Miles Dewey Davis, the great jazz trumpeter and innovator, would have loved an opportunity to assemble an ensemble like the illustrious line-up of musicians who turned out Monday, Memorial Day, for a birthday salute (Davis would have been 85) and the renaming of 77th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive as “Miles Davis Way.”
“Miles put the voodoo on us,” said multireedist Dave Liebman, addressing the special way Davis chose and blessed the musicians fortunate enough to play with him.
Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath said he had known “Miles for 48 years,” and there is a memorable photo of them in an apartment back in the forties with Dizzy Gillespie at the piano and Davis looking on, absorbing the chords that would be so fundamental to his musical journey and breakthroughs.
The span of musicians at the event, which was sponsored by the Far West 77th Street Block Association, covered practically every phase of Davis’ phenomenal evolution. Drummer Jimmy Cobb was there, along with Heath, to remember the more distant days and nights. “He was a good guy,” Cobb said succinctly. “And I cherish every moment I had with him.”
“He was my mentor,” said trumpeter Wallace Roney, who regaled the crowd with stories about Davis and the advice he would dispense to his young protégé.
Bassist Buster Williams recalled that the only musical instruction he received from Davis was to do the opposite of what the other members of the band was doing. “He told me if they are playing slow, you play fast, if they are playing fast you play slow.”
Percussionists Lenny White, Mino Cinelu, guitarist Larry Coryell, and drummer T.S. Monk were among the other speakers. Monk recounted some of the visits that Davis made to see his father, Thelonious. “He would sit at the piano and wait until my father got up, and sometimes that would take a long time,” he laughed.
It took quite a while before the actual sign was unveiled and even then there was some trouble getting it to come down after a tug from actress immortal and a former wife of Davis, Cicely Tyson. But an agile member of the crowd scrambled up the pole and pulled away the covering to great applause.
Vince Wilburn, Jr., Davis’s nephew moderated the event after Terri Williams welcomed the spectators that included, Davis’s daughter Cheryl and his sons Erin and Greg, and a veritable Hall of Fame of jazz greats—Onaje Gumbs, Al Foster, Barry Harris, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Owen, Bobbi Humphrey, Carl Allen, and a host of dignitaries—Congressman Charles Rangel, Borough President Gail Brewer, Sherry Bronfman, John Amos, Norman Jean Darden, et al.
Even though Davis has been gone since 1991, he gets his “Way.”
(Photo: Chris Griffith)