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.


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 reminded 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.

JJM One of your writers, Eric Porter, said that Davis “represents the survival of African-American male genius.” I am sure Davis took it upon himself to maintain his esteem..

GE I think very much so, yes. Another reason for him to have this “man’s man” toughness is because the jazz world, particularly at the time he entered it, was connected to the “seedy” side of life. Jazz was played primarily in night clubs, there were prostitutes around, organized crime, drug addiction, and this sort of thing.  So jazz musicians, unlike other kinds of artists who are removed from that world, bumped heads with the lower aspects of life. I also think that Davis developed the kind of attitude he did because he was so exposed to this underworld sort of life that bumped up against jazz, particularly at this time in its history.

JJM What were his politics? How politically active was he?

GE He was never really very politically active. From all indications in his autobiography, it didn’t appear he was particularly political. I don’t even know if he ever voted. During the civil rights movement, he gave a couple of benefit concerts, but he didn’t get involved in it the way Max Roach did, or some of the other guys. He wasn’t somebody who got into a big race pride thing like John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders, or some of the other people who were playing the avante-garde stuff back in the 60’s. He didn’t seem to go that way. On the other hand, even though he didn’t espouse any sort of politics, he came across to the public as being this very uncompromising black man, the sort of guy who didn’t take shit from people. That really impressed a lot of younger black people who came up and who admired him.

JJM I think it communicates politics in a way that didn’t require him to be political. His album art expressed himself in ways that go way beyond the music. I am curious to know what if any effect the conviction of Muhammad Ali for violating the Selective Service Act had on Miles Davis. Given his love of boxing, and all that was going on in the 60’s, did this move him at all?

GE There isn’t any evidence that I have about his particular reaction to that, but I would suppose that, among other things, he probably thought that Ali got a raw deal. I think that would probably be a safe assumption to make. Even though Davis was a “man’s man,” there is no indication that he had any love of the military, or anything like that. He never served in the military. He didn’t exhibit any sort of strong, patriotic feelings or anything like that.

JJM Well, it was hard to be patriotic, and it was hard to have any love for the military during that time, so, he wasn’t alone there…

GE Exactly. So, I think he was pretty sympathetic to Ali and probably thought that here was another black guy getting a raw deal.

JJM In 1968, at age 14, I remember having my head turned around by my first discovery of Kind of Blue.  Shortly after this discovery, Bitches Brew came out and I remember being turned off pretty significantly by the direction he was taking the music. In fact, I never really got into the fusion element of jazz that dominated the 70’s. My question is, did his change of direction result in his “selling out” as Stanley Crouch has said, and did it serve to narrow an interest in others discovering the jazz tradition?

GE I think Miles Davis was certainly interested in having his art be commercially successful. Any artist in his right mind wants to be commercially successful. You want an audience. You go through a lot of training to become an artist. You certainly don’t want to go through all that work and then have no one buy your work. He faced a sort of dilemma in the late 60’s, because rock music had really become the dominant music, and young people had become the dominant market for buying the music. It was becoming more and more difficult to find places to play jazz music because so many places were closing up. If he was going to continue to play, to have a band and continue to be financially viable, he was going to find it difficult to find places to play. If he made the change he made, he would be in a position to play his music where rock music was played. He would also be able to connect with the large audience that buys records, which is young people. From a commercial standpoint, it made perfect sense for him to do what he did. Now, if that constitutes “selling out,” then I guess to some that action is selling out. If you listen to the music he played during that era, it is not very commercially viable. It is pretty wild music. Most of the people I knew in college at the time didn’t like it because the compostions went on for a real long time, the music was dense, loud, and you really had to get into it. Most people didn’t really try to. I think in that regard, Davis was very much interested in making this music commercially viable, but on the other hand, I think the music he was playing between 1970 and 1975 was pretty uncompromising music. Some of that stuff sounds pretty avante-garde and wild. As my daughter would say, it sounds kind of “whacked!”

JJM I remember wanting to have interesting music as background noise, and this sort of fit the bill. 27 minute compositions were not the sort of thing disc jockeys were able to fit within their formats, even during the more adventurous radio days of that era.

GE It’s hard to listen to a composition for that long, especially when there is a lot going on. You try to figure it out…Basically, when people listen to music, they are no different than when they read a book – they want a beginning a middle and an end. When you have a piece of music going on that long and it has all this kind of repetitive riffing, and this and that and the other stuff going on, with guitars and conga drums…To a lot of people it sounds like a cacophony.

JJM Part of any artist’s goal is to simultaneously cultivate his art and his audience. For me, he lost me. It’s not to say I don’t appreciate what he did, but he lost me. He certainly picked up a young audience, selling a half million copies of Bitches Brew, which is a lot of records. Did he lose many fans as a result?

GE Yes, I am sure he did. He had actually started to lose some people even before he made this switch. The quintet that he had in the mid 60’s with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and those guys, they were playing music that was quite distinctively different from the stuff he played when he had Coltrane, or the stuff he played on Kind of Blue. That quintet, as it progressed, started playing music that got edgier and edgier. For some people, they dropped out at the point because it got too edgy. He lost more people even still when he released Bitches Brew, but he also got a lot of people because they were young people. Not just because they necessarily liked the music, but liking Miles Davis had suddenly become hip. Now, you have to ask the question to yourself about how many people are really sitting down, listening to those records would have instead been listening to Kind of Blue or Porgy and Bess or records of that sort. It is much more difficult to say. I would venture to say that a lot of those young people didn’t listen to those records very seriously.

JJM I love the Martha Bayles essay, where she talks of Davis’s dilemma of addressing himself as an artist to “the double audience,” two different cultural groups – black America and white America. How much influence did Jimi Hendrix have on Miles beynd the music itself, and was he interested in Hendrix because he saw a way to address this “double audience” that Martha Bayles wrote of?

GE I think that is a good point. From Hendrix and Sly Stone, he saw a couple of black artists who had a really large white audience. He thought he could make something of a transformation like that too. The other thing that probably impressed Davis is that they both had integrated bands. When Davis did the electric stuff, most of the bands he had during that era, between 1970 and 1975, were integrated. He had at various times different white musicians playing, like Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, and other white musicians were in and out of his band as well. So, I think the integrated bands that Hendrix and Stone had impressed him, the appeal that he could have a broader audience if he had an integrated band. The problem was, with someone like Hendrix, his music mostly appealed to whites. Sly Stone, on the other hand, because his music was so groove oriented and danceable, had a large black following as well as a large white following.  But, at the time Hendrix’s music came out, I don’t think a lot of black people appreciated it or didn’t understand it at all. They just kind of thought of it as white rock music and didn’t hear a lot of the blues or jazz elements in it. I think that was a big concern of Hendrix’s, trying to attract more black people to his music. Of course, when Hendrix got rid of his white band and he reinvented himself with Band of Gypsies, where he had two black guys playing with him, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, the band was trying to sound more funky and groove oriented. I think the record that he made, the live Band of Gypsies record, was probably the most successful Hendrix record as so far as appealing to a black audience. I think a lot of young black people bought the record because it had a strong groove element in it.

JJM There was another point in Bayles’ essay that was interesting. She writes, “His long struggle to stay on top was messy and unseemly at times, and some have argued that by his refusal to ‘age gracefully’ he contributed to the decline of American music.” Did he contribute to the decline of American music?

GE Martha wrote a very good book about the decline of American popular music.  I think that Davis was kind of a product of his time, a victim of his time. He came along at a particular time where he had to continue to make a living doing what he loved, and discovered that to do so he had to play something different if he wanted to make a living at playing music in front of audiences. It’s hard to say about the decline in music, it depends on what one means about a decline. I think that Miles Davis’ music suffered as a result of what he tried to do in the 70’s and into the 80’s, not because he went electric, but because in some ways he was trying to make an appeal to people for the wrong reasons.  Also, Miles so thoroughly repudiated what he did in the past. I can understand an artist not wanting to repeat what he had done in the past, but it’s not a good idea for an artist to repudiate your work of the past, as if to say, “oh, that’s old hat,” and that sort of thing. Because, let’s face it, what you are in the present is a sum total of what your past has been. I think in that way, Miles Davis hurt himself, and probably hurt jazz music the most by not being able to incorporate the tremendous legacy and achievement of what he had produced and done up until 1969 into the music that he did later. There seems to be this incredible demarcation between what he did before and what he had done later. He didn’t seem to use his past and use his legacy very well.  In that regard, concerning Stanley Crouch’s criticism of Miles “selling out,” I agree with him 100%, that Miles failed to produce really telling music because he was unable to use the legacy of jazz and all the things he had done in jazz up to the point of Bitches Brew very well, from the release of Bitches Brew on.

JJM I wanted to address this free jazz thing. Miles said this of Ornette Coleman. “He just fucked up everybody.” During a Downbeat“Blindfold Test,” upon hearing Eric Dolphy, he said, “That’s got to be Eric Dolphy. No one else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he is ridiculous.” Over the years he harshly criticized the likes of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and fired Sam Rivers after a short period of time as well. Why did he dislike free jazz so much?

GE You have to understand the kind of sound that Davis grew up with. He heard people like Clark Terry, Roy Eldridge, people like that.  He was involved with the boppers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Monk. He was also involved with people like Gil Evans, the whole cool movement, and Coltrane. What that tells you is that he is a guy who came up with a strong sense of tradition in this music, and a strong sense of how it should sound and how people should play their instruments. I think one of the big things he probably didn’t like about it when he first heard it is that he probably thought the people didn’t know how to play their instruments. He probably was very annoyed with that. I think any professional who sees someone else taking their work beyond limits will think the person is some sort of amateur. After growing up with a certain tradition of jazz, that had a certain element of swing to it, that players he played with knew how to play solos and construct their music in a particular way – in other words he was surrounded by a certain sense of discipline. I think to some degree the thing that hurt him when he went electric is that he seemed to have lost that sense of discipline that he had in his music up until that point. Basically, jazz was not something that was “free.” Jazz was a discipline. You learned it, you mastered it, it had a certain law, a certain code, and you performed it in a certain kind of way. The idea was not to go out and just be “free” in what you were doing, to just play anything and make any kind of a sound. Yes, one could do that, but it doesn’t mean that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. I think that he didn’t like this kind of music but it sounded like the musicians didn’t know how to play their instruments. Also, I don’t think he liked it because people didn’t seem very disciplined, and if there is anything about Miles Davis’ music that stands out it is that he was a remarkably disciplined musician. I just don’t think he appreciated what the “free jazz” musicians could do. He probably thought it was pretty unlistenable. I have listened to Cecil Taylor, and I have heard him live, and I still don’t have any real idea of what he is trying to do. Maybe I am just ignorant…

JJM I saw Cecil Taylor in Berkeley in the 1970’s and I have to say I was left dumbfounded by the experience. I had absolutely no idea what was going on…

GE I think Miles Davis, first of all, was always very honest in his assessments about music, he always gave his honest opinion about what he felt people were doing. In many instances, and I always recommend his autobiography to people for this reason, a lot of the assessments he gives of people are very helpful and very astute. I think with the avante-garde, he just felt people had gone overboard and they really had lost their way with what they were trying to do. The other thing is I don’t think Miles Davis ever saw music as a form of protest, that never seemed to register with him, to use his music as some form of political statement. The way he played his music is how he connected.

JJM The “unity music” movement Amiri Baraka encouraged, which attempted to make free jazz some sort of political statement…

GE Yes, Baraka did want to do that, and it’s always kind of troublesome. You listen to an instrumental piece of music, and somebody says the title of this song is “Black Man Saluting the Sun” and you listen to it and it sounds like a lot of noise, it could be called anything – it could be called “Pot Dropping on the Floor.” Somebody is telling you that it’s supposed to be political, that you are supposed to feel a certain way about it, and you are saying, “Why should I feel this way about it? What is it that is making this political? Is it because this guy is playing his instrument in this way, and he doesn’t seem to know how to play it, or even whether it’s in tune or not or because he is defying all the rules normally associated with making jazz, is that supposed to make it political, because he is doing that, and doing so in a very self-conscious way?” If you sit down and think about it for five minutes you conclude that, of course, it doesn’t. How does work that somebody does which is designed around breaking the rules, become political?

JJM Well, perhaps the thing free jazz and politics have in common is that many of us consider both to be quite painful…



Miles Davis and American Culture

edited by

Gerald Early


Miles Davis products at

Gerald Early products at


Interview took place on October 10, 2001


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Billie Holiday historian Farah Griffin



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