Miles Davis‘s autobiography is brilliant anyway (cf. his thoughts on vibrato), but one of the most inspiring passages in all musical literature is his intoxicating account of how he arrived in New York in 1944 to track down his hero Charlie Parker, in a quest for enlightenment that has a long tradition in China…
Having briefly met Bird and Dizzy earlier in 1944 when they were playing in St Louis, at this stage Miles was still an innocent 18-year old. It was only in 1949 that he fell prey to the heroin lifestyle of his idol—due in large part to his depression on returning to the racism of the States after feeling respected on a great trip to Paris and a beautiful affair with Juliette Greco.
I arrived in New York City in September 1944, not in 1945 like a lot of jive writers who write about me say [YAY!]. It was almost the end of World War Two when I got there. A lot of young guys had gone off to fight the Germans and Japanese and some of them didn’t come back. I was lucky; the war was ending. There were a lot of soldiers in their uniforms all around New York. I do remember that,
I was 18 years old, wet behind the ears about some things, like women and drugs. But I was confident about my ability to play music, to play the trumpet, and I wasn’t scared about living in New York. Nonetheless, the city was an eye-opener for me, especially all the tall buildings, the noise, the cars, and all those motherfucking people, who seemed to be everywhere. The pace of New York was faster than anything I had ever seen in my life; I thought St Louis and Chicago were fast, but they weren’t anything like New York City. So that was the first thing I had to get used to, all the people. But getting around by subway was a gas, it was so fast. […]
I spent my first week in New York looking for Bird and Dizzy. Man, I went everywhere looking for them two cats, spent all my money and didn’t find them. I had to call back home and ask my father for some more money, which he sent me. I still was living clean, not smoking or drinking or using dope. I was just into my music and that was a total high for me. When school started at Juilliard, I would take the subway to 66th Street where the school was located. Right off the bat, I didn’t like what was happening at Juilliard. The shit they was talking about was too white for me. Plus, I was more interested in what was happening in the jazz scene; that’s the real reason I wanted to come to New York in the first place, to get into the jazz music scene that was happening around Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, and what was going on down on 52nd Street, which everyone in music called “The Street”. That’s what I was really in New York for, to suck up all I could from those scenes; Juilliard was only a smokescreen, a stopover, a pretense I used to put me close to being around Bird and Diz. […]
Then I was finally able to get in touch with Dizzy. I got his number and called him up. He remembered me and invited me over to his apartment on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. It was great to see him. But he hadn’t seen Bird, either, and didn’t know how or where to get in touch with him.
I kept looking for Bird. One night I found myself just sort of standing around in the doorway at the Three Deuces when the owner came up and asked me what I was doing there. I guess I looked young and innocent; I couldn’t even grow a moustache back then. Anyway, I told him I was looking for Bird and he told me he wasn’t there and that I had to be 18 to come in the club. I told him I was 18 and all I wanted to do was to find Bird. Then the dude start telling me what a fucked-up motherfucker Bird was, about him being a dope addict and all that kind of shit. He asked me where I was from and when I told him, he come telling me that I ought to go on back home. Then he called me “son”, a name I never liked, epsecially from some white motherfucker who I didn’t know. So I told him to go fuck himself and turned around and left. I already knew Bird had a bad heroin habit; he wasn’t telling me nothing new. […]
Miles meets Coleman Hawkins, who tells him, “My best advice to you is just finish your studies at Juilliard and forget Bird”.
Man, those first few weeks in New York were a motherfucker—looking for Bird, and trying to keep up with my studies. Then somebody told me that Bird had friends in Greenwich Village. I went down there to see if I could find him. I went to coffeehouses on Bleecker Street. Met artists, writers, and all these long-haired, bearded beatnik poets. I had never met no people like them in all my life. Going to the Village was an education for me. […]
One day I saw in the paper where Bird was scheduled to play in a jam session at a club called the Heatwave, in 145th Street in Harlem. I remember asking Bean [Coleman Hawkins] if he thought Bird would show up there, and Bean just kind of smiled that slick, sly smile of his and said, “I’ll bet Bird doesn’t even know if he’ll show up there or not.”
That night I went up to the Heatwave, a funky little club in a funky neighborhood. I had brought my horn just in case I did run into Bird—if he remembered me, he might let me sit in with him. Bird wasn’t there, but I met some other musicians, like Allan Eager, a white tenor player; Joe Guy, who played a great trumpet; and Tommy Potter, a bass player. I wasn’t looking for them so I didn’t pay them hardly no attention. I just found a seat and kept my eye fixed on the door, watching out for Bird. Man, I had been there almost all night waiting for Bird and he still hadn’t shown up. So I decided to go outside and catch a breath of fresh air. I was standing outside the club on the corner when I heard this voice from behind me say, “Hey, Miles! I heard you been looking for me!”
I turned around and there was Bird, looking badder than a motherfucker [the ultimate accolade—Ed.]. He was dressed in these baggy clothes that looked like he had been sleeping in them for days. His face was all puffed up and his eyes were swollen and red. But he was cool, with that hipness that he could have about him even when he was drunk or fucked up. Plus, he had that confidence that all people have about them when they know their shit is bad. But no matter how he looked, bad or near death, he still looked good to me that night after spending all that time trying to find him; I was just glad to see him standing there. And when he remembered where he had met me, I was the happiest motherfucker on earth.
I told him how hard it had been to find him and he just smiled and said that he moved around a lot. He took me into the Heatwave, where everybody greeted him like he was the king, which he was. And since I was with him and he had his arm around my shoulder, they treated me with a lot of respect, too. I didn’t play that first night. I just listened. And, man, I was amazed at how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth. Shit, he went from looking real down and out to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him. It was amazing the transformation that took place once he started playing. He was 24 at the time, but when he wasn’t playing he looked older, especially off stage. But his whole appearance changed as soon as he put that horn in his mouth. He could play like a motherfucker even when he was almost falling-down drunk and nodding off behind heroin. Bird was something else.
Anyway, after I hooked up with him that night, I was around Bird all the time for the next several years.
Here’s one of several recordings from the Royal Roost, New York, in 1948:
One can’t help feeling nostalgic for those heady days; yet Miles himself recognised the need to move on constantly The story continues with middle-period Miles. and in The spiritual path of John Coltrane.
We hardly need a reminder of the traumas taking place in Europe at the time (see e.g. Trauma: music, art, objects, and Ravensbrúck, Sachsenhausen, Noor Inayat Khan; cf. The Celibidache mystique). In 1941, Messiaen was composing and performing Le quatuor pour la fin du temps in a POW camp at Görlitz.