'Miles Followed His Heart'

Miles Davis lived many lives in his 65 years. Herbie Hancock, who played with him from 1963 to 1968, talked to NEWSWEEK's Donna Foote about the Miles he knew.

The first time I met Miles, I was taken to his house by Donald Byrd, another great trumpet player. This was about 1961. Not many jazz musicians were homeowners in Manhattan, especially at that time. We went to his recreation room and Miles said, "Play something." So I played "Stella by Starlight," and he said, "Nice touch." If I had never met him again, I would always have remembered that: I had played for Miles and he'd told me I had a nice touch.

Two years later Miles called and asked me to come over. In the basement were Tony Williams, Ron Carter and George Coleman. We ran over some tunes, but Miles wasn't there. I found out later he was upstairs, listening on the intercom. This went on for three days; Miles would come down once a day, pick up his trumpet, play two notes, get disgusted, throw it on the couch and go back upstairs. The third day he said, "Tomorrow we have to meet at Columbia studios at 3." I said, "Does that mean I'm in the band?" He said, "You're making a record." Then he smiled.

This was an important period for him, one of many. Like his time with Charlie Parker-that hot, East Coast sound-and the late '40s, when he did "Birth of the Cool" with his nine-piece band. That music is still full of surprises-and not at all old. He had the landmark quintet with John Coltrane in the mid-'5Os. They recorded "Kind of Blue" which turned the jazz world on its ear, with improvisation using scales and modes instead of chords. And the records with Gil Evans-"Miles Ahead," "Sketches of Spain"-took a new approach to integrating an orchestra with a soloist. Miles's rhythmic sense was uncanny. And there was joy and melancholy in that tone at the same time. It was the warmest sound I've ever heard. I could hardly wait for the next Miles Davis album.

In 1963, Miles wanted a fresh start; the result was the band we had. On "E.S.P.," we delved into the avant-garde, away from chordal playing and even modal playing. Miles always wanted to be on the forefront of what was happening. He listened to everything, from flamenco to Jimi Hendrix: it was Miles who turned me on to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" by James Brown. When he got heavily into electronics, it must have taken courage to deal with a genre he hadn't been directly a part of. But his electric period was one of his most challenging, and "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew" are two of his greatest contributions.

In the late '70s, he dropped out of music. He had trouble with his hip joints. He was often in pain. And he was in bad shape with substance abuse. Those demons were always inside Miles. In the '40s and '5Os he was a heroin addict; he kicked it cold turkey. He'd also had to deal with racism. Once he was talking to a white woman outside Birdland. I'm sure she was beautiful; Miles loved beautiful women. A cop told him he was loitering. He wasn't loitering; he was doing a gig. The cop hit him with a billy club, split his head open and took him downtown. He paid a lot of dues. He didn't seem to be afraid of anything, but inside there was a vulnerability: you could hear it in his music. The bad result of those sufferings was drugs. The good part was he conquered all those things.

When he came back in 1981, he seemed to be a more whole human being. His playing opened up. I think he played even better than he did with us. Miles hadn't lost it; the critics who say so are crazy. It wasn't the same playing--it wasn't the same person--but it was gorgeous. I'll never forget a concert in Spain a few years ago. Miles brought tears to my eyes: I couldn't imagine how anybody could play like that. He always wanted improvisation to be fresh. Once he heard a sideman practicing in his room and that night heard him play those same scales in a solo. Afterward Miles said, "Look, I pay you to practice on the bandstand. "

Miles cared more about the music than about his ego-and he had a big ego. He had no problem getting the spotlight. If anything, he had to remove himself from the spotlight so his sidemen could shine. He would walk offstage, and that was misinterpreted as contempt for his band or his audience. He never purposely turned his back on the crowd. If he had to turn to face the drummer to get a musical conversation going, he did. Every step of the way, he followed his heart.

We won't see Miles anymore, and we won't be able to hear what he might have come up with next. But we have more than we could ever have expected from one man. He made several lifetimes' worth of contributions. To be around him was to be influenced by him: he himself was a statement. And he had exquisite taste. Even if he had only a hundred dollars left, he'd have a fine Italian suit made for him. I remember one time going to his house and he was cooking dinner in his tuxedo; Miles was a great cook. He was a man of deep conviction about everything, and it was exemplified in his music. He taught us to reach down inside ourselves for the truth. That's what Miles did. He always played the truth, as he saw it.

'Miles Followed His Heart' | News