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How Miles Davis Changed My Life

A trip to Paris and a Miles Davis concert would determine the course of my life. It all started innocently enough. In 1954 I was chosen by the African American Michigan Avenue YMCAA to be part of a delegation to a Bible study convention. The money had been raised by the older members of the Y, merchants, professionals and clergymen who acted as the informal government of black Buffalo and negotiated with the white government that wielded power in the community.

I was very active in high school clubs, and the Y was a second home, where I would go and swim and try to set down some chord changes on the piano. There were many eccentric characters who came to the Y. One was a guy who called himself Lord Johnny. He taught me some blues chord changes that I later learned were the ones Charlie Parker used. Parker changes.

I’ll never forget the day my young friend and future roommate Malcolm Ernie and I were standing in the lobby of the YMCA and he received a phone call from Emperor Hailie Selassie. The YMCA was where I met my first wife, Pricilla Thompson. It was at the YMCA where our mentor was the late Fred Barkley and where, later, during my university years, poet Lucille Clifton and her husband Fred, and short story writer Ray Smith, performed in plays. We called ourselves the Buffalo Community Dramatic Workshop. Our director was Joe Byron, who was a doctor at Buffalo’s Roswell Hospital. Our performance of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun took place at the hospital’s auditorium. It was only during last year, while accompanying my spouse Carla Blank to a meeting with Buffalo architects in connection with her book about women architects, that I learned the YMCA was designed by the renowned black architect John E. Brent. I knew his daughter, who was the mother of Janessa and Jennifer Rollins, friends of mine.

Before the YMCA trip to Paris, I hadn’t traveled to many places. Maybe to Chattanooga, where my mother and step-father were born. Sometimes to Cleveland, where my stepfather’s mother lived. Once to New York where the highlight of the trip was a glimpse of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson standing in front of his bar. I was a shy person and was embarrassed by the attention paid to those of us who were going on the trip. We lived in the lower-middle-class neighborhood on Riley Street, having moved from East Utica where my parents had rented. We lived in the projects before that.

There was a woman who lived across the street. She looked like a young Etta James. It was difficult to avoid looking into her bedroom from where I slept on the sun porch. She wasn’t modest. I had some fantasies about her. My interest in women was beginning, but the ones I found attractive were older than I. In Paris, I attended parties with students who lived at the Cité Universitaire. I was the youngest person there and would survey the French coeds as they danced with their parents. Walter Dukes, the basketball star at Seton Hall, was studying international law at the time. Just as I was about to hit on one of these French girls, he’d send me to my room. For some reason, he had appointed himself my chaperone.

But he couldn’t always be on the case. I’d go to the jazz clubs, sometimes alone, sometimes with some white kids from Long Island with whom I’d begun hanging out. You’d be walking down a narrow street and you’d hear maybe Clifford Brown’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” coming from one of the clubs. We once went to a club in Pigalle and watched nude dancers until we fell asleep over champagne. When we awoke, the club had emptied out and and it was dawn. I remember riding on the metro and seeing one of the chorus girls who’d performed the night before. She pointed at us. When I got back to my room, my roommate, an older white man from Texas said, “Some people are out all night.” It was the first time I’d ever stayed out all night.

I have a memory from the proceedings that showed how things were before the drive for civil rights. Kids from all over the world elected me to head one of the conference committees. Some the white kids on the southern delegation got angry.

When I returned to Buffalo, I was a different person. High school bored me, and so, out of the blue, I told a teacher who wanted me to be part of a delegation to go to Hyde Park to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, “I won’t be here.” I dropped out of high school and went to work at a library.

I bought a trombone and began to play with a group of young musicians. I had studied the trombone in high school and had played the violin in elementary school. I took up the violin again in high school and formed a string quartet. Members of the band played arrangements made popular by Stan Kenton, like “Intermission Riff.” One of those on saxophone was Don Menza, who went on to play with Maynard Ferguson.

The star among the young black musicians was an alto player named Claude Walker. He was a prodigy. Sometimes he would disappear and we’d discover that he’d been in Rochester performing with the Eastman Symphony. But he liked jazz and was playing hard bop before there was a name for it. Claude later died in a fire. Before that he had a shootout with the police. His was a talent snuffed out as a result of being unable to graduate to a larger stage.

One of his friends was Wade Legge, who used to fascinate us with his stories about jazz musicians in New York. He was discovered by Milt Jackson while playing in a jam session at the musicians’ local. Wade died in his twenties. He said that he got fired from the Mingus band because he’d show up late for rehearsals. I still listen to Wade on the only solo album he made from Blue Note. He deserves more recognition.

If our group had a god it was Miles Davis. People can tell you what they were doing when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers fell. I remember the night I first heard Miles Davis. I was in the house alone listening to a Buffalo jazz show moderated by Joe Rico, for whom Illinois Jacquet wrote “Port of Rico.” He played a Miles Davis tune. I’d never heard a sound like that before. The sound epitomized where I was and what I wanted to be. I played Birth of the Cool until it was worn out. And so when we heard that Miles was going to perform in Buffalo, we were excited. The night came: September 21, 1955.

We were all standing on the corner when this cab drove up and Miles got out. The black men we were used to were square working-class types and professionals who were part of an emerging middle class. Buffalo at the time was a backward, dull town where there was little to do. When Jazz at the Philharmonic came to town, there was a scandal at Kleinhaus Music Hall because the boppers began to dance in the aisles. Ben Webster was busted for a few joints. It was a conservative town, where people went around assassinating abortion doctors, the Catholic Church being very powerful there. This was before Leslie Fiedler, John Barth and others came to town. Fiedler also got busted for pot.

Miles was performing with Sonny Lockjaw Davis. Miles played these up-tempo numbers and Lockjaw seemed to fumble around his keys in an attempt to keep up with him. I don’t think Miles did it out of any malice toward Lockjaw. He wasn’t mean like Diz when he did a duet with Satch and tried to show the old man up. I think Miles did “Blue and Boogie.” He also did some ballads like “Yesterday.” We’d heard that Miles was mean and would KO people. My friends were scared to approach him. But I had been to Paris. I was fearless and worldly. And so I asked Miles for his autograph as my friends looked on in terror. He obliged. I told him he was well-known in Paris. I wanted him to know I’d been to Paris.

Another incident tested Miles’ affability. A man knocked over his trumpet, which was perched atop a piano. This guy is going to get it, we thought. But Miles was cool. He inspected the trumpet for damage and, seeing none, continued the break. Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano — who made his reputation fighting old black men who were in their forties yet gave Marciano all he could handle — were fighting that night. Miles paused during his concert to listen to the fight.

When I ordered a drink a la grenadine, which I had begun drinking in Paris, the waitress who served me was the woman from across the street for whom I had eyes. I was flabbergasted. It was like when I was dining at the Hayes Street Bar in San Francisco and an associate of the San Francisco Opera told me she wanted to introduce me to Kathy. I didn’t know who she was talking about. Suddenly standing before me was Kathleen Battle, the diva.

Miles was at this club on William Street in Buffalo. I think the Casablanca. (About a mile away was the Zanzibar, where, as a teenager I had caught Kai Winding and Della Reese.) This was the most memorable concert for me even though I don’t remember all of the numbers played. But Miles in his sharp suit and dark glasses and cool sounds convinced me that I wanted to be where all of that was taking place. That my hometown could not hold me. That I wanted the world.

This essay is excerpted from ISHMAEL REED’s new collection, Mixing It Up: Taking On the Media Bullies and Other Reflections. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

ISHMAEL REED is a poet, novelist and essayist who lives in Oakland. His novels  include, Mumbo Jumbo, the Freelance Pallbearers and The Last Days of Louisiana Red.

 

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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