For years, there have been reports that there would be a feature film about Miles Davis. No film has appeared. Pat Broeske writes in Sunday’s New York Times that two such motion pictures may actually be on the drawing board. One would have a screenplay by Quincy Troupe, who co-authored Davis’s autobiography and later wrote a memoir about his friendship with the trumpeter. Another, according to Broeske, would be a picture “authorized” (the quotation marks are Broeske’s) by the Davis estate. That leaves the impression that the Troupe version would be unauthorized. Given the dark, scatological nature of the autobiography, it’s not hard to see why. To read the Times piece, go here.
The challenge of containing in even a long picture the contradictions in Davis’s character, the variety of his music and the complex web of his relationships could make film biographies like Ray (Charles) and Walk The Line (Johnny Cash) seem simple assignments. The shortcomings of Bird (Charlie Parker) and earlier movies about Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman suggest that Hollywood has room for improvement in jazz musician bio flicks. It will take a director of extraordinary skill and insight, and an exceptional actor, to fairly portray the creative son of a middle-class family who at twenty reached the apex of jazz with Parker and later decided to cloak himself in the image of a dirty-talking gut-punching street fighter.
People who were close to Davis tell of not only his toughness but also his warmth, humor and sensitivity. I was not close to him, but I have a small story.
In January, 1961, I was in New York for a week interviewing for a correspondent job with CBS News. It was a near thing, but ultimately the news division president, Richard Salant, wisely decided that I needed seasoning. “Come back in a year or so,” he said. I didn’t, but that’s another story. That night, moping around Manhattan, I ended up at The Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village, where Miles Davis was operating a sextet. Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane had moved on, but Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers were still aboard. Philly Joe Jones was temporarily back with Miles. The horns were Davis, Hank Mobley and J.J. Johnson. Teddy Wilson’s trio alternated sets with Miles’s band. The story of my encounter with Davis first appeared in notes for the LP reissue of some of his early Prestige recordings and later in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers.
Aside from the distinct recollection that Miles, Philly Joe and J.J. played superbly that night, two memories of the evening survive. Between sets, Miles sat at a table in front of and slightly to the right of the piano and listened to Wilson intently and with great enjoyment. During a later break he came to the bar and took a stool next to mine. I had heard all those stories about Davis’s surliness and wasn’t about to get him riled up by coming on like the hick fan I was. But he initiated a conversation and for maybe twenty minutes we made small talk, little of it about music. The freezing weather came up, as I recall, the New York newspaper strike, foreign cars, and Teddy Wilson. There was no handshake, no exchange of names. Then, as Miles got up to return to the stand, he asked where I was from. No place he’d ever heard of, I said, Wenatchee, Washington. He paused a moment, then said:
“Say hello to Don Lanphere.”
Don was pleased.
If there is a movie, I hope it includes that thoughtful facet of a complicated man.