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By Daphne Muse
Looking more like a Brazilian shrunken head than a towering giant of jazz, there I stood in between Miles and a short white guy, with a German accent. Mr. German accent guy appeared to have some official role in Miles’ life. But the gentleman standing next to me certainly was not the legendary, Birth of Cool jazz bad boy I’d seen play three times, giving the audience his you can kiss my ass stance. By reputation and documentation, Miles generally displayed no capacity for reasonable social graces.
But that night, he was almost totally out of character, remarkably engaging and had “chillaxed” his ego. We’d gathered to honor actress Cecily Tyson, his wife at the time. It was her night and Miles respected her space and knew his place. The UC Theatre was packed and Miles actually looked on rather adoringly, as his wife was praised for her exemplary work and honored with an award from Women in Film.
As we left the theatre and inched our way towards the exit, I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with Miles Davis. In the slowly moving crowd, we looked over and acknowledged one another in ways people once did without a second thought. As his greeting caught on the rough edges of his throat, he said, “Hey, what’s happenin.’” His voice sounded like his vocal chords rubbed against sandpaper, before coming out of his mouth. I kinda looked around for a minute thinking Miles Davis couldn’t possibly be speaking, let alone to me. Once I realized the gravelly greeting was in fact to me, I responded with “Good evening Mr. Davis.” Miles smiled and I almost fainted into the arms of Bebop.
Mustering my courage, I said “Mr. Davis, I saw some of your paintings last week and your music and art are equally powerful.” He looked at me with those eyes popping up out of his shrunken head self, reverting to the legendary Miles of bad ass attitude and said, “Where you see my shit?” With all the grace I could muster, I explained I’d recently read an article in Essence Magazine that focused on his paintings. He delivered a second unbelievable smile and suddenly my fear of his personae melted. But some of the fear was mitigated by the fact that he physically did not tower above me: All five foot four of me could look him straight in the eye. The festive and honorable tone of the evening had carried over and bent the steel in his heart. One felt he was genuinely proud and pleased for Cecily.
The conversation we began at the theatre continued at the bar of Berkeley’s Fourth Street Grill, where I found myself standing between him and the now smiling man with the German accent. As the pieces of gravel continued to travel up his throat, he asked me, “What you do?” His question came out sounding like one word. “I’m a teacher and I write.” He paused a few seconds, as though he’d returned to his trumpet to call up a note or his canvas to capture a brushstroke. As he bobbed his head up and down, he said, “That’s important work you know.” As I attempted to ask him more about his paintings, he returned the conversation to the evening’s events and the honor bestowed upon wife. I was so proud of Miles. That night, it was so all about Cecily.
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