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Sons of Miles
MILES THE PAINTER : Colorful Flowing Lines
by Mike Zwerin
23 July 1998


NEW YORK - Ask Miles Davis how he began to paint and you would get just the answer you'd expect from someone who has been called the "Prince of Silence:"

"I used to draw Mickey Mouse and that airplane of his. Dick Tracy, he was easy, all I had to do was draw his nose. And Flash Gordon, I could do him. I did a drawing of Gerry Mulligan, that was in the '40s, looked exactly like him."

Arnold Schoenberg began to paint after he had made his musical name; as did John Lennon, Charlie Parker, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett and Chick Corea. Miles started serious - some say compulsive - sketching in the early 1980s, about the same time he came off drugs, which may be no coincidence. His first formal exhibit - a total of 30 oils and pen-and-ink drawings - was in Munich in 1988 at the Mosel und Tschechow Gallery.

It is not unusual for musicians to come to painting. This private and silent work can be a relief for someone who makes his living in a collective endeavor which demands applause and bothers neighbors. It requires some degree of natural ability to begin with, but no formal training is necessary for immediate ego gratification. And you don't have to worry about the drummer showing up late.

It rarely happens in the opposite direction - imagine the complaints if a painter suddenly began to practice the trumpet in his Central Park South apartment. Of course, like any art, at some point you must decide on the degree of investment. Do you want to remain a dilettante for the rest of your life? Do you want to look like a fool? Or is it time to get serious? And if so is there enough energy in your 50s for two serious endeavors?

After looking at color photographs of more than 100 of his works - signed "Miles" - and seeing the pile of canvases in various stages of completion spread over the floor of his Central Park South apartment, it was obvious that this was no mere "celebrity" painter.

There was an electric piano in a corner, a synthesizer in another, a trumpet on an easy chair, cassettes piled against a wall and the latest Prince album playing on a professional sound system. It was not surprising that this man who had never been able to stick to one style of music ("I have to change, it's like a curse") and was now involved with the visual arts on top of it all had trouble sticking to the subject.

"You've been quoted as saying that musical training is important in order to learn what rules to break," I said. "Is that true for painting as well?"

"The first piano music Art Tatum ever heard was two boogie-woogie piano players on a cylinder," Miles replied in his trademark rasp. "He didn't know there were two of them. He thought that's the way a piano should sound and he learned how to play like two piano players at the same time. Some guys don't have to know anything about theory because they have something better you can't learn in a book."

This was a classic enigmatic answer from a man whose legend had been built on an enigmatic image he went to some length to encourage. We might assume that he considered himself to be one of those painters with too much good instinct and talent to be in need of perspective classes. Then again, he might just have been being enigmatic. In any case, his early sketches were of thin women with colorful flowing lines which, whatever stylistic faults an expert might find, were obviously drawn by somebody with a flair for color, rhythm, clothes...and women.

"Women tell me they have rhythm," he said. "They are moving, dancing, doing ballet steps. I make them with thick thighs and long legs. I like that look, it's the Rio de Janeiro look. I hardly ever draw a man."

Miles was the only musician I've ever known who got applause for not playing...for walking around the stage in silence for as long as 12 bars between phrases. So I asked him: "Do you get involved with visual space too?"

Miles Davis

"The guy who looks after my house in California, Mike, he calls me Chief. I say 'Mike, how do you like this?' He says, 'I liked it, Chief...just before you finished it.' So he thinks I spoiled it by making too much. I have to learn to stop. I know how to stop with music, but you have this problem of balance with paint and it's different."

There are abstractions with wide swatches of gold, copper and metalic colors. Colors cake on canvas. Spare, almost skeletal shapes cavort on beige. There are occasional reminders of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Series of colorful squares are filled with circles. When the paintings are not signed, it is not always evident which end is up. And those thick-thighed, long legged women from Rio show up everywhere all the time.

After entering his rock star period in the early 1970s, Miles was known for wearing colorful costumes. I asked him if his color instinct began with his clothes.

"Sometimes certain colors fit certain days," he said. "Like I'll want blue all over. But I might change my mind five times before a concert. I always decide at the last minute."

"Does music translate into color for you?"

"You mean do colors flash through my head when I play? You'd be surprised what flashes through my head."

He was chain-sipping iced tea. Central Park was spread out through the window behind him. A business associate walked in and Davis said: "You should see a doctor." The man looked surprised and asked why. "You need a personality change." Miles Davis was also known as the "Prince of Darkness."

Although he kept referring to painting as his "hobby," the works exhibited in Munich were priced from $750. There was obviously still a good deal of ambivalence about his new activity: "Quincy Jones called me up and said 'Man, I want to buy one of your paintings.' I told him to call [his personal manager] Peter. But, hell, I'd give one to him. I'm always giving sketches away. If I had to make money from this, I'd starve. It's only my name. People say 'Let's see what Miles is thinking about.'"

He looked down at the canvases on the floor and murmured, as though to himself: "Just doing this, could I make a living? Maybe so." Then the doubter turned into the confident pop star again: "Fortunately, I have something to fall back on. I make enough royalties so that I'll be 95 before I spend all the money and wear all my clothes."

"Do you approach a canvas like a musical composition, with some form in mind? Or do you improvise it like a solo as you go along?"

"The color. I get the color first. Then all the rest I improvise. Lines and circles. Maybe I'll want to wiggle the lines, maybe I'll draw a breast and an eye. I work from the subconscious, like music. It has to do something to me. I couldn't write a piece of music that doesn't make me tap my foot or make me feel something inside. Once the form is there, it's like an arrangement with openings for solos. It's a matter of balance. You can't have too much black. Like you can't have too much saxophone. Supposing there's a composition and the saxophone player can't get the style. You have to get another guy to fit in there. Like another color. Don't force it."

Miles went to Juilliard at the same time as Larry Rivers, one of our most respected and successful painters, who was a professional saxophone player and who still plays regularly. Larry and I used to play in a band together. I asked him about Miles's paintings.

"I haven't seen enough of them to be a good judge," he said. "But I keep wondering what I would think of the paintings if I didn't know who painted them. They're certainly not bad, they're not ugly. I just have trouble relating to them. When I hear Miles's records, I see him. I don't see him in his paintings. This may be a fault or a virtue. But I wonder if I'm only looking at them because they're by Miles."

Miles had problems moving from an improvised idiom to one where mistakes can be corrected. He compared it to acting: "If you're not careful you can lose it, lose the feel. I was doing a television commercial and had to say, 'The hottest ticket in town is ice-cold.' That's all I had to say. I said it over and over - 10, 20 times. And I lost it. That can happen when you keep redrafting something. You lose it."

The "Mike" mentioned above was Michael Elam, a young painter with a degree from New York University who was now traveling with Miles as general assistant and unofficial curator of his growing art collection. Miles had been asking Elam for details and confirmation about art history and technique throughout the interview:

"On the road, if it turns out I'm not going to get my price or there's some other problem with the gig, rather than argue with the promoter, Michael and I go to see what the young artists in town are up to. We bought some beautiful paintings from a Moroccan in Tours, in France. I think his name was Jamal. I like Europe. The music sounds better in Europe. I say, 'Michael, we'll spend $5,000. Let's go out and buy some paintings.'"

It may be that musicians start to paint because there is something about music that no longer satisfies them. Stylistic curiosity might very well wane after leading the way through bebop, modality, rock and funk. Maybe you want peace and quiet for a change. Or you just want to look in a totally new place.

"It doesn't have anything to do with any of that," Miles said. "There's always music in my head. I hear music walking down the street. I hear it talking to you, now. Look, some of these people paint flowers and desks. They copy things. I can't copy. When I try it always ends up being something else.

"And once I start painting I can't stop. I have to make myself stop a week before a concert or I'll never pick up the trumpet and practice. When I don't paint, I get nervous. But music and painting both turn me on. Why should I have to choose?"


Photo: Miles Davis
Credit: Christian Rose

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