Sketches of Pain

Miles Davis' estranged son speaks, softly but angrily.

Miles Davis
"Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life -- with my clothes on -- was when I first heard Diz & Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944."

Thus begins Miles, the (arguably) definitive Miles Davis autobiography, co-authored by Quincy Troupe. Unleashed in 1989, it's 400-plus pages of warmly recalled motherfuckers, as in "Sarah Vaughn was there also, and she's a motherfucker too," and "Goddamn, those motherfuckers were terrible."

Gregory Davis, Miles' first-born son, also hints at Miles' "greatest feeling I ever had in my life" phenomenon in his new bio Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis. But in this case, he's talking about cocaine and/or heroin. At the same time, Gregory abhors the hostile "Prince of Darkness" persona that Miles painted. "I love my father dearly," Gregory says. "This is not a Daddy Dearest." Nonetheless, he does make Daddy sound like one terrible motherfucker.

Gregory is fighting for his piece of Miles' legacy, metaphorically and legally. For years, he's been brawling with the brothers, sisters, cousins, and uncles-in-law who make up the Miles Davis estate. Miles mysteriously left Gregory and his second-born son, Miles Jr., out of his will. (Gregory says Miles, never too fond of such details, signed it but didn't read it.) Just recently Gregory snagged 25 percent of Miles' future royalties from the estate; now he's targeting back pay.

Dark Magus' second half largely concerns this posthumous dispute, while the first half truncates Miles' early years, which other books -- especially Troupe's autobiography -- cover with greater color and detail. In the Kind of Blue section (every chapter of Dark Magus is assigned a classic jazz album or tune; the one detailing Miles' marital history is, of course, Bitches Brew), Gregory recalls a litany of lurid tales: Miles attacking a girlfriend with a splintered drumstick, accompanying his father on drug deals and punching out vengeful dealers when Miles mouthed off, hearing his father relay a bizarre incident wherein a would-be burglar inadvertently drank Miles' urine. And after several chapters of relatively polite reminiscences about his father's parents and surrounding family, Gregory suddenly muses that Miles' dark side is entirely due to the verbal and physical abuse he endured from his mother.

"I don't remember my grandmother ever being mean to me," Gregory writes. "But my father's sister -- my Aunt Dorothy May -- was also a bitch, and so was my sister, for whatever her reasons were. Those were the two who successfully conspired to cut me out of Miles' will."

Miles' estate declined an interview, releasing instead a brief statement: "The family has read the book and finds no fact or merit in its contents. We will have no further comment at this time."

Gregory's account of his early years with Miles is sometimes unbearably sad, especially his disastrous trumpet lessons. "I was always on the verge of tears," he writes. "I was 'every kind of asshole,' a 'simple motherfucka,' a 'no-blowing piece of shit.'" Writing this brought up "painful memories and delightful memories too," he says. Gregory clings to one incident as emblematic of his father's underlying love: As a small child, he choked on a penny, and a shoeless, nearly naked Miles ran with him to the hospital. "Maybe he really did have some father in him," he writes. "After all, didn't he run down the street almost naked to save my life?"

But it's the later years that Gregory especially hopes his book will illuminate, playing up a father-son bond he says no other estate member or outside biographer can hope to match. "You don't know him as someone who lived with him, by his side," he says. "I'm his son -- I'm his first son, I'm his number-one son. I traveled with him from the age of 9 or 10 years old. Whenever he called on me, when I got older, I was by his side. I was his son, his nurse, his assistant road manager, his bodyguard. Whatever he needed, I was there by my father's side."

Dark Magus also has harsh words for the critics and biographers poaching his father's legacy. But Troupe, for one, doesn't return the enmity. "I think Gregory is unappreciated, I really do," he says. "[The Davis family] ought to appreciate him for taking care of his dad. 'Cause he did."

Gregory's most painful recollections are of his father's death and its immediate aftermath -- Miles on his deathbed in Malibu and Gregory stuck in New York City with no money for a plane ticket, shunned by the rest of the family. But Dark Magus, true to Gregory's word, never reads like outright vengeance -- at least not toward Miles. Instead, he attacks misconceptions about his father. Miles wasn't defiantly turning his back on the audience onstage -- he was facing and leading the band. As for hints of racism, Gregory writes, "Anytime you heard Miles say, 'You white motherfucka,' it was because he had thought of something this country had done to black people, not because he hated white people."

If Gregory blames Miles for anything, it's the apathy and inattentiveness that led to the hostile family takeover, which in turn caused Gregory's estrangement in his father's final years, as well as the legal trouble following his death. "My father actually asked for my forgiveness," he says several times. On his deathbed, Miles "told my uncle, his brother, 'Tell Gregory I tried to wait on him.' He was under the impression I was coming."

Dark Magus admits that Gregory and Miles Jr. (the son who slapped Miles, incidentally) were rebuked and eventually disowned by their famously mercurial father, but Gregory has found other places to lay the blame. "What father isn't angry at his sons from time to time?" he asks. "Especially this one."

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