On August 25, 1959, 59 years ago today, Miles Davis was assaulted and unlawfully arrested by two New York City police officers. Later, his case against the NYPD was dismissed, despite a mountain of evidence in his favour, including multiple witness statements, photographic evidence, and the fact that at least one of the officers was drunk. To mark that injustice I put together a post about Miles Davis’s unique form of embodied activism.

Miles Davis, Institutional Racism, and the Activism of Living Loud

Miles is the reason I bought a record player. He’s a consummate master and his oeuvre is incredibly well-known and universally revered. As a result, I am going to do something a bit different with this post: instead of talking about my favourite Miles records, I’ve resolved to try to put into words one of the things that has most captivated me about Miles; his unique, intensely personal brand of black activism. Unlike other legends of the period such as Nina Simone, Miles was rarely outspoken (at least publicly) about race until the late 1980’s. Simone lived, breathed, and performed the civil rights movement: marching with Dr. King, becoming so close with Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz that they considered each other family,  and writing numerous classic protest songs decrying racism.

Miles, on the other hand, remained largely quiet about racism during the 60’s and 70’s, though he undoubtedly experienced it throughout his life and it can be found peppered all throughout his musical output and loud in-your-face lifestyle. Aside from the Birdland Incident, where Miles was assaulted by two New York City police officers for standing on the street (outside of a venue where he was performing), which became a national scandal, much of Miles’s feelings on race and his own experiences with racism were not revealed until he released You’re Under Arrest in 1985 and published Miles: The Autobiography in 1989.

In it, he discusses many times when he was made acutely aware of his race and the sense of superiority that many whites felt towards him (and which they expected him to internalize and validate). These stories range from his childhood to his time at Juilliard and into his adult life (including the Birdland Incident). He recalls competing in many musical competitions while studying at Juilliard, but losing to his white peers. Miles writes, “I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on the horn.” He adds that “if I hadn’t met that prejudice I probably wouldn’t have had as much drive in my work” (Miles 12). Even earlier still, after moving to a predominantly white neighbourhood, Miles recalls being chased down the street by a neighbour wielding a shotgun and hurling racial epithets at him when he was only a young child. Of this particular incident, Jack Chambers – in his 800+ page biography Milestones – recounts the reaction of Miles’s father: “I don’t think Miles, a sensitive boy, ever forgot it or our troubles” (7).

Later, The Miles Davis Story, a documentary released in 2001, shed further light on Miles’s personal experiences with racism. In particular, there is a scene where Frances Davis – Miles’s first wife – recounts how he “always said that if he’d been a white Miles Davis he would’ve been much further ahead.” She goes on to explain that Miles would ask her to enter hotels before him to avoid being declined a room due to his darker complexion. These events were reinforced by the so-called Birdland Incident, which cemented for Miles the fact that racism is not an exception, it is the system.

After the dismissal of Miles’s case against the NYPD (despite the many witnesses to the beating and slurs hurled by the officers, and the photographic evidence), a close friend recalled Miles’s reaction: “He feels that he was attacked because he is a black man and that he was denied justice because he is a black man” (Chambers 316). At the end of his own recounting of the Birdland Incident and its aftermath in Miles, he writes:

Around this time, people — white people — started saying that I was always “angry,” that I was “racist,” or some silly shit like that. Now, I’ve been racist towards nobody, but that don’t mean I’m going to take shit from a person just because he’s white. I didn’t grin or shuffle and didn’t walk around with my finger up my ass begging for no handout and thinking I was inferior to whites. I was living in America, too, and I was going to try to get everything that was coming to me.

Miles was a powerful advocate for black rights by unapologetically being himself and being himself as loud as he liked. In the 60’s and 70’s (and now) a black man wanting to get paid his fair share and demanding what he was owed was and remains a powerful form of activism. Simply refusing to internalize that he was “inferior to whites” and insisting that the freedoms and possibilities of the U.S. be extended to him as a black man was a powerful statement. While Miles’s form of activism may not have been as visible, public, or incendiary as Simone’s, his oeuvre nonetheless reveals a deep concern with race. In the rest of this post I will look through the art and liner notes from one of my favourite Miles albums to see how they exemplified his struggle to “get everything that was coming to [him].”

Jack Johnson (1971)

Recorded just after the Bitches Brew sessions, this album perfectly encapsulates Miles’s activism. (As a side note, its first side, consisting of the 20+-minute “Right Off” is probably my favourite single side of any Miles Davis record.) Jack Johnson was recorded as the soundtrack to a 1970 documentary about the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. Though the film was nominated for an Academy Award it was not particularly successful or influential and the album Miles originally recorded as its soundtrack has long-since eclipsed it in terms of prestige and cultural import. So much so that subsequent re-pressings changed the title from Jack Johnson to A Tribute to Jack Johnson and replaced the illustration of Johnson on the cover (which included credits from the film) with a picture of Miles wailing away on his trumpet. Nonetheless, the character (both in terms of his personal qualities and image) of Jack Johnson captivated Miles. In Johnson, Miles saw a kindred spirit and a model for how to be black and successful in America: loudly and uncompromisingly. Miles wrote the liner notes to the album himself (an unusual move for him), and in them he tells the Jack Johnson story in his own words (emphasis mine):

The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a signal for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that? And of course being born Black in America … we all know how that goes. […] Johnson portrayed Freedom – it rang out just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion. He was a fast-living man, he liked women – lots of them and most of them white. He had flashy cars because that was his thing. […] His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt mighty Whitey felt, “No Black man should have all this.” But he did and he’d flaunt it.

Miles, too, was fond of flamboyant fashion and fast cars. He draws attention to how little has changed in nearly a century with a single ellipsis that holds the ninety years between 1878 (when Johnson was born) and 1970 within it. And coming out the other side, nothing has changed. The America that Johnson was born into is the same one as Miles and the same one that his listeners were born into. There is no need to imagine or think back to an America of the early twentieth-century to understand the “white envy” that erupted as it’s the same prejudice and racism of 1970. He goes on to say that Johnson’s nearly-constant grin wasn’t of the “smile-smile chuggin’ along” variety, but that he was “putting them [White America] on.” He adds that “What was a reality to Johnson was a living-color nightmare for the Anti-Johnson Americans.” Johnson’s refusal to play the role of the deferent Noble Savage or Cringing Bootlick spoke to Miles, and, like Johnson, he became a symbol for unapologetic black excellence.

In closing, I want to turn to the very end of Jack Johnson. The album, like most Miles albums, is instrumental. At the very end of the album’s second side, “Yesternow,” however, the booming voice of Jack Johnson (voiced by the actor Brock Peters) begins speaking. His brief speech succinctly conveys both Jack Johnson and Miles Davis’s experiences with racism and their embodied response:

I’m black!  They never let me forget it.  I’m black all right; I’ll never let them forget it.

My 5 Desert Island Miles Records (in Chronological Order)

  • Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (1958)
  • Milestones (1958)
  • Kind of Blue (1959)
  • Jack Johnson (1971)
  • On the Corner (1972)

Non-Digital Sources

  • Chambers, Jack. Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. Da Capo Press, 1998.
  • Davis, Miles. Jack Johnson, Columbia Records, 1971.
  • Davis, Miles, and Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. Simon and Schuster, 1989.