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SMOOTH SAILING FOR MILES : A Yachtful of Friends Help Davis Trumpet His 60th Birthday

June 08, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

The time: May of 1976. The place: a gloomy, dimly lit brownstone in Manhattan's West 70s. Miles Davis is turning 50, but feels he has nothing to celebrate. For the past eight months, he has been in total retirement. For two years, he has endured one physical problem after another. To alleviate the excruciating pain in his left hip, he's been taking pain pills; to relieve bleeding ulcers, he was hospitalized after a concert in St. Louis.

He was operated on in New York for the removal of nodes on his larynx. After a final performance in September of 1975, he stopped playing and submitted to the long-delayed hip surgery to remove bone chips and implant a new hip joint.

After yet another operation, Miles Davis spends his 50th birthday bedridden. For the next five birthdays, he is seen by almost nobody, leaving the house very rarely. A few friends come to visit occasionally, at his home or in one of the hospitals, but his social life is as inactive as his musical career. Miles tells friends he is desperately bored.

There are a couple of abortive attempts to return to the recording studios, but the general feeling by now among his friends and fans is that he has given up, that they will be lucky even to see him turn 60 with or without a horn.

During an absence from music that lasts almost six years, his most ardent supporter, increasingly offering him encouragement, is Cicely Tyson. They were together from 1966 to 1969; after that, she says, "I'd call him every year on New Year's Eve, just to make sure he was still alive! I kept telling him he had a lot more things to accomplish, and not to give up. Often he'd hang up on me, but I'd just call again."

Fade out . . . fast forward . . .

May, 1986. The place: an 85-foot yacht docked in Marina del Rey. Tyson, who married Miles Davis in November of 1981, is preparing a surprise 60th birthday gala for him. She wants to make sure that this will be a celebration nobody will forget.

Secretly, she arranges to fly in Miles' sister and brother from Chicago, his daughter Cheryl from St. Louis. They're on board, along with the world figures of politics, the stage, TV and music who now comprise the Davises' social circle.

By the time Miles arrives, there are 125 people on the boat, among them a steel band playing on the top deck. His surprise is genuine enough to force him, momentarily, to break out of the taciturn manner always associated with him. Miles smiles. He even removes his shades. He is greeted by Mayor Tom Bradley, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, former Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

Quincy Jones, once an aspiring trumpeter, is there along with Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy. Plus Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, Roxie Roker, Lola Falana, Billy Dee Williams and Roscoe Lee Browne. Sammy Davis, Bill Cosby and Chick Corea are out of town but spouses Altovise Davis, Camille Cosby and Gayle Moran Corea are on hand.

Jazzmen who worked with Miles back in the '60s are among the celebrants: J.J. Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Tony Williams.

As the yacht pulls away from the pier to cruise around for four hours, Miles mingles freely among the deck-to-deck well-wishers.

The road to this moment had been marked by new traumas, even after Miles went back to the studios to prepare what turned out to be his first album release since his illnesses. During the first public appearance in 1981, he looked gaunt and arthritic. Not long after his marriage to Tyson, he suffered a slight stroke that left his right hand immobilized. The doctors told Tyson (but not her husband) that he might never regain use of the hand. She took him to a Chinese acupuncturist; what followed seemed like a miracle. The therapy cured him within months.

He gave up smoking, drinking, whatever else had impeded his progress. He began eating Chinese herbs, went swimming daily and started spending more time in California, away from the pressure of New York. There was one more bout with the doctors: In late 1984, he underwent a 10-hour operation for a hip prosthesis, caught pneumonia and was out of action for another six months.

Since then, it's been onward and upward.

Davis says that if he had married Tyson long ago, he would have been happy but she wouldn't have become a star. It might well be added that had they not stayed together he might never have made it to this occasion.

Herbie Hancock played "Happy Birthday" and Miles cut the cake. It was suitably inscribed with a reminder of one of his best-known compositions: "Sixty--So What?"

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