Henry Rollins: The Column! Miles Davis, Cool on a Postage Stamp
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
About halfway through June, I got a letter from my press agent asking if I wanted to go to the Hollywood Bowl on the evening of June 27 for the unveiling of the Miles Davis postage stamp. I checked my schedule and found, to my surprise, I was going to be in Los Angeles on that date, so I wrote back and said yes. I have been invited to a few Miles Davis events and appreciate the kindness of the Davis family very much.
Days later, I got another letter asking if I would speak at the event. Hang out with a bunch of jazz fans and talk about Miles Davis? I'm in. Immediately my name was in the press release and out it went.
Saying "Sure, I'll do it" is the easy part. Where the rubber and the road meet is afterwards, when you realize that you now have to deliver something. I decided to take an offensive posture, to pretend that the audience was not all on board with a Miles Davis postage stamp and needed to be persuaded. I got to work on my statement. Come out fighting!
By the late afternoon of the 27, I figured I was as ready as I would ever be. I had made some notes I knew I wouldn't be using, got in my car and headed to the Bowl for an 1830 hrs. meet with Karen Sundell, who handles press relations for the Miles Davis Estate. Upon arriving, I met up with Karen and said hello to members of the Davis family: son Erin, daughter Cheryl, nephew Vince Wilburn and the beautiful, exquisite and altogether lovely Frances Davis, Miles' first wife, whom I had met before at a Miles event at the Grammy Museum.
I was given a personalized plaque commemorating the evening, which only knotted my entrails tighter.
Cool event. A small stage and sound system, several rows of chairs. Bubba Jackson of KKJZ FM 88.1 hosting. Short speeches by Arvind Manocha, chief operating officer of the L.A. Philharmonic Association, followed by Miles collaborator, multi-instrumentalist and all-around musical whiz Marcus Miller. And then, to drop the bar several notches, me. Soon after, a word from Los Angeles' postmaster, Mark. H. Anderson, and then the stamp unveiling.
Soon enough, it was time to go. Bubba hit the stage and started bringing up his speakers. After a very cool tribute from Marcus Miller, who is a couple of years older than I am and looks years younger, Bubba called me to the stage. I put my notes down. Onstage, I can only go with what's in my head -- words on a page uselessly swim in front of my eyes. I grabbed the mic and stated my case.
To paraphrase, I basically said that, in my opinion, music is humankind's greatest achievement. Furthermore, jazz is America's great gift to the world and a powerful proponent of civil rights in America. One of its most well-known examples is Miles Davis.
If you take even the briefest glance at his catalog and listen to a small fraction of his prolific output, it is astonishing to the point of being unbelievable that one person was able to make that many changes in his artistic journey. If you think that the one thing that goes through these records from Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain (with Gil Evans), Miles Smiles, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the myriad albums between the aforementioned, the one constant is Miles Davis.
Obviously, he didn't make these albums on his own. Some of the people in his lineups: Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, to name only a few. Again, the glue was Miles.
He did not treat the people on the bandstand with him as mere sidemen. He understood that it takes parts to make the whole. He let the musicians he worked with stretch and realize their potential. In an interview, one of these men -- I think it was Tony Williams -- said that Miles knew what you were capable of even if you didn't. He would raise the bar out of your reach, knowing you could get there.
These albums are ALL worth checking out. When the big book is written on American music, you might find that, along with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis will be considered a master composer.
The single word that embodies Miles Davis and his music is cool. He defines it. When you listen to his music, you're cool, too. Not as cool as Miles, but cooler than you were before you put the record on.
And that's going to be the word coming out of people's mouths when they get a letter that has a Miles Davis stamp on it. They will not just say, "Oh, look, Miles Davis is on a postage stamp. They will stop, look again and say, "That is so cool."
Jazz music is as American as it gets and so is the U.S. Postal Service. A Miles Davis stamp is a perfect marriage of two great American institutions. A Miles stamp is great but is only the start. A few years from now, perhaps we can unveil a cool new addition on Mount Rushmore.
People seemed to dig it. I even saw Herbie Hancock smile, which says to me that I am now free to wander into traffic as my work here is done.
The plaque sits in my kitchen. My kitchen is now cool.
Truly, the Miles Davis catalog is so deep and wide, you will never master it, but you can have a great time trying. Not to mention, with the way the heat has been jumping up here, we need all the cool we can get.
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