I was thinking the other day about how many jazz artists I had seen “live” and it is quite a few.  I saw my first in 1967 (unfortunately after Coltrane had passed) and have seen many of the legends of the genre.  Living in New York was a great advantage; after I turned eighteen I could go to the clubs and the Newport Jazz Festival was even held there for a few years. But I digress…It is the some anniversary of some milestone in Miles Davis’s career and I was thinking back to the one time I saw him perform live.  It was in the spring of 1971 at my undergraduate college and he was scheduled to perform on Saturday evening but his equipment (much electronica) had not arrived from his last gig.  I happened to be near the entrance when he came in with Ken McIntyre our local jazz artist and professor.  Upon surveying the crowd of hundreds who had come to see him, he said in that gravelly voice of his he would stay the night and perform on the next day (Sunday) “after church.” True to his word Sunday afternoon he and his quintet performed a concert that is etched in my memory. I remember being proud that aside from his bass player (Dave Henderson) and Miles, the other members of the group, Keith Jarrett (keyboards), Gary Bartz (sax) and Jack Dejohnette (drums) had all performed at the college during my four years there. I recalled Jarrett and Dejohnette had performed as members of the Charles Lloyd group.  Dejohnette had become part of memory when during a drum solo he reached down into a gym bag to grab a towel to wipe the sweat that was rolling down his face.  He then picked up the gym bag and played it as a percussion instrument hitting the floor with it as part of his drum solo while his other hand and foot were striking other parts of his drum kit. He concluded his solo by raising up the gym bag and letting it hit the floor so that its final thump punctuated the end of his solo.  The crowd went wild…but I digress.

Miles’ group was superb that evening and in many ways the culmination of my undergraduate experience.  If you want to hear what they sounded like check out his Live at the Cellar Door albums which were recorded with the same group at about the same time.  I had of course heard Miles on record for years, but what struck me upon seeing him play was the physicality of it. He wore an armless shirt so the muscles in his arms were visible and he had the “guns” of the middleweight boxer he wanted to be. More than that he bent backwards to play and it seemed like all of his strength, his essence, his self was being poured into the horn to emerge as the purest sound I had ever hear a trumpet produce.  Now way back in my history I had played the trumpet in the junior high school band and at no time had I heard a trumpet sound like that. It was not just that he was blowing hard, it was that all of his being was focused through the horn, not on being loud but on being pure.  He had stripped away any wasted effort, any knowledge of the world outside his group or his immediate vicinity, any past or future.  The music was all that existed for him in that moment.

More than the memories of a glorious afternoon concert with the sun streaming in all around, it is that laser focus that I took away from that performance. That one should put your all, your body and your soul into a task, was the lesson I learned that day and have tried to emulate ever since. I learned that it was the quality of what was produced not its “loudness” that counted. Over the last forty years that intensity was sometimes obscured by the laid back persona when one doesn’t sweat the small stuff to concentrate on the important stuff.   That was the first lesson learned from Miles but not the last.  But I digress…

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2 Responses to “Memories of Miles”

  1. selby frame says:

    Loved reading this Randy. My parents were among those lucky few at the Cellar Door performances in DC. My suburban mother (more of a Dave Brubeck-type!) said that she had to excuse herself to go to the ladies room at one point because the raw power of his playing, his thinking, his presence, completely overwhelmed her.

  2. Randy says:

    Your mother’s right he was a powerful presence when playing. He wasn’t that tall, maybe 5’8, but he had piercing eyes and when he was playing he was the most charismatic person I have ever been around.


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