in; I am white; I don't know that pain that has been deeply planted in the souls of those who have been slaves. I believe there is such a thing as "racial" or "ethnic" memory. We know much more about genetics today and we believe that the experiences of our ancestors makes "epigenetic" changes in genetic coding that can be passed on to future generations. While I have always been a strong advocate for civil rights, reading Miles' thoughts and hearing his anger from 50-60 years ago, opened new awareness and reflection.

While it may not be at the level it was in the 50s and 60s, we still face it, we still must be on guard for the subtle and not so subtle ways that racism plays out in our national American psyche. None of us is immune to it. Perhaps Miles Davis can also have something to teach us about our racial relationships that may be even more profound and important than his music.

That would be quite an accomplishment.

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