The Picasso of jazz passed away 20 years ago. Countless columns will no doubt be devoted to the anniversary. He’ll be remembered fondly as a musician of genius who was at the forefront of bebop, hard-bop, orchestral jazz, modal jazz, jazz-rock fusion and techno-funk. He’ll also be remembered for often scabrous behaviour, particularly the abuse he heaped upon the women in his life. Two decades after his death, Davis continues to be revered and reviled in equal measure. A complex character, he was both quasar of cool and prince of darkness. Between the light and the dark, however, there are many reasons to remember him. Here are nine of the less obvious ones. Feel free to suggest a 10th …
Davis was the best-dressed man of the 20th century. Starting out, he’d customise his pawnshop Brooks Brothers suits, cutting notches in the lapels in imitation of the Duke of Windsor. After 1949’s Birth of the Cool, he favoured the Ivy League look of European tailoring. In the 60s he went for slim-cut Italian suits and handmade doeskin loafers. He was always the coolest-looking man in the room. Hell, he even managed to look cool sporting a blood-splattered white khaki jacket following a scuffle with police outside Birdland. In the 70s his wardrobe went as far-gone funky as his music and he was the only man who could get away with wearing purple bell bottoms, kipper ties and hexagonal glasses.
His explosive wit
Davis was a man of few words. When he did speak, his words often had a similar effect to a hand grenade being lobbed into the room. In 1987, he was invited to a White House dinner by Ronald Reagan. Few of the guests appeared to know who he was. During dinner, Nancy Reagan turned to him and asked what he’d done with his life to merit an invitation. Straight-faced, Davis replied: “Well, I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. What have you done except fuck the president?”
Davis was one of the most photographed men of the 20th century. He rarely smiled when the lens was pointed his way. He didn’t consider it part of his job. Instead he glowered with eyes as black and as bloody as hell itself. From the 40s shots of Herman Leonard to Anton Corbijn’s in the 80s, Miles never looked anything but completely iconic.
His aloof allure
He could be impossible – sometimes hilariously so. In the early 60s he was booked to play the Village Vanguard in New York. He turned up an hour late and walked on stage to rapturous applause. After counting in a blues tune he played just one note of it before walking off – to a standing ovation. “Why are they clapping if he only played one note?” one audience member asked the management. “You don’t pay to see him play,” came the reply, “you pay to see him think.”
His album sleeves
Often designed by the man himself, Davis’s covers did what album covers are meant to do. That’s to say, they stood alone as distinctive works of art while offering tantalising visual clues to the style of music contained therein. My favourite is 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, featuring his wife, Betty Mabry.
His screen presence
There isn’t a movie or TV show featuring a burst of Davis’s jazz that hasn’t been improved. From In the Line of Fire to Pleasantville, or The Wire to Mad Men, a dash of Davis is always a guarantee of edgy sophistication.
Miles Davis made the world’s finest chilli, according to those lucky enough to taste it. Though he wouldn’t have approved, vegetarians should substitute soya mince for the beef and maybe leave out the bacon grease altogether.
As though hewn from rough ebony, Davis’s hands were something to behold. Irving Penn took some magnificent photographs of them for the Tutu album (an original signed print will set you back a cool £100,000).
His basketball skills
It’s well known that Davis was a keen boxer, often to be found sparring at Sugar Ray Robinson’s gym in New York. Less documented was his prowess on the basketball court. Check him out, shooting hoops with John Lennon at the former Beatle’s birthday party in 1972.
Jon Wilde, The Guardian