MILES’S VOICE, PART ONE
I have done so much research on Miles that I could probably have published a book on him. Instead, I’ll be putting it All into this newsletter, piece by piece, in between posts of other research. None of my Miles research has ever been in print anywhere—the only people who have been exposed to it are those who have taken classes with me.
Strangely, Miles has become the artist that people “love to hate.” Everywhere on the internet where there is an article about him, the comments below say very insulting things, even cursing him out in crude terms. My research tends to support a much more sympathetic view of him.
Let’s start today with Miles’s VOICE:
(First, an editorial note—many of us were taught in school never to use ‘s after an s. But things have changed since you were in school! The practice for some years now, even at The New York Times, has been—this is my wording--“Write it the way you would say it out loud.” For example, I would say “My shoes’ heels are worn down,” without the extra s, but I would refer to “Miles’s trumpet” and “Miles’s voice.” To be fair, the older rule is still in effect in some publications, so both are accepted.)
Everybody loves to imitate Miles’s famous hoarse voice, usually in the context of something funny that happened. Well, guess what? He didn’t find it funny at all. How would you feel if you permanently lost your voice exactly at the moment that you were making it big, becoming a figure in the public eye?
He was devastated. In the liner notes to Miles’s album Blue Moods, Bill Coss wrote: "... just recently ... the bother and anxiety about a growth in his throat had made the cat-slight Miles speak and walk in such whispers that his always present, kind-of-nose-thumbing withdrawal seemed nearly complete." You can see the notes ATTACHED—bottom of the first column. (Thanks to Chris DeVito for bringing this to my attention.)
So, let’s see what Coss is saying: Miles was already known as a kind of “screw you” (“nose thumbing”) and withdrawn person. But “recently” he had a growth in his throat that was affecting his voice. Notice that Coss says it was creating some “bother and anxiety” for Miles. Miles was not OK with it! Most likely he had vocal cord polyps or nodules (aka nodes):
We don’t know exactly when Coss wrote that. The album was recorded July 9, 1955, and it was available and reviewed in DownBeat (sic--this is how they write it) on December 14, 1955, so Coss’s notes were written between those dates. But we do know that Miles went to see a doctor, and was told he needed an operation to remove the growths--because he said so on national television, The Tonight Show, November 18, 1955. This was Miles’s television debut--and featured his new quintet with Coltrane! It was made possible specifically because of his new arrangement with Columbia Records, who were starting to promote him aggressively, and guests on the show were usually expected to speak.
Sure enough, host Steve Allen calls him over for a short interview between tunes. But when Allen hears Miles’s rough voice, he says “Got a cold?,” and Miles replies “Uhh, had an operation on my throat.” (It’s a bit hard to hear, but I believe that’s what he says.) Allen courteously cancels the rest of the interview. You can hear it all here at 5:20:
This is part of a Youtube channel full of Miles Davis broadcasts—check it out! If you want a Miles discography, the best is http://www.plosin.com/MilesAhead/
As you can see, this site lists the date as November 17, but this was late night TV and the show went on from 11:20pm until 1am (similar to today’s schedule), and Miles apparently went on after midnight, which was November 18th.
A few quick notes about Allen—he was the original host of The Tonight Show, a famous humorist, but also a very serious champion of jazz. He was a student of Teddy Wilson and played good piano, and in 1955 he also had Monk on the show. (Sadly, there is only audio. Allen wrote to me that “the doo-doos at NBC” destroyed most visual footage of the show from before 1956 to make room in their storage vaults.) At the beginning of the Davis clip, Allen basically tells the audience that even though what they are about to hear is unfamiliar, they should treat it with respect. To me, that’s amazing, and Allen deserves a lot of credit.
One more thing—the guest before Miles was the winner of the Miss Scotland beauty contest, and she brought some food for Steve. That’s why he makes jokes about Scotland and food during both of his speaking parts—he was a comedian, after all!
Another side note, this one to show you how things become “facts.” I told my friend John Szwed about this broadcast and that Miles “probably” had the surgery not long before the show—and at that time, the broadcast was thought to be from October. So in John’s excellent book So What: The Life of Miles Davis, he states that Miles had surgery on his vocal cords in October 1955. Now, my statement of what was “probable” has become a “fact” that is cited all over the internet! I would rather say that it’s likely—not certain-- that he had the surgery in October or November, 1955.
As I will show in a future post, Miles struggled to find a surgical cure for his voice right up to the end of his life. But for now, here’s the kicker: By March 1957, he had not only told Leonard Feather (a leading jazz journalist, and the only one who was also a professional musician) that he planned to give up performing altogether, but he was making specific plans about what he would do for a living in music. I consider this very significant, but it has not been mentioned in most writing about Davis, and Ian Carr, who did mention it in his Definitive Biography of Davis, speculated simply that Davis was exhausted by the pace of his recent success. It hasn’t occurred to anybody, apparently, that having lost his voice had a huge impact on Miles personally.
Myself, I feel sorry for Miles! Here’s what he told Feather—ATTACHED.
There’s more to come about Miles’s voice, including audio samples. But first, I’ve got some short, fun research about other things to share with you—soon!
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