House of Miles (Davis)

(Photo, cropped, by Palumbo)

 

 

Miles Davis was still in diapers (what a ludicrous thought, that burning, old-before-his-time genius bowlegged with a saggy diaper) when his family moved to East St. Louis. His dad—as brilliant, ambitious, and easily angered as his son would be—built a dentistry practice there (and owned a pig farm in nearby Milstadt). Miles grew up in a gable-roofed house on Kansas Street at North Seventeenth.

It is now a historic landmark, and why am I only now visiting? I love Miles’s music so fiercely, I feel entitled to drop the surname; that much appreciation of an artist brings (one-sided) intimacy. I know he spent his childhood here, and I have always felt proud, which is absurd, of that proximity. But I focused on the New York years, Miles chasing Charlie Parker around the city, and the sexy months in Paris, and that inimitable style he had, that concentrated energy.

You see it the minute you walk into the House of Miles: his eyes, glowing light, stare back at you from a huge black-and-white photo, the one where he wears a sleeveless shirt and has his arms raised, maybe after one of the boxing workouts that helped his breath control. He learned to box right here. And Bird was not his first mentor; Elwood Buchanan was. A trumpet player, music teacher, and band director at Lincoln High, Buchanan was probably tilted back in Dr. Davis’s chair with his mouth open when he first heard of his dentist’s prodigy son. Miles was not yet in high school, but Buchanan gave him private lessons.

I think of Miles walking to school, spitting out raw rice kernels on the way to practice his embouchure, then stopping on the way home to buy snoots. When he was old enough to join the high school band, Buchanan instructed him to play without vibrato and rapped his knuckles every time he forgot: “Stop shakin’ that note! You’re going to shake enough when you get old.”

A mannequin wears Miles’s black jacket, fringed in small tight rows, androgynous and timeless. I knew he had style, but standing an inch from that jacket brings it home.

Up steep, narrow stairs to the top story, just an attic when Miles lived here, is a little alcove where he used to practice his horn. Now neighborhood kids come up here and sit for hours, spilling dreams into a journal or staring out the window, maybe seeing the same trees he saw.

The House of Miles director, Lauren Parks, says their next project will be to fix up the basement—that was where Miles brought his first band to practice. By then Buchanan had sent the kid on to his own teacher, Joseph Gustat, first trumpet in the St. Louis Symphony. And introduced him to the inimitable Clark Terry, another reason St. Louis is the City of Gabriel.

Miles kissed his first girl in this house, at his sixth birthday party, and his sister told. He and his high school sweetheart, Irene, had their first child, Cheryl, while he was still living here. He had finished high school early and was already music director for Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils. (Irene had dared her boyfriend to call up Eddie Randle and ask for a job.) Soon Miles would fill in for a trumpeter with Billy Eckstine’s band and decide that his future was in New York. There, he would write and record a song he named “Cheryl” for his baby girl—and when he came back to St. Louis four years later, it would be with the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour.

The sidewalk where Cheryl learned to walk had vanished beneath a tangle of overgrowth by the time Parks took a good look at the site. After years as a teacher, she was working in City Hall as executive assistant to the mayor, her brother. They knew the Davis family; their mother lived a street over and hung out with Miles’s younger brother, Vernon. He stayed put and never married; in 1999, he died, and the house was empty for the first time.

Cheryl had lived upstairs for a while when she taught in East St. Louis, but now everybody had scattered. The Davis family said they would be happy to donate the home to a nonprofit, but by then, it was fire-damaged, rotting, sunk in a moat of weeds. There were no takers.

Letters about the house kept coming across Parks’s desk—and then she saw 1701 Kansas Avenue listed for demolition. She picked up the phone and said firmly, “Our nonprofit will take it.” She did not yet have a nonprofit. But jazz is about improv.

Parks and her partner quickly registered a nonprofit and, in 2011, they cleaned up the property—finding bits of sidewalk when they shoveled out the weeds—and gutted the house. They had no grant money; friends and family members pitched in, and Americorps came to help.  “After digging in our couches and shaking our piggy banks, we were able to open in 2016,” Parks says. Standing in the foyer, she points upward. “This is the original ceiling. The floors, we had to replace, because when you walked in, you saw down into the basement.”

The house is pristine, its wood frame replaced with pale ochre siding, its door a bright red Miles would have approved. Family members came back to St. Louis two years ago to see The Birth of the Cool at the Tivoli, and they were thrilled by the renovation.

She shows me a photo of another trip back home: Miles and Cicely Tyson, here for the dedication of the Miles Davis Elementary School. Afterward, they came back to the house with old friends and fried some jack salmon and maybe remembered how Mr. Piggease used to barbecue jack salmon in his shack on Fifteenth Street. He was the one who taught Miles “to avoid unnecessary bullshit.”

Miles’s mother, Cleota Davis, wanted her son to play piano and violin, as she did. He loved her but hated how often she whipped him, losing her artistic refinement in a fit of temper, then gathering it around herself again. I wonder if she was heartbroken when he left Juilliard in disgust, finding the place bloodless and far too obsessed with old White music.

Standing in what would have been the kitchen, I figure this is where he listened to “Harlem Rhythms” in the morning—not caring he would be late to school—and realized he could tell a White musician from a Black one. “I don’t know how,” he later told an interviewer. “It would go in my body. I said, ‘I want to play like that.’”

Asked, because it was an era when White people asked questions like this, whether Black musicians were genetically better musicians, Miles said, “Not better. But they play differently. White musicians seem to lag behind the beat. I don’t know why.” And when the interviewer tried to suggest that talent came out of slavery, Miles cut him a look that implied he was crazy, then calmly pointed out that his father had been a rich man—but his son could play the blues.

Paging through album covers, I see one of Frances Davis and remember how Miles told Columbia Records to stop putting White women on his covers: “I want my wife on the cover.” She inspired Sketches of Spain, too—as a dancer with Katherine Dunham’s company, she had performed in Barcelona and knew Miles’s music would blend with the rhythms of flamenco. He took some persuading, but she dragged him to a concert and he left energized, went to Tower Records, and bought every flamenco album they had.

Did those memories soften the times he punched her in a fit of jealousy and knocked her out cold? I ask Parks if he treated Cicely Tyson any better, and she smiles sadly. “Read her book. He was a complicated man.”

Also a genius.

On a recent school trip, kids from Normandy were blown away by Miles’s sketches. He could draw, too? Parks showed them a tapestry that was inspired by one of his paintings. Cicely Tyson had encouraged him to explore art, and the tapestry once hung in their New York apartment. Then Parks led them to the art gallery, hung with work by students. She has made this place more of a youth center than a shrine. Kids come here for classes in gardening, music, art, photography, and healthy living. Forget the “prince of darkness” era with its heroin, cocaine, and temper; Parks has recaptured his early cool and turned the word into an acronym: Constantly Operating on Love.

She talks happily about an artist who had stopped painting, but came here and began again. About all the people who have spontaneously donated concert posters and photographs, and how Quincy Troupe intends to donate the 900-page transcript of interviews he used to coauthor Miles: The Autobiography. Visitors have come here from Iran, Sweden, Italy, some of them so steeped in Miles’s life, Parks teases that they should give her the tour. But what she loves best are the kids from East St. Louis. The fourteen-year-old girl who signed herself up for classes, saying the place seemed so positive, she wanted to be part of it. The boy who played Miles in a play they did as a fundraiser. He started out planning to wear a suit, because Miles dressed so formally and impeccably in the early years. Then he saw Birth of the Cool and said, “You know, he had a fly red jacket on. . . .” Parks smiled: “Okay, that’s fair. We’re gonna get you a fly red jacket.” And when he stepped on stage, “he just owned Miles.”

To the extent that anybody, even Miles, ever could.

 

 Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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