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AN APPRECIATION : The Man and His Music

September 30, 1991|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Troupe, however, was right on one central point: Davis found out early in life that it is not easy to be born black in America--not even when your father is a wealthy dental surgeon who owns 200 acres of land, not even when, instead of trying to escape from the ghetto, you spend your childhood riding horses.

An incident Davis never forgot began one evening in 1959 when, while playing at Birdland and standing outside the New York club between sets, he was ordered by a white policeman to move on. Within minutes he was hit over the head by a white detective and was dragged, bleeding profusely, to a police station. It took months for a judge to rule that the arrest was illegal.

Miles Davis, whom I knew well, did not suffer white fools or white racists gladly--or, for that matter, black fools and racists, who also felt the sting of his wrath.

Those who knew other sides of him saw an evil-image cult figure, yet, as Cicely Tyson said when she was married to Davis, "He uses that facade to protect his vulnerability. Beneath that false surface you see what a sensitive, beautiful person he is. Nobody could play the way he does without having a great depth of soul."

Tyson might have a different view today, but the only Miles Davis I knew was friendly and articulate. He was capable of speaking standard English, not the endless stream of curses found in the book. He was not easily offended; after I gave him a highly negative review in The Times, he brushed it off with a laugh--"You were right, Leonard; I was sick that night."

He enjoyed athletics, particularly boxing and swimming. One frigid February night while he was visiting my wife and me in Studio City, he disrobed, dove into our pool, came out looking refreshed and helped my wife make dinner (he was a knowledgeable cook). In 1983, he took up painting; some of his brightly-hued abstractions decorate his later album covers.

My best memory of him is a day in 1982 when he sat, comfortable in a wine-red gown and slippers, sipping Perrier in his suite at L'Ermitage in Beverly Hils. Even his rasping vocal cords had cleared up a little.

He grinned and told me, "I guess I had a voice lift. I stopped smoking and drinking. I drink about four gallons of Perrier a day. Cicely said I should swim every day, so I swim every day. I have to get plenty of exercise to fight off arthritis in these 56-year-old bones.

"A few months ago I had a stroke and couldn't move my hand, but Cicely took me to a Chinese acupuncturist and he cured me. Now I take some kind of Chinese herbs every morning; makes you strong. I owe it all to Cicely; if it hadn't been for her and that doctor, I don't know where I'd have been."

Many of us who knew him from the first New York years still sense in our hearts that--beyond all the controversy--the gentleness and humanity he showed during that period did indeed represent the real Miles Davis.

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