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MILES' BOSWELL : Poet Quincy Troupe Will Share His Memories of the Great Mr. Davis

December 05, 1991|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lancer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

It is indicative of the vitality of the late Miles Davis that his friend and biographer Quincy Troupe often still speaks of him in the present tense. The jazz trumpeter left such a broad legacy and had such momentum in music and in life that it may well take a lifetime for the rest of us just to catch up to him.

"He did so much, but it was never enough for him," Troupe recalls. "He said to me one day, 'Quincy, I don't ever want to be a museum piece under glass.' To him that meant you were creatively dead. He was always trying to break down some more doors if he could, because he just couldn't stand still."

It is that restless spirit that Troupe will discuss Friday evening at Orange Coast College, where he will lecture on Davis' music, life and creative processes. Troupe, 51, is no stranger to lecturing, having spent 22 years teaching literature, currently at UC San Diego. He has received two American Book Awards, one for "Miles" and another for his poetry, which was the focus of an Emmy-winning segment of Bill Moyers' PBS series "Power of the Word."

As did many of Davis' musical leaps, "Miles" stirred controversy when it was released in 1989. It stands easily with Sidney Bechet's "Treat It Gentle" and Charles Mingus' "Beneath the Underdog" as one of the most evocative musical lives committed to paper. Davis speaks so passionately and informedly about music, his and others', that it can compel a reader to hear it with fresh ears.

But the book is also fearlessly candid about the darker events and occurrences--including drug abuse, wife-beating and racial bitterness--that raged through Davis' stormy life, and it's far from pretty.

Troupe met Davis, who died on Sept. 28 at age 65, in 1985 while doing a story on him for Spin magazine. "We hit it off right away," Troupe remembered recently, on the phone from his home in La Jolla. "I was supposed to have an hour and a half with him according to his publicist, and we ended up spending 10 hours." Davis then called Troupe and offered additional time: The notoriously taciturn musician talked for another nine hours, and even cooked a meal for his guest.

"So I knew right away something was happening," Troupe said. "It turned out there were a lot of little things that joined us together, like the first band he had played in in St. Louis was my mother's cousin's band. We didn't know that when we first met."

Still, even after the home-cooked meal, Troupe was surprised to get a call asking him to work with Davis on his autobiography.

"His music had been important to me since I was 13, had influenced my life on a heavy level for a long time, so it was a tremendous shock and honor for me that he wanted me to do it," he said.

None of which was lost on Davis. "When I went out to see him, the first thing he said was, 'Yeah, I got you a gig, didn't I? A good one.' And he was laughing," Troupe recalls.

He said he was given the choice of making "Miles" a biography or an autobiography, and picked the latter because he felt Davis' voice was essential to the telling of his story.

"That's why the book starts with the word listen, " Troupe said. "It's like an oral history. Language has an attitude and a stance. You know somebody through (his) language. For me the most important thing was to capture the way he spoke and the cadences that he spoke in."

Troupe spent thousands of hours with Davis, both interviewing him--a process he says Davis grew to despise--and hanging out, listening to music or watching basketball and boxing on TV. Troupe found that Davis' "tough public persona was basically to keep people away from him, and back off of him. He had some decades where he was essentially crazy from heroin and other addictions. But he was basically a very nice guy, kind of a softie, gentle. He was a fierce person, but I guarantee you can't find anybody that Miles was good friends with who did not really love him as a person.

"He was hilarious, man, one of the funniest people I ever met. He could tell stories, and he was a great cook. If he liked you, he was generous with his time, energy and spirit. When there was nobody around, his humility was wonderful. He never talked about himself. You walked in his house either in Malibu or Manhattan, you didn't see any of many awards he had. He had them all in a closet. There weren't any photographs of him. Except for the trumpet and the piano, you wouldn't even know you were in his house."

In forging a friendship with Davis, Troupe was privy to sides of him a writer might not typically see. He said there never was a conflict over whether some of that unguarded information should be kept from the book.

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