Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life—with my clothes on—was when I first heard Diz & Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944.
Thus begins Miles, the (arguably) definitive Miles Davis autobiography, co-authored by Quincy Troupe and unleashed in 1989, 400-plus pages of warmly recalled terrible motherfuckers. As in “Sarah Vaughn was there also, and she’s a http://wwwmotherfucker too” or “Goddamn, those motherfuckers were terrible.” That’s page 9. On page 10, Miles describes his first exposure to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—”I’ve come close to matching the feeling of that night in 1944 in music, when I first heard Diz and Bird, but I’ve never quite got there,” he writes. “I’m always looking for it, listening and feeling for it, though . . . ”
Gregory Davis, Miles’s firstborn son, also hints at that Miles-trying-to-make-it-feel-like-the-first-time phenomenon in his own new bio
Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis. But in this case, he’s talking about cocaine and/or heroin.
You better hope the imminent Miles biopic isn’t the same goopy Oscar-bait treatment Johnny Cash and Ray Charles endured, or you’ll spend three hours watching Chris Tucker or Charlie Murphy or whoever stomp around a movie screen, abusing women, drugs, and evidently, his son Gregory in equal measure. (Actually, let’s do the Charlie Murphy version.) Critical, literary odes to Miles—his own autobio especially—certainly don’t skimp on the details of his mercurial, hostile “Prince of Darkness” persona. And though Gregory abhors that phrase specifically, Dark Magus has its own particularly lurid moments.
“I love my father dearly,” Gregory says, chatting on the phone with the Voice. “This is not a Daddy Dearest.” Nonetheless, Daddy sounds like a terrible motherfucker.
Gregory is fighting for his piece of Miles’s legacy, metaphorically and legally. For years he’s been brawling with the brothers, sisters, cousins, and uncles-in-law who make up the Miles Davis estate that has almost entirely shut him out: Miles mysteriously left Gregory and his second-born son, Miles Jr., out of his will. (Gregory says Miles, never too fond of such details, signed it but didn’t read it.) Just recently Gregory wrangled 25 percent of Miles’s future royalties out of the estate; now he’s targeting back pay. “They recognize they’ve been robbing me for years, but they’re willing to ‘go forward,’ ” Gregory scoffs. “What kinda attitude is that?”
Dark Magus‘s second half largely concerns this posthumous dispute, and its early pages plod through a truncated early timeline that other accounts, the Troupe autobio especially, cover with far greater color and detail. Casual Strand browsers should grab Magus and flip directly to page 90, the Kind of Blue section. (Every chapter is assigned a classic jazz album or tune; the one detailing Miles’s marital history is, of course, Bitches Brew.) Kind of Blue subheadings include “Miles Becomes a Woman Beater,” “Attacking a Model,” “My Little Brother Slaps My Father,” “He Had Demons Inside Himself,” “You’re Under Arrest,” and “Kinky Sex With My Wife?” (Miles apparently suggested a foursome; Gregory, and presumably his wife, declined.) Gregory recalls being present as Miles attacked a girlfriend with a splintered drumstick. Accompanying his father on drug deals and punching out vengeful dealers when Miles mouthed off. Hearing tell of a bizarre incident (subhead: “A Great Miles Story”) wherein a would-be burglar inadvertently drinks Miles’s urine. And after several chapters of relatively polite reminiscences about his father’s parents and surrounding family, Gregory suddenly muses that Miles’s dark side is entirely due to the abuse, verbal and physical, Miles endured from his mother.
“I don’t remember my grandmother ever being mean to me,” Gregory writes. “But my father’s sister—my Aunt Dorothy May—was also a bitch, and so was my sister for whatever her reasons were. Those were the two who successfully conspired to cut me out of Miles’s will.”
Well, now. Miles’s estate declined an interview, releasing instead a brief statement: “The family has read the book and finds no fact or merit in its contents. We will have no further comment at this time.”
Gregory’s account of his early years with Miles is sometimes unbearably sad, especially his early, disastrous trumpet lessons. “I was always on the verge of tears,” he writes. “I was ‘every kind of asshole,’ a ‘simple motherfucka,’ a ‘no-blowing piece of shit.’ ” But he reserves the real bitterness for the legal battles over the estate. Writing this brought up “painful memories and delightful memories too,” he tells me. “He was a man with a full life, and he would go through ordinary everyday unhappiness. Everyday unhappiness for him would be five times what a normal person would go through.” Gregory clings to one incident—as a small child he choked on a penny, and a shoeless, nearly naked Miles ran with him to the hospital—as emblematic of his father’s underlying love. “Maybe he really did have some father in him,” he writes. “After all, didn’t he run down the street almost naked to save my life?”
But it’s the later years that Gregory especially hopes his book
will illuminate, playing up a father-son bond he says no other estate member or outside biographer can hope to match. “You don’t know him as someone who lived with him, by his side,” he tells me. “I’m his son, I’m his first son, I’m his number one son. I traveled with him from the age of nine or 10 years old. Whenever he called on me, when I got older, I was by his side. I was his son, his nurse, his assistant road manager, his bodyguard. Whatever he needed, I was there by my father’s side.” He says his family’s hostilities stem from a mixture of greed and jealousy.
Dark Magus also has harsh words for the critics and biographers poaching his father’s legacy, but Troupe, for one, doesn’t return the enmity. “I think Gregory is unappreciated, I really do,” he says in a Voice interview. “I really think you have to be able to forgive people for their past problems. This is his sister. These are his brothers and sisters and cousins. They have to be able to forgive him if he did something to them. They ought to appreciate him for taking care of his dad. ‘Cause he did. There’s enough money for all of them. Damn.”
Gregory’s most painful recollections are of his father’s death and its immediate aftermath—Miles on his deathbed in Malibu and Gregory stuck in New York City with no money for a plane ticket, shunned by the rest of the family. But Dark Magus, true to Gregory’s word, never reads like outright vengeance, at least not toward Miles. Instead, he attacks misconceptions about his father. Miles wasn’t defiantly turning his back on the audience onstage—he was facing and leading the band. As for hints of racism, Gregory writes, “Anytime you heard Miles say, ‘You White motherfucka,’ it was because he had thought of something this country had done to Black people, not because he hated White people.”
If Gregory blames Miles for anything, its the apathy and inattentiveness that led to the hostile family takeover, which in turn caused Gregory’s estrangement in his father’s final years and the legal trouble following his death. “My father actually asked for my forgiveness,” he tells me, several times. On his deathbed, Miles “told my uncle, his brother, ‘Tell Gregory I tried to wait on him.’ He was under the impression I was coming.” Dark Magus admits that Gregory and Miles Jr. (the son who slapped Miles, incidentally) were rebuked and eventually disowned by their famously mercurial father, but Gregory has found other places to lay the blame. “What father isn’t angry at his sons from time to time?” he asks me. “Especially this one.”
Gregory Davis holds a book signing for Dark Magus Monday at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, mopitkins.com