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Miles and Me

Quincy Troupe (Author)


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March, 2000.
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Quincy Troupe's candid account of his friendship with Miles Davis is a revealing portrait of a great musician and an intimate study of a unique relationship. It is also an engrossing chronicle of the author's own development, both artistic and personal. As Davis's collaborator on Miles: The Autobiography,Troupe--one of the major poets to emerge from the 1960s--had exceptional access to the musician. This memoir goes beyond the life portrayed in the autobiography to describe in detail the processes of Davis's spectacular creativity and the joys and difficulties his passionate, contradictory temperament posed to the men's friendship. It shows how Miles Davis, both as a black man and an artist, influenced not only Quincy Troupe but whole generations.

Troupe has written that Miles Davis was "irascible, contemptuous, brutally honest, ill-tempered when things didn't go his way, complex, fair-minded, humble, kind and a son-of-a-bitch." The author's love and appreciation for Davis make him a keen, though not uncritical, observer. He captures and conveys the power of the musician's presence, the mesmerizing force of his personality, and the restless energy that lay at the root of his creativity. He also shows Davis's lighter side: cooking, prowling the streets of Manhattan, painting, riding his horse at his Malibu home. Troupe discusses Davis's musical output, situating his albums in the context of the times--both political and musical--out of which they emerged. Miles and Me is an unparalleled look at the act of creation and the forces behind it, at how the innovations of one person can inspire both those he knows and loves and the world at large.
Quincy Troupe is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author of thirteen books. Two of his books, Miles: The Autobiography (1989) and Snake-Back Solos (1979), have won the American Book Award. He also wrote James Baldwin: The Legacy (1989), Avalanche (1996), Choruses (1999), and Take it to the Hoop Magic Johnson (2000). In 2002, he was named Poet Laureate of the State of California by the California Arts Council.
"If there is a genius in music in the 20th century, it's Miles Davis, and no one has gotten more involved in his life and his music than the poet Quincy Troupe."—Barbara Christian, University of California, Berkeley

"Brilliant, poetic, provocative, Quincy Troupe's Miles and Me reveals the man behind the dark glasses and legend."—Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo
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Excerpt from Chapter 1

Meeting Miles

I first met Miles Davis in 1978 or so at a party at a Dr. Leo Maitland's. Leo, who had at one time been one of Miles' doctors, lived down the hall from me at 382 Central Park West and had become a very good friend. I had been listening to Miles since 1954 and he had been a hero to me for a long time. But by 1978 Iwasn't listening to his records as much as I had earlier in my life, although I still loved going to hear him play live.

Before I actually met Miles at Leo's, I had seen him a couple of times in the elevator of my building because he lived in the same neighborhood and was dating one of my former poetry workshop students. Yvonne or Evette Duret--they were identical twins, so I can't remember which one, but I think it was Evette who lived in the same building I did. I had also caught glimpses of him a few times at neighborhood bars. He would sit in a corner hidden behind his ever-present dark glasses looking menacingly at everyone. Sometimes I spotted him at after-hours joints. Other times I saw him hurrying through the neighborhood streets, walking or driving his red Ferrari sports coupe.

Like I said, we lived in the same neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But whenever we passed each other, no matter where it was, I was never tempted to say even a mumbling word to him. That was because I had a very clear memory of how angry he could become at unwanted public attention. The memory was more than twenty years old but was still as vivid to me as though the scene had happened the day before yesterday.

Peacock Alley

It was the fall of 1956 and I had just seen my idol, Miles Davis, in person, for the first time. He was playing at St. Louis's premier jazz spot, Peacock Alley, in downtown St. Louis. I had been able to get in because I had a false draft card that said I was over twenty-one, though I was only seventeen.

I remember how "sharp" and "clean" Miles looked, and how he seemed so totally in control. He was completely mesmerizing. He was everything I thought he would be. Fascinated by the man's presence, I watched his every move, as did everybody else in the club.

Miles' music was sensational that night. The band he brought with him included a great surprise: instead of Sonny Rollins, who'd been advertised, he brought John Coltrane. My friends and I were all big Sonny Rollins fans, so we were very disappointed when he didn't show. John Coltrane? Who was he? We soon found out. Trane just blew everybody's mind. Miles was grinning like a Cheshire cat because he knew people would be disappointed Sonny Rollins hadn't shown. His grin and his attitude seemed to say, "but how could y'all ever doubt me? How could y'all think I would ever have brought somebody bad to my hometown for y'all to hear?" Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Garland were also in the band and they were great, but the night belonged to Trane and Miles. When we left the club, their names were on everyone's lips.

That was also the night of the incident that left me with an indelible memory of Miles' temper. The way it happened was like this: Among the St. Louis "in crowd" everyone and his mama knew not to walk up to Miles if you didn't know him and just start talking to him like he was your long-lost friend. It didn't matter whether you were hip and black or hip and white. If you didn't know Miles, you didn't approach him.

My friends and I were part of the younger "in crowd," and the word had come down from older hip guys--like my cousin Marvin--that if you did walk up to Miles and try to talk to him, he just might bite your head off with a real cold-blooded cussin out. So the thing to do was just to lay back and watch him from afar, like he was some kind of untouchable piece of fine jewelry around some fine woman's neck and, in a weird sort of way, I guess that's what Miles was like--a rare gem.

Anyway, that's what everyone was doing when the group took a break--we were all watching Miles from a distance. Then, all of a sudden, this voice from somewhere behind us said, "Oh look, darling, there's Miles Davis. Let's go up and say hello!"

We all turned around, amazed to see this young white couple walking earnestly through the crowd with these innocent looks of expectation on their faces. They made a beeline straight for Miles, who was standing at the bar drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and surveying everyone around him disdainfully from behind those dark sunglasses. I remember looking at the friends who had come with me that evening--Fred Arnold, Leonard Anderson, Percy Campbell, and my cousin Donald Troupe--and laughing nervously under my breath in anticipation of what was going to happen. Everybody else in the bar was watching with keen interest, too. That whole roomful of people was holding its collective breath in anticipation of how Miles was going to respond.

When the young couple got close to Miles, the man stuck out his right hand in anticipation of a handshake and said, "How you doing Miles, my name is...."

He didn't even manage to get his name out before Miles, with cold-blooded, biting fury in his voice, spat out, "Fuck you, you jive punk-ass motherfucka! Get the fuck outta my face and take yo silly little bitch with you!"

The words were fired like bullets, and they penetrated the young man's heart. A stunned look spread across his face. I felt kind of sorry for him. I watched complete embarrassment spread like a scarlet wave over the man and woman's white faces. They were rendered completely speechless by the deep freeze of Miles' words.

Then, having stopped the couple dead in their tracks with his harsh and scornful attitude, Miles simply turned his back on the them like the king he was in his own mind. (And in everybody else's mind that night, too.) He took a long drag off his cigarette and blew a jet of smoke toward the ceiling. Then he took a long deep swallow of beer. He dismissed the young couple just like they weren't even there. It was something.

I had never seen a white man treated like that by a black man. And although I did feel a little sorry for the couple, deep down it made me feel really good because white people have always believed that they can walk up to any black person, and no matter where we are or what we are doing, say any and everything to us, no matter how silly and ignorant it might be. Most white people think just because they're white and privileged and we're black and that we're at their beck and call, that they can get away saying anything to anyone who's not white. Maybe that's the way they think it's going to be, forever.

But that night Miles showed everybody in that club that he wasn't about to take shit from anyone, black or white. (I, for one, after that night, absorbed that lesson and adopted a similar attitude; although my stance could never be as dismissive as Miles' was. Ever.)

As the young couple walked away with their heads hung low, I remember thinking how cruel and heartless Miles' actions seemed. But I also remember thinking that what I had witnessed was consistent with what I had heard about his character. Having bought into his legend, I would have expected him to do just what he did. Anything less would not have met my expectations of what Miles was really like.

After all, who did that young white guy think he was, going up to Miles like that? Hadn't he heard the stories? Did he really think Miles was going to talk to him?

To tell the truth, I really didn't feel that much pity for the couple. Maybe I felt that Miles was doing to some white person what I had always wished I could do because of how it was for black people in this country: we were oppressed, despised, our spirits beaten down--in many cases, killed--by a callous white majority. So whatever pity I felt for the couple was minimal.

I didn't totally understand Miles' harsh treatment of that couple that evening but I did learn one thing. I never wanted to see myself in that situation. Later, when I got to know him personally, I would find out that Miles dealt with most people in this harsh manner whether they were black, white, or whatever--whenever they invaded his privacy. He felt he had to be that way just to keep people off of him because of his shyness.

Miles believed that if he had a reputation for dealing with strangers brutally when they approached him in public, then they should do so with the full knowledge that they might have their hearts, heads, and egos served up to them on a platter. He told me this many times, and I watched him inflict this kind of punishment on people time and time again.

The memory of Miles cussing out that white couple influenced the way I felt about the man ever after. That image of him--impervious and imperial, standing "clean as a broke-dick dog" at the bar in Peacock Alley, coolly drinking and smoking a cigarette--is forever carved into my consciousness like a stone engraving. I especially didn't want Miles to ever cuss me out the way he did that white couple because I didn't know how I would respond. So I kept my respectful distance from the man. But the night at Leo's would change all that, and after many years of admiring him from afar, I would finally find myself up close, sitting right next to him.

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