Gerald Early, author of Miles Davis and American Culture

October 10th, 2001

 

Gerald Early is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis, and is one of America’s most respected essayists. His work on American and African American culture is collected in Tuxedo Junction, The Culture of Bruising (National Book Award), and One Nation Under a Groove, a book on Motown.

He has edited collections on African American rhetoric, black consciousness, sports, Muhammad Ali, and African American writing about St. Louis. He consulted on the Baseball and Jazz projects for Ken Burns’ Florentine Films and hosted three academic conferences on Miles Davis and American culture at Washington University. He also received a Grammy nomination for his notes to the boxed set Yes I Can!: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story.

There are few people who know Miles Davis quite like Gerald Early, and we are proud to feature him in our exclusive interview.

Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

 

Miles Davis

painting by Judy Levy

 

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JJM What is your background?

GE I am a professor of English and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where I have taught since 1982. For seven or eight years, I was director of the African-American Studies program there. I have written extensively on many aspects of African-American and popular culture, and part of that includes writing about sports, particularly about baseball and boxing, and also writing about music. I have written about rhythm and blues music as well as jazz music.

JJM The Sammy Davis, Jr. book that you did, is that new to the marketplace?

GE Yes, brand new in the market.

JJM I was interested also in the Muhammad Ali reader that you did. Where does your interest in boxing stem from?

GE I grew up in Philadelphia, which is a real fight town – a lot of fighters come from Philadelphia – and the sport was very popular there, when I was growing up. I also grew up at a time when Ali was big, and he attracted a lot of people to boxing, even people who normally might not have been very interested in it. I think it was a combination of growing up when Ali was very big, as well as growing up in a town that was really obsessed with boxing.

JJM Did you read David Remnick’s King of the World by any chance?

GE Yes, I did.

JJM What did you think of that?

GE I thought it was a very nice biography of Ali’s early years.

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

GE As a kid, growing up, there were a lot of athletes I admired, particularly Ali, and guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron. I admired them because in the press, at that time, about the only section in the paper that you could turn to and see black men talked about in a really positive way was if you went to the sports page. These men became my models, not because I wanted to become an athlete, but because I wanted to be as good at something in life as they were as athletes. As I grew older, I became interested in jazz music, and I listened to it a lot. I became interested in it because I heard it and admired the ability of the people who played it. Once again, I sort of adopted them as role models, not because I wanted to be a musician, but because I wanted to be able to do as well in life as these people did, and exhibit the same level of dedication.

JJM Was there a writer that you looked up to?

GE There were several writers that I admired when I was growing up. George Orwell was one of them. I really liked 1984 and Animal Farm. I also very much admired Richard Wright, particularly his autobiography Black Boy. He wrote very well about the adolescent experience, and I was able to identify with the hero of his autobiography. I liked James Baldwin also, not that I was able to understand him when I was a teenager, but I just like the way he wrote and the way he put together words. I thought he was a great stylist. I also admired several sports writers of the day. I used to read sports magazines pretty regularly. I loved Red Smith’s columns, I used to read them pretty religiously. I used to read Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times.

JJM Did you get into W.C. Heinz much? He wrote of boxing…

GE I didn’t get into him much as a teenager, but I read him a little while I was in college.

JJM How did the Miles Davis and American Culture book come together?

GE The Missouri History Museum decided a couple of years ago that it wanted to do an exhibit on Miles Davis. Normally, when an exhibit is done, there is some kind of book that accompanies it.  I was asked if I would be willing to put together a book for the exhibit. I was quite flattered to be asked to do this. At first, I thought it was going to be more of a traditional book, for instance, I would write a long piece about Miles Davis and there would be lots of pictures in it. But, when I got together with Ben Cawthra, the curator of the exhibit, he expressed that he would prefer it to be a collection of essays, exploring different aspects of Miles Davis. So, I thought that was a pretty interesting idea, and it would give the book more value, a longer life and more relevance, especially for people who want to study Miles Davis later. That is basically how the book came to be – to accompany this exhibit.

JJM What did the exhibit feature?

GE It is still up, and will be up until February, 2002. The exhibit has artifacts such as trumpets, costumes that Davis wore on stage, as well as photographs and placards that tell a running narrative of his life. I think people would find it interesting to go, if they have a chance, because you learn a lot of the history of the area Miles grew up in, the Alton and East St. Louis area. East St. Louis is a very interesting city, and the museum did a very good job of getting pictures and artifacts about black people in East St. Louis at the time Miles Davis grew up there. For just that part of the exhibit alone, I think it’s a worthwhile visit.

JJM There are a couple of very nice essays in the book that speak to East St. Louis at the time of Miles’ childhood and also where it is at now. How did you choose the material for the book?

GE We commissioned people to write these original essays, people who had either written about Miles Davis before, or about jazz, or who would, in one way or another, be able to talk about a particular dimension of Miles Davis, and bring some kind of new insight to it. We had a list of maybe 25 names and we got most of the people we wanted.

JJM What was an early defining moment in Miles’ childhood?

GE Probably when he got his first trumpet and started taking trumpet lessons, which led him to become a musician. Miles came from quite a music tradition in East St. Louis and St. Louis, for jazz, at the time he was growing up. He was kind of surrounded by this and absorbed all that was going on at that time. So, getting the trumpet was as much a defining moment as any…

JJM I love the story in one of the essays that dealt with Miles’ childhood. His father was from Arkansas, and Miles was visiting the area.  He took a walk in the woods and heard a voice off in the distance. He tried capturing that voice in his music throughout his life.

GE Yes. I think a lot of people think of Miles as being “New York.”  They think of the last years of his life living in Malibu and him being this very sophisticated man, but they are rarely remided of his roots. The kind of person he was is shaped in where he was from. That is true of all of us, of course. I think that is one of the things that I liked most about doing this book, that we were able to give people glimpses of the place where he was from and how it shaped him.

JJM You said in one of your essays that he was a “man that was not afraid to be himself.” A musician told Ebony Magazine, “Nobody in the world can play music as beautifully as he does and not be a beautiful person inside.” Others would characterize him as being everything from a mysogenist and angry to sentimental and friendly.  Who was Miles Davis?

GE As with any complex person, it’s hard to definitively say he was this way or that way…I would have to say in the end, Miles Davis was a musician. He was a jazz musician, he was a great musician, who was quite dedicated to his craft, and quite dedicated to the art of making music. He was someone who was very dedicated to expressing himself and his inner feelings and emotions.  As an artist, he was a very sensitive man. Artists do lots of things, and I think we tolerate certain kinds of behavior from a great artist like Miles that we would not tolerate from an ordinary person. This is true even when we think of the behavior we tolerate from a great athlete. From great people we tend to tolerate certain kinds of lapses that we don’t from others. Regarding the mysogeny and some of the other things, these are things that were part of his personal life, and his relationship with women. I am not saying that people can’t talk about it – Davis himself talked about it pretty graphically in his autobiography. In the end, the quality of his music and what he produced transcends anything about what he was personally, which I think is true of any artist, whether you want to talk about Mozart or anyone of that magnitude. If you read some of Mozart’s letters, he talked in quite derogatory language, so you can find out about the lives of a lot of people if you dig deep enough, and you find out that they may be a little weird or off center. To some degree, I think all great artists are like that. It’s kind of like what Alfred Hitchcock once said about great actors, something to the effect that great actors are sort of nutty people, but the only way they can do what they do is to be the way that they are. I think that’s really true with someone like Miles Davis.  I think the only way he could play the the kind of music he played was to be the way he was, so you kind of had to take the whole package. In the end, what could be said is that he was a great musician, very dedicated to his music and was someone was a very adventuresome musician who wanted to try all the time to experiment in the spirit of jazz, explore and try to do new things. I am not saying that everything he tried worked, or that everyone should like everything he did, but I think the spirit of what was driving him most of the time, whether you liked it or not, was most admirable and what we most appreciate and love in an artist. This need of his to push boundaries and explore is what we most admire.

JJM To say the least, he was a special artist, and I suppose we put up with behavior of his whether we were fans or peers. His behavior, in truth, impacted very few of us.  What struck me about him was that he was a “man’s man.” He modeled himself after Sugar Ray Robinson, and he loved boxing, fast cars, and drinking. He led this sort of Playboy existence. What was his concept of masculinity and how did it appear in his work?

GE Yes, he was very much a “man’s man.”  He exhibited a lot of those qualities – the way he dressed, the way he carried himself. As you said, his model was Sugar Ray Robinson, a boxer. He admired prize fighters a lot, and he really liked the sport. He comes across as being a tough guy, and I think a part of the reason why he cultivated that kind of persona was because he was a small man, and I think in some ways he wanted to project a physical presence so people wouldn’t take advantage of him because he was small. Also, I think that as a black man he wanted to project a certain kind of toughness, because, once again, he didn’t want people to take advantage of him. Remember, a good portion of his audience was white, a good deal of the jazz press is white, so he was dealing with a lot of people he was skeptical about – if not downright hostile about. People that he would feel uneasy about trusting. After all, they were white people, and he didn’t have any particular reason to trust them in a lot of ways.

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