It was winter in late 1988 and a fax arrived in my newspaper office in Cardiff. Miles Davis would be playing at St David’s Hall.
What, Miles Davis? In Cardiff? Now jazz musicians of any ilk, especially undeniable legends, were not exactly queuing up at the Severn bridge tolls at the best of times.
Davis had never played Wales before and I did not know then that sadly he would not play here again.
But in the last two years of his life, he took to the road for a handful of UK shows beyond his near-annual London appearance.
He returned to Manchester Apollo for two nights for the first time since a Free Trade Hall gig in 1960. And then there would be two festival appearances – at Birmingham NEC and for Glasgow in its year as city of culture, a return after 17 years.
The Cardiff show in April 1989 was predictably a sell-out. I had invested a sizeable whack of my junior reporter’s disposable salary on a ticket – £15. I didn’t dare ask for a review ticket. After all, how do you review Miles Davis? I wanted to enjoy myself.
And then I got into a slight disagreement with the guy who got to do the review who insisted he would be disappointed if Davis didn’t play Kind Of Blue, his 1959 epoch-making jazz classic. “But he hasn’t played it for 30 years,” I said. “That’s the point of Miles Davis”.
That point was, he did not look back. Unfortunately, Davis’s music of the late 1980s – textural funky undertones to sparse melodies, mostly muted trumpet and twists on modern pop standards from the likes of Scritti Politti and Cyndi Lauper – has been overlooked somewhat. Many don’t go beyond his critically-lauded, admittedly sublime 1950s and 1960s output.
None of that mattered to the lucky folks of Cardiff and Manchester 27 years ago this week. Now, if you wanted banter with the audience and high fives with the front row, then a Miles Davis concert was not the thing. He was more likely to have his back to the stalls. We should be thankful camera phones had not been invented.
Davis cut quite a small figure and walked off stage after a couple of songs before wandering back on a little while later.
There was an aura though, still some magic and the audience reacted quite wildly before the city of Cardiff, barring rare exceptions, could return to its sleepy default position as far as jazz giants are concerned.
The review, incidentally, was headlined “Off-form Miles is unexciting.”
“He has the supreme and essential virtue of pleasing no-one but himself,” my colleague wrote. I had to plead journalistic differences.
But what was it like being on stage with him?
Keyboard player John Beasley recalls: “It was my first tour with the band, so I was on cloud nine and I was learning from him like crazy.
“We rehearsed for two weeks in New York before so I’d started to get to know everybody.”
He remembers the Cardiff concert.
“My family originally came from Wales so I remember the strange accent! We stayed over, it was a hotel not downtown but in a newer area. My wife was just about to have a baby and I hadn’t realised they had Toys R Us in the UK too.
“Miles was on the bus with the rest of us – I was shocked, I thought he’d be flying to gigs or in a limo but he was hanging out with the guys. He could be funny. But it wasn’t quite like being with your buddies because he was still Miles Davis.”
He had been hired after Davis’s nephew Vincent Wilburn, a drummer who had been watching Beasley’s band play their weekly club set, suggested he record a cassette.
“He liked what we did and said he’d get a tape to Miles. I decided not to think about it but four months later in Florida my wife said, ‘Miles Davis called’. Every musician has a joke about when Miles called but he answered when I called the number back.”
Fellow keyboard player on the tour Kei Akagi said: “That was one of my first tours with Miles, and I was very green.
“I was trying very hard to find my place musically within such an incredible band. Miles could at times be a thoroughly intimidating and harsh leader, but he was also a very kind and warm person. He gave me a lot of words of encouragement.”
Akagi said his concept of playing jazz piano had been formed by a succession of Davis musicians, from Red Garland to Keith Jarrett.
“To suddenly find myself being in Miles’ band and occupying a position of such heavy historical import was very scary at first, and an awesome responsibility. It was humbling, to say the least.”
Beasley said Davis would give little notes the next day after concerts.
“He’d call you in individually or the group into his dressing room and say what he liked or what he didn’t like.”
Akagi said: “He didn’t tell me a lot about how to play. He could be rather verbally cryptic. But, what remains with me to this day is when he said ‘I don’t care what you play as long as you mean it’.”
One thing which stuck with Beasley was a lesson on the art of leaving space – and when not to play.
“Early on, Miles came over and grabbed my left hand and put it behind my back. Piano players tend to play a phrase and use the left hand to fill in.”
Akagi, still playing with his own trio but also a professor of music at the University of California in Irvine, remembers being part of an almost “tribal” tradition in the band.
“It was a curious tension. I think Miles gave us tremendous latitude to express ourselves, but there were definitely some firm boundaries that defined the ‘Miles Davis sound’.
“If we played something that was not within Miles’ concept of his own music, he would let us know in no uncertain terms that he disapproved.”
Beasley added: “At times he’d sit at his own keyboard – and play these little riffs, and I’d get to accompany him and he’d look over at me playing from over the top of his sunglasses. Sometimes he’d play something at me on his trumpet.”
Photographer William Ellis was freelancing in 1989 and the Manchester concert proved a big break after he persuaded the promoter to allow him to shoot it.
“I’d been a big fan of Miles for a number of years and when I heard he was doing some dates in the UK I knew I just had to photograph him, more for myself personally than any other considerations,” he said.
“I had the first 15 minutes to shoot. It was over in a flash.
“The next night I went without cameras – I had to just listen.
“I got the pictures that opened the door for me in jazz and since then I’ve worked with many jazz legends all over the world, many of whom had played with Miles – Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter and many others including Jimmy Cobb at Brecon Jazz Festival – who played drums on the most famous album in jazz – Kind Of Blue”.
Former Glasgow jazz festival director Jim Smith remembers Miles’s 1990 visit to chime in with the European City of Culture events. With the budget they had, it was not hard to bring him over as part of his European commitments that summer.
Despite warnings to afford him privacy, a piper turned up uninvited to play Scotland The Brave as Davis arrived at the hotel. “He loved it,” said Smith.
“I managed to spend a bit of time with him as he liked to be around the person who would be paying him!
“He was easy to deal with once he got here and was good with our people although he could give his own people a tough time.
“He looked through the programme we had that year and saw Frank Sinatra (playing at Ibrox stadium) and asked how much we were paying him. I told him – and he laughed!”
“When you got up close to him you could see he was quite frail, even though was only about 64, and was limping. But the concert was great.”
The biggest headache was having to extract $20,000 – in cash – from the band’s fee so they could break a French air strike and charter a plane to be in Nice the next day.
Smith was already thinking of booking Davis again when he learnt of his death in September 1991.
George Cole, author of The Last Miles, The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991, is an enthusiast for the later period.
“When he came back from his lay off in the 1970s, people expected Miles to pick up where he left off,” he says.
“But music had changed and he was older. He was still recovering and it took him time.
“The music was easier to listen to – and some said it was too commercial – but he was using top flight players like Marcus Miller and John Schofield and you’d also find him on the Doo-Bop album trying to fuse jazz with hip hop.”
Cole compares him a little to David Bowie in his ability to explore and change, whether or not he took all fans with him immediately.
“Miles was always challenging, always brave and there was always something to like.”
Cole has seen the film Miles Ahead – which opens in the UK on Friday – and apart from Don Cheadle’s stand-out performance believes it is “honest” and shows the complexities of the man, shown in the late 1970s before his comeback.
When he spoke to me, Beasley was preparing for an all-star International Jazz Day concert at the White House before the Obamas.
He is musical director for the event, which includes another six Davis alumni in the line-up ranging from Herbie Hancock to John McLaughlin. That’s part of the legacy.
He said he hopes the film does not over-sensationalise but shows how “amazing and courageous” Miles Davis was as a musician.
As for Davis’s later music – including the later studio albums Tutu and Amandla – is it now getting some overdue appreciation?
“Absolutely,” said Akagi. “We are decades away from the conceptual battles of the 1980s.
“I think the younger generation of musicians are appreciating Miles’s later period for what it was – a unique synthesis for its time that brought together many disparate elements of ‘high art’ and contemporary urban music.
“I sense an increasing number of musicians making a reference to Miles’s ’80s music in their own works, and in a manner refreshingly free of self-consciousness. I think it’s wonderful.”