On May 26, the day that would have been his 88th birthday, the iconic trumpeter Miles Davis was honored in New York City with the unveiling of a street, Miles Davis Way, on the West 77th Street block where he lived in Manhattan from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. “The contribution he made to music, especially when he lived on that street, was immeasurable; some of the greatest music of all time,” says Quincy Troupe, writer of Miles: The Autobiography.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer supported the effort for recognition of Davis on the Upper West Side since the time she was a City Council member representing the area. “Mr. Davis lived in our community when he was writing his most prolific music,” she says. “The people in the neighborhood didn’t forget. They really advocated.”
From the late 1940s through the 1960s, Miles Davis was central to major currents of stylistic development in jazz. A leader of leaders, he mentored many of the young musicians who themselves became great leaders in jazz. He was what collaborator Gil Evans (Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess), in the documentary Miles Ahead, called a sound innovator who changed the sound of the trumpet for the first time since Louis Armstrong.
Miles apprenticed with Charlie Parker, playing bebop; began experimenting with pastel sound forms with the “cool school” as a journeyman; and swung into his own leadership and mastery in the Kind of Blue period (1955-1961), resulting in the first great Miles Davis Quintet/Sextet—with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly (and Red Garland or Bill Evans).
The second great quintet in the 1960s (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams) integrated elements of bebop and hard bop with their own take on avant-garde, free jazz experiments of the 1960s. In the late 60s and beyond, Davis ventured into new vistas. He embraced a mélange of influences, incorporating electronic music, pop, rock, “Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Paul Buckmaster,” recalls Troupe.
The person most responsible for naming West 77th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue Miles Davis Way was Shirley Zafirau, a longtime neighbor. Drummer Vincent Wilburn, Davis’ nephew, says that she’s a “hero” to the Davis family. Zafirau is an avid jazz fan who, after becoming a tour guide, realized that other musical icons such as Duke Ellington and Chico O’Farrill had streets named after them but Davis didn’t. For the past five years she’s been fighting for Davis’ recognition in the neighborhood.
She’s well aware of Davis’ artistic legacy, yet emphasizes his role as a neighbor:
“We all went to the same butcher. He’d walk around, always visible. Miles would lean on the retaining wall at 312 W. 77th St., and he’d say in his raspy voice, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And he’d interact with all the people who lived on this street.”
One day she was on her way to work. Davis pulled up in his Ferrari.