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"Brilliant, poetic, provocative, Quincy Troupe's Miles and Me reveals the man behind the dark glasses and legend."—Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo
I first met Miles Davis in 1978 or so at a party at a Dr. Leo Maitland's. Leo, who had at one time been one of Miles' doctors, lived down the hall from me at 382 Central Park West and had become a very good friend. I had been listening to Miles since 1954 and he had been a hero to me for a long time. But by 1978 I wasn't listening to his records as much as I had earlier in my life, although I still loved going to hear him play live.
Before I actually met Miles at Leo's, I had seen him a couple of times in the elevator of my building because he lived in the same neighborhood and was dating one of my former poetry workshop students. Yvonne or Evette Duret—they were identical twins, so I can't remember which one, but I think it was Evette who lived in the same building I did. I had also caught glimpses of him a few times at neighborhood bars. He would sit in a corner hidden behind his ever-present dark glasses looking menacingly at everyone. Sometimes I spotted him at after-hours joints. Other times I saw him hurrying through the neighborhood streets, walking or driving his red Ferrari sports coupe.
Like I said, we lived in the same neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But whenever we passed each other, no matter where it was, I was never tempted to say even a mumbling word to him. That was because I had a very clear memory of how angry he could become at unwanted public attention. The memory was more than twenty years old but was still as vivid to me as though the scene had happened the day before yesterday.
It was the fall of 1956 and I had just seen my idol, Miles Davis, in person, for the first time. He was playing at St. Louis's premier jazz spot, Peacock Alley, in downtown St. Louis. I had been able to get in because I had a false draft card that said I was over twenty-one, though I was only seventeen.
I remember how "sharp" and "clean" Miles looked, and how he seemed so totally in control. He was completely mesmerizing. He was everything I thought he would be. Fascinated by the man's presence, I watched his every move, as did everybody else in the club.
Miles' music was sensational that night. The band he brought with him included a great surprise: instead of Sonny Rollins, who'd been advertised, he brought John Coltrane. My friends and I were all big Sonny Rollins fans, so we were very disappointed when he didn't show. John Coltrane? Who was he? We soon found out. Trane just blew everybody's mind. Miles was grinning like a Cheshire cat because he knew people would be disappointed Sonny Rollins hadn't shown. His grin and his attitude seemed to say, "but how could y'all ever doubt me? How could y'all think I would ever have brought somebody bad to my hometown for y'all to hear?" Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Garland were also in the band and they were great, but the night belonged to Trane and Miles. When we left the club, their names were on everyone's lips.
That was also the night of the incident that left me with an indelible memory of Miles' temper. The way it happened was like this: Among the St. Louis "in crowd" everyone and his mama knew not to walk up to Miles if you didn't know him and lust start talking to him like he was your long-lost friend. It didn't matter whether you were hip and black or hip and white. If you didn't know Miles, you didn't approach him.
My friends and I were part of the younger "in crowd," and the word had come down from older hip guys—like my cousin Marvin—that if you did walk up to Miles and try to talk to him, he just might bite your head off with a real cold-blooded cussin' out. So the thing to do was just to lay back and watch him from afar, like he was some kind of untouchable piece of fine jewelry around some fine woman's neck and, in a weird sort of way, I guess that's what Miles was like—a rare gem.
Anyway, that's what everyone was doing when the group took a break—we were all watching Miles from a distance. Then, all of a sudden, this voice from somewhere behind us said, "Oh look, darling, there's Miles Davis. Let's go up and say hello!"
We all turned around, amazed to see this young white couple walking earnestly through the crowd with these innocent looks of expectation on their faces. They made a beeline straight for Miles, who was standing at the bar drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and surveying everyone around him disdainfully from behind those dark sunglasses. I remember looking at the friends who had come with me that evening—Fred Arnold, Leonard Anderson, Percy Campbell, and my cousin Donald Troupe—and laughing nervously under my breath in anticipation of what was going to happen. Everybody else in the bar was watching with keen interest, too. That whole roomful of people was holding its collective breath in anticipation of how Miles was going to respond.
When the young couple got close to Miles, the man stuck out his right hand in anticipation of a handshake and said, "How you doing Miles, my name is—"
He didn't even manage to get his name out before Miles, with cold-blooded, biting fury in his voice, spat out, "Fuck you, you jive punk-ass motherfucka! Get the fuck outta my face and take yo silly little bitch with you!"
The words were fired like bullets, and they penetrated the young man's heart. A stunned look spread across his face. I felt kind of sorry for him. I watched complete embarrassment spread like a scarlet wave over the man and woman's white faces. They were rendered totally speechless by the deep freeze of Miles' words.
Then, having stopped the couple dead in their tracks with his harsh and scornful attitude, Miles simply turned his back on them like the king he was in his own mind. (And in everybody else's mind that night, too.) He took a long drag off his cigarette and blew a jet of smoke toward the ceiling. Then he took a long deep swallow of beer. He dismissed the young couple just like they weren't even there. It was something.
I had never seen a white man treated like that by a black man. And although I did feel a little sorry for the couple, deep down it made me feel really good because white people have always believed that they can walk up to any black person, and no matter where we are or what we are doing, say any and everything to us, no matter how silly and ignorant it might be. Most white people think that just because they're white and privileged and we're black that we're at their beck and call, that they can get away saying anything to anyone who's not white. Maybe that's the way they think it's going to be, forever.
But that night Miles showed everybody in that club that he wasn't about to take shit from anyone, black or white. (I, for one, after that night, absorbed that lesson and adopted a similar attitude, although my stance could never be as dismissive as Miles' was. Ever.)
As the young couple walked away with their heads hung low, I remember thinking how cruel and heartless Miles' actions seemed. But I also remember thinking that what I had witnessed was consistent with what I had heard about his character. Having bought into his legend, I would have expected him to do just what he did. Anything less would not have met my expectations of what Miles was really like.
After all, who did that young white guy think he was, going up to Miles like that? Hadn't he heard the stories? Did he really think Miles was going to talk to him?
To tell the truth, I really didn't feel that much pity for the couple. Maybe I felt that Miles was doing to some white person what I had always wished I could do because of how it was for black people in this country: we were oppressed, despised, our spirits beaten down—in many cases, killed—by a callous white majority. So whatever pity I felt for the couple was minimal.
I didn't totally understand Miles' harsh treatment of that couple that evening but I did learn one thing. I never wanted to see myself in that situation. Later, when I got to know him personally, I would find out that Miles dealt with most people in this harsh manner—whether they were black, white, or whatever—whenever they invaded his privacy. He felt he had to be that way just to keep people off of him because of his shyness.
Miles believed that if he had a reputation for dealing with strangers brutally when they approached him in public, then they should do so with the full knowledge that they might have their hearts, heads, and egos served up to them on a platter. He told me this many times, and I watched him inflict this kind of punishment on people time and time again.
The memory of Miles cussing out that white couple influenced the way I felt about the man ever after. That image of him—impervious and imperial, standing "clean as a broke-dick dog" at the bar in Peacock Alley, coolly drinking and smoking a cigarette—is forever carved into my consciousness like a stone engraving. I especially didn't want Miles to ever cuss me out the way he did that white couple because I didn't know how I would respond. So I kept my respectful distance from the man. But the night at Leo's would change all that, and after many years of admiring him from afar, I would finally find myself up close, sitting right next to him.
When I arrived at Leo's party the only seat left open was right next to Miles, who was dressed, as he usually was back in those days, all in black. I guess no one wanted to brave sitting next to him and I didn't either, really, but there was no other place to sit down. I was surprised to see him there, tearing away at the food on his plate. Even while eating, he managed to maintain that menacing "don't-fuck-with-me" aura he always seemed to carry around as part of his persona. I got some food and sat down next to him. He looked at me, kind of surprised that someone was bold enough to enter his space. Then I heard him say in that famous scratchy voice of his, "What's happenin'?"
"Nothin'," I said without even looking at him, afraid he might scorch me with his eyes, even from behind his dark shades.
"Oh, yeah?" he said, looking sideways at me, a sardonic grin playing at the corners of his lips, which were greasy and shiny with what he was eating.
"You sure of that?" he added, looking back down at his food.
"Sure of what?" I asked, a little confused.
"That nothin' is happenin' here. You sure of that?"
"No, I'm not sure that nothin's happenin'. Maybe it is but I don't see it."
"Well," he said, looking directly at me. "You see that fine motherfuckin' bitch standing over there, don't you? You gonna tell me she ain't what's goin' on?"
I looked at the woman he was nodding toward—tall, brown-skinned, slim, and well-built, with a dancer's body—and said without hesitation, "Yeah, I see what you mean. She is happenin'."
"Tell me about it!" he said, nodding his head. "Man, that woman's fine-na than a motherfucka."
"You got that right," I said, nodding my head in approval. "Yeah, you sho-nuff got that right."
"You a musician, he said, looking at me curiously, chewing hard on his food, then looking back down at his plate.
"No, I'm a poet," I told him.
"No shit?" he said, looking at me again, but harder this time, holding my face in the twin dark mirrors of his shades before going back to his food.
"A poet. No shit."
Then he didn't say another word. When he got up to leave about fifteen minutes later, he looked at me, shook my hand, and said, "Later."
That was it. He was gone, out the door, into the night air of Manhattan like a figment of my wildest imagination.
I sensed the boxer in Miles that evening—something he had once desperately wanted to be—an edginess that clearly came across in his music.
on the street
The next time I saw Miles was about two weeks later. He was walking down Broadway between 81st and 82d Streets coming toward me, on the west side of the street, dressed all in black again, including a black hat and dark shades. From a distance I watched his mouth furiously working over some chewing gum, his jaws grinding like pistons.
He was in a hurry and was moving rapidly toward me, head up, expression fierce, with that hip, hip-dedip strut and glide, that bouncy walk with a dip in the middle that was his gait. His signature "no-nonsense," cool musician's strut that I got to know so well much later. He was looking straight ahead, not noticing anyone or anything but focused on some imaginary place he held fixed in his head.
Some people were looking at him as they passed by, and some even whispered, "That's Miles Davis," but nobody had the courage to stop or say "Hello." Not even a "Hey, Miles." The space that existed around him and locked him in was weird. He was like a king, or at least a prince. His moniker was "The Prince of Darkness," but I would add "The Prince of Light"—because of his magical trumpet playing, yes sir, he was the cock-of-the-walk rooster bringing the light out of the darkness.
And that day all of us out there on the street with him were his subjects. We couldn't even come close to touching him, though he was walking alone, without bodyguards. No crown, save his attitude. But, then, his attitude was enough. He had no need for bodyguards or a visible crown to let us know he was royalty because we all knew he was, and because he was his own best protection. His take-no-prisoners attitude surrounded him like a suit of steel armor.
It was a little past midday and a warm sun was smiling down and smoothing out my vibe. Because I had met him just a couple of weeks back at Leo's party, and because he had talked to me, I thought he would remember who I was. So, when he was a few feet in front of me, I smiled in anticipation, lifted my hand in greeting, and said, "Hey, how ya doin', Miles?"
He didn't blink or break stride but blew right on by just as if I wasn't even there. Didn't say a word. Nothing. Nothing but intense energy moving through space. Later, I would hear him liken himself to a tornado wind—a force of nature. Was his energy dark or light that day? I was so transfixed I couldn't tell. He didn't slow down or hesitate or anything; he just kept right on steppin'. Moving away.
I was shocked. Stunned, but not rendered mute. So I called out his name again as the distance between us grew, "Hey, Miles, it's me, Quincy Troupe, the poet. I met you over at Leo Maitland's."
I said this to his back. But he didn't even pause, not to mention look around. Just kept right on steppin'. And before I knew it, he had hooked a left and disappeared around the corner of 82d Street. When he turned that corner I felt really humiliated, the smile wiped off my face.
Feeling exposed and foolish, I looked around sheepishly to see if anyone had noticed. A few people seemed to be snickering at me under their smug smiles. I turned around and walked down Broadway, head down, ego shaken, feeling puzzled and angry.
"Why would he treat me like that?" I asked myself rhetorically, even though I already knew the answer. My cousin Marvin (now deceased) had told me the answer long ago, the first time I ever saw Miles up close and in person back in St. Louis's Peacock Alley. "Don't speak to Miles," Marvin had said, just before Miles had humiliated that white boy for daring to speak to him. "Miles don't like people coming up and talking to him unless he knows them real good."
Marvin had told me not to speak to Miles, and he was right. I knew this. I had felt Miles' dark energy in those bars and after-hours joints. But hardheaded me—with plenty of ego to spare—I had to learn, the hard way, that I didn't know Miles Davis at all, even though I may have thought I did after talking to him at Leo's. Clearly, as far as Miles was concerned, that meeting didn't even come close to qualifying me as an acquaintance, even though inside my own head, I had thought it did.
I ran into Miles a couple of months later, again at a party thrown by Leo. Out of anger—or curiosity, or stupidity—I walked right up to him while he was eating a plate of fish and asked him why he had "shined me on so bad" that day out on Broadway. He was alone and, without missing a beat, he fixed me with one of those fierce, almost evil looks—a look I saw many, many times later after I got to know him well—and said, "Fuck you, man! I don't hafta speak to your motherfuckin' ass every time I see you. Shit, who the fuck you think you are?"
And with that said, he went back to finishing his food.
I didn't say anything, which shocked me, because normally I'm not the quiet type who lets anybody get away with talking to me that way. Normally I would have said a nasty "Fuck you" back. Maybe I would even have gone upside the person's head for disrespecting me. But I didn't say anything, much less go upside his head. I just looked at him—probably with a hurt expression on my face—and stayed silent, stunned by his ferocity.
I was also still suffering from a bad case of hero worship, which more than likely had something to do with rendering me mute. Again. The good thing was that only a few people heard how he talked to me that night, not everybody who was there. But those who had heard looked at me with that smug air of disapproval that people assume when someone as famous as Miles "screams on" someone else less famous.
Like, you know, it all had to be my fault. It couldn't have been his, so why didn't I just sit my ass down and enjoy being in the man's presence—without trying to say a word or really interact with him—the way everyone else was doing? But I was so embarrassed, again. He didn't say another word to me for the rest of the time he was there. But from time to time, I would catch him looking hard and evil at me, and I can tell you, those looks sent shivers up and down my spine. Before I knew it, he was gone again, had slipped out into the night without any fanfare. Like one of his mysterious solos, he was there and then suddenly gone, a wisp of smoke into the night.
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