Lighthouse Scene for Miles
Liner notes for a jazz record
by Fred Madison
Strange as it may seem today, Miles Davis’s career looked to be over in 1953. His early records, notably 1949’s Birth of the Cool, had brought him a measure of fame, but a heroin habit had spoiled his control to the point where critics in the early ’50s were writing in terms of his downfall. At twenty-seven, Miles had reached an age when most jazz musicians either killed themselves or got married, and cognoscenti were prepared for either disaster. Young disciples of Cool like Shorty Rogers, Conte Candoli, and Chet Baker had placed higher than Miles in the DownBeat readers’ poll for Best Trumpet of ’53, and it looked as if their flat-footed idiom—West Coast jazz—would be the sum of Davis’s influence.
Personally, too, Miles was a wreck. One late-spring night, Max Roach found him on a Manhattan sidewalk outside Birdland, high on horse, wearing some old, dirty clothes. “Looking good, Miles,” Roach said, and slipped a pair of hundred-dollar bills into his breast pocket.
The story goes that Roach’s charity offended Davis. “Max and me were just like brothers, right?” Miles said later. “That shit embarrassed me so bad that instead of taking the money and going and shooting up like I normally would, I called my father and told him that I was coming home to try to get it together again.” So he bought a bus ticket home to St. Louis (or actually Millstadt, which is in Illinois) and spent the summer on his father’s well-appointed ranch. Doc Davis raised horses, cows, and prize hogs on two hundred acres of farmland remote enough from New York to give Miles a chance to clean up.
In September, on their way to California, Max Roach and Charles Mingus visited Miles on the farm. The Lighthouse Café outside Los Angeles had offered Max a drumming gig; Mingus was going home to South Central. They figured Miles could use a vacation. Miles had nothing else to do, so with his father’s blessing, he took off with Mingus and Max for the coast.
The story of his bottoming-out in California—his self-destruction, his wandering, his sessions at the Lighthouse—not to mention his return to form a few years later with a new kind of music—has never been properly told, and these notes for Miles to Go: The Unreleased Tracks (Vol. 32) will have to serve as a stopgap until some future historian does the job. His time in California did more than prefigure a major transformation of jazz. It also set a precedent for lost or strung out players who wanted to renew their careers. The bebop movement in particular, which Davis had helped propagate, was still in its romantic adolescence, and until Miles survived his saison d’enfer on the coast, it wasn’t yet okay for a jazz musician to swing back, so to speak, from the wages of sin.
To set the scene: In 1953 the Bomb was young, the economy booming. Eisenhower held the highest office of any man on a golf course and Ginsberg hadn’t yet written Howl. Kerouac was still on the road—just like Miles and his friends—but in the era before the civil rights movement, a certain sense of liberation would have been lacking for the three musicians. “Back in those days, Mingus was death on white people,” Miles recalled in an interview. “Couldn’t stand nothing white.” In wide stretches of the country, this feeling was mutual. “Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, in Oklahoma I think, we had eaten up all the chicken that my father’s cook had made for us, so we stopped to get something to eat. We told Mingus to go and get the food because he was real light-skinned and they might think he was a foreigner.”
But Mingus—the genius of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “Hog Callin’ Blues”—was still persona non grata in Middle America. He came running out to the car with his blood raging.
“Them white motherfuckers won’t let us eat in there,” he said. “I’m gonna blow up their fucking place!”
“Mingus, just sit down and shut your fucking mouth for once,” said Miles. “If you say another word, I’m gonna break a bottle over your head, because we’re going to end up going to jail over your loud mouth.”
Mingus shut his mouth, and they made it to California without further incident.
The beach town where the Lighthouse still stands is now a Los Angeles suburb, but before Eisenhower’s freeways, there was a fair amount of farmland between the city and the sea. The bar belonged to a small-town habitat with the same white and mainly Midwestern population that had earned Los Angeles itself the mocking sobriquet, “Omaha on the Beach.”
Billy Jarvis tended bar at the Lighthouse almost every afternoon. He was a burly, crop-haired older brother to the regular patrons, a curt kid who kept a close eye on the goings-on. After three years in the service and a stint in Korea, a job in a California jazz joint must have struck the right note of R&R. But Jarvis later told friends that he took the job because of what’s now known as combat stress—he became easily enraged. Watching the bar gave him the occasional excuse to knock some heads together.
After dropping Mingus off in LA, Miles and Max drove about an hour southwest, on country roads, to Howard Rumsey’s place near the club. Rumsey was Max’s boss. He organized music at the Lighthouse and played bass for the All-Stars (the house band). Max was clean; he had a job and things to do. But Miles was unemployed.
Just how much of a wilderness period this was for Miles can’t be overstated. His rise to the front rank of trumpet players in the late ’40s had been phenomenal. From an introverted, young sideman in Charlie Parker’s quintet, Miles had matured into an aloof, New York bandleader, an angrily cool individual “artfully turned out in British tweeds,” as one writer would later put it. But his newfound mastery proved hard to maintain. No sooner had he come into his own as a player than the New York jazz scene began to dissolve. When footloose ex-soldiers from Europe and the South Pacific got married, the audience for Manhattan’s lively nightclub scene retreated to the suburbs. By then, more than a few great players were lost to heroin. “I got hooked after I came back from the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949,” said Miles. “I got bored and was around cats that were hung. So I wound up with a habit that took me over four years to break.”
A contract with Prestige ran out in ’52. The label couldn’t keep track of him. “In those days a lot of guys used to disappear from the scene for months,” said Bob Weinstock, who worked for Prestige at the time. The reason, usually, was dope.
Audiences, fellow musicians, and eventually even critics came to notice Miles’s loss of control. It amounted to a failure of confidence. During this period, Joe Gordon’s reputation as a trumpet player was strong, and although Joe would never pose a serious threat to Miles’s dominance, talk spread about his aggressive style. In 1952, the story goes, Joe sat in with Miles and Charlie Parker at Birdland. “Miles heard Joe play, and then walked off the stand,” recalled Cecil Taylor, who was present. “Bird ran up to Miles and grabbed him by the arms and said, ‘Man, you’re Miles Davis.’ And Miles sort of came back and stood around shuffling his feet.”
In California, that fall and winter of ’53, Miles played very little in public. Once in a while he sat in with the All-Stars, but most of his days were spent scoring for heroin or drinking at the Lighthouse bar. One day a friend in LA wanted to deliver a box of jewelry to a dancer at a Hollywood club. Miles went with him. Another dancer, Frances Taylor, came out to accept it.
Fate can develop stray events the way a good musician develops a few stray notes. “She was so fine, she almost took my breath away,” Miles recalled. He gave her his phone number, but they didn’t meet again until Max’s girlfriend arranged a blind date between Frances and Miles. “It was a coincidence that I met her like that that first time,” said Miles later. “But after Max got us together, I knew something was meant to happen between us and so did she.”
Then, on Max’s birthday, in early ’54, Miles had a violent run-in with Billy Jarvis. It started with a bit of tomfoolery with a buck knife. “I had been taking judo lessons while I was home in East St. Louis, and so I had this knife and I was going to show Max how I could take it from someone about to stab me,” Miles recalled. “When he does it, I take the knife from him and throw him over my shoulder, right? So Max says, ‘Man, Miles, that’s something.’ I put the knife back in my pocket and forget about it.”
They held a birthday party for Max at the bar. For an hour or so, they drank and talked. When Max had to play a set, Miles made a joke.
“It’s your birthday,” he said, “so you pay.”
Max refused and got up to play. Billy Jarvis overheard the exchange.
“He’s paying,” Miles told him, jerking his head toward the bandstand. “I don’t have any money.”
“He left you with the bill,” Jarvis answered.
“I told you I can’t pay it,” and it was entirely possible that Miles had no money. So Jarvis took a pen from behind his ear and wrote up the tab on a piece of paper with his meaty hand. He laid it on the bar and left. Miles let the paper soak up beer. He forgot about Jarvis and watched the band. The bartender returned a few minutes later.
“Come on, man, I want my money.”
“Just relax,” said Miles. “I’m not going anywhere. You’ll get your money as soon as they’re done.” He laughed in Jarvis’s face. “It’s Max’s birthday.”
Sources are unclear about what happened next. There must have been an exchange of insults. The situation escalated, and Jarvis got angry. “I’m gonna kick your ass, ’cause you’re a black motherfucker,” he said in a voice so loud he caused the band to falter. Members of the audience turned to look. The horns and piano kept playing, but Max had gotten up from his drum kit and was striding to the bar. Miles widened his eyes at Jarvis.
“How come you had to say that, man?” Max asked him, pulling out his wallet. “He ain’t doin’ nothing.” He left more than enough cash to cover the bill and strode back onstage, swearing, still shaking his head. The bartender wasn’t appeased. It must have burned his pride to watch a colored man settle an argument by laying down more money than he, Jarvis, earned in an afternoon. He whispered, “When I get off, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Miles remembered his buck knife.
“You don’t have to wait that long. You can get off work right now.”
He’d also observed—a trick from judo class—that Jarvis was left-handed. So, when Jarvis came lurching out with a wild left hook, Miles knew which way to move. He smacked Jarvis on the head and pulled him over the bar. Glasses shattered. Jarvis got to his feet again and punched Miles in the stomach, but Miles caught his arm and swung him into the audience. Instead of seats, the Lighthouse had church pews; Jarvis rammed his head against one of them and made half a dozen patrons spill their drinks. People stood and shouted. Onstage, Baker had slipped into an elegant solo on “In the Mood.”
The band let him play through. “Max was up on stage with this shocked grin on his face,” Miles said later. “People were screaming and running for cover.” Some of Jarvis’s friends tackled Miles and pinned him to the floor. Someone else called the police. But the band kept playing. “The whole time, Max didn’t even get off the stage.”
A bouncer broke up the fight, and when the police arrived, things looked bad for Miles. Although Jarvis had thrown the first punch, he wasn’t strung out. More importantly, he wasn’t black. A situation involving a black man at the Lighthouse equaled a situation caused by a black man at the Lighthouse, and the logical solution was for Miles Davis, the future of jazz, to get hauled off in a paddy wagon.
“The police take me down to the station, and I tell them that the guy had called me a ‘black motherfucking nigger’—which he did—and threw the first punch,” Miles recalled. “Then I remember that I got this knife. I got scared as a motherfucker because if they find this, I know my ass is going to jail.”
But the police never searched him, and Miles thought to mention his uncle, William Pickens, who had a high position in the NAACP. “They just let me go,” he said. Max arrived, still smiling, to drive him home. The story goes that in Max’s apartment, Miles stretched on a couch to sleep off what was left of his heroin, looking rumpled and broke as ever. Max reached into Miles’s coat pocket with another two hundred dollars and repeated what he’d said in New York.
“Looking good, Miles.”
“But I was fucked up and Max knew it,” Miles recounted later. “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Goddamn it, come on.’”
So he returned, again, to Millstadt. He retreated to an apartment in a guesthouse on his father’s ranch, locked the door, and stretched out in bed, intending to kick his habit cold turkey.
“The feeling is indescribable,” he said later. “All of your joints get sore and stiff, but you can’t touch them because if you do, you’ll scream. So nobody can give you a massage. It’s the kind of hurt I later experienced after an operation, when I had hip replacement. It’s a raw kind of feeling that you can’t stop. You feel like you could die and if somebody could guarantee that you would die in two seconds, then you would take it. You would take the gift of death over this torture of life. At one point I even started to jump out the window—the apartment was on the second floor—so I could knock myself unconscious and get some sleep. But I thought that with my luck, I would just break my motherfucking leg and be laying out there suffering.”
Two figures loomed over Miles’s future at this point. The boxer Sugar Ray Robinson served as a role model for his determination to quit. Robinson cut a flamboyant figure outside the ring, wearing a velvet cape and broad-brimmed hat, but when he trained, Miles noticed, “He disciplined himself...I said, ‘If that mother can win all those fights, I can sure break this motherfuckin’ habit.’”
The other figure on his mind was Frances, the beautiful dancer he’d met in Hollywood, who would become his muse, his lover, his victim, and his wife. It wasn’t always a happy or peaceful union, but she would preside over Miles’s consciousness for the rest of ’54, while he worked on new ideas with undiscovered players in Detroit, kicking off the hard bop movement with a return to the blues, and going on to record such now-classic sessions as Walkin’, ’Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue, several indelible appearances at Newport, and, of course, “Fran-Dance,” named for Mrs. Frances Taylor Davis.
“I laid down and stared at the ceiling [of the guesthouse at Millstadt for twelve days and cursed everybody I didn’t like. It was like a bad case of flu, only worse. I lay in a cold sweat. My nose and eyes ran. I threw up everything I tried to eat. My pores opened up and I smelled like chicken soup,” he told Marc Crawford in 1961. “Then it was over.”
Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction; Yaddo and MacDowell fellowships for his fiction.
He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. He was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from Harper Wave.