Advice from Miles

I just woke from a vivid dream that I was telling a class about a jazz trio recording with Miles Davis, Kenny Barron, and a drummer whose name I never got. (Waking researches suggest that Miles and Barron never recorded together, and I realize now that the record cover I was looking at was actually Coltrane’s Ascension, with, significantly, only one figure on the cover.) The brief liner notes on the back – those were the days – merely told an anecdote about how Miles scoffed at the idea of explaining his music, and swore he could show his musicians how the music went without words. Next Miles, Barron, and this drummer whose name I was trying to remember came to lunch with me at the Bard faculty dining room (which also looked, in the dream, like Chicago’s old Museum of Contemporary Art, where I first worked in 1981). Kenny Barron talked most, discussing the impossiblility of capturing music in words, but finally Miles leaned over and spoke into my ear, so close that his lips touched me, and told me that you had to have a really divided allegiance working for The Man in a place like this. I realized that he was talking about being Black, but added (with amazement at my own temerity at telling Miles Davis anything) that it was also inherently difficult for an artist, because academia expects you to explain what you’re doing, and artists can’t always justify themselves logically. Miles kind of nodded. I woke up and ransacked my jazz vinyl collection for a Miles Davis trio record, which, of course, wasn’t there.

I’ve been listening to little besides jazz lately, because I’m writing a concerto for piano and a saxophone/trumpet/trombone ensemble, and it strikes me that the effective, American prototypes for combining piano with reeds and brass are all jazz: so I listen to the Earl Hines orchestra, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven with Lil Hardin, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans orchestrations. I guess that accounts for me dreaming about Miles, along with a pianist he never played with. The last time I had a dream encounter this significant with a famous musician was 1991, when a bunch of people were waiting in Charles Ives’s living room for him, and he came out to see me, played the piano with me, and gave me his blessing. That was a tremendously empowering dream. But I think Miles Davis just told me I talk too much.


  1. Peter says

    It was Mendelssohn who said he expressed himself in music precisely because he found words were too ambiguous. And this from perhaps the most widely-read and cultivated composer of all time, who translated from the Greek, corresponded with poets and writers, and discussed theology, philosophy and art over the dinner table with Europe’s leading intellectuals.

  2. says

    Miles didn’t even like having liner notes on his albums. There is also an added “purity” in taking vocal music and making instrumentals out of it. Compare Miles to Sinatra on a song like “It never entered my mind.”