Miles Davis in Paris, July 6, 1991
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages

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.”

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

 “Hey, where are you going?”

“I’m going to work, Miles.”

“Where’s work?”

“In the garment center, 40th and Broadway,” she said.

“Come on, I’ll give you a ride,” said Miles.

“He gave me a lift. So whenever he’d see me on the street, he’d say, ‘You need a ride?’ He was cool, nice and a little quiet.”

Advertisement

This picture differs from accounts by those who ruefully recall his mistreatment of women and his drug abuse. Troupe calls those times of substance abuse his “dark periods” and connects Miles’ abusive tendencies to his own demons, as well as hanging around pimps, drug dealers and the like. As much of a tortured artist as Davis certainly was at times in his career, his musical genius is the basis of his artistic reputation and the justification for his recognition via a street naming.

“He was second to my dad as a father figure and a teacher of music and life,” says Wilburn. “He always told me to stay true to the music. Don’t be pigeonholed, keep progressing and evolving. Never rest on your laurels. Keep it exciting.

“Some musicians peak or level off. Miles never did that. He was always striving to play what was in his mind to direct that sound to the public. He was the first one to wake up in the morning and the last one to go to bed at night. He’d change clothes five or six times a day. That’s how his mind worked.”

Advertisement

Troupe, author too of a memoir about his relationship with Davis, Miles and Me, says that Davis explained the basis of his Picasso-like love affairs with musical forms as well as what remained constant.

“Miles told me: ‘A lot of people want me to play the old music. I can’t play that because I don’t feel it. Things change in the world. I want to know the next thing. I’m always being pulled forward by my own curiosity. Not because of money, like some people say. I’m doing it because that’s where my head is. I’m trying to go with my head and what I’m hearing in my heart. And I’m always changing.

“‘But if you listen to my sound, my sound is always consistent. I might change the rhythmic flow, but the sound and intent is there. I’ve always located my stuff in the blues and that roadhouse funk, that organ-sax-trumpet-guitar stuff that came out of East St. Louis.’” 

Advertisement

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook