Although I don’t now recall much about the conference, I sharply remember the morning after. On my way to breakfast, I learned that Miles Davis had died. The newspaper didn’t say why; later reports said pneumonia and a stroke. At the time, I assumed drugs.
Miles had called me one night.
Years before in 1969, at 3 am in Beverly Hills, all was quiet in the lobby of the Bevery Rodeo Hyatt House, where I was the night auditor. Miles’ wife — whom I was sure was the woman pictured on the cover of his ‘Porgy and Bess’ album — was staying in the hotel, and the night bellman was complaining that she kept calling him, wanting this, wanting that, fussing, acting oddly, he said.
When the switchboard rang, I answered and it was Miles.
Gravelly-voiced, he asked my name. He knew the hotel well. He frequently stayed there. I’d not seen him, but our highly-crispy morning bellman Roger, had reported in detail their many arguments. Roger, a young and zippy white kid with a full head of steam and vast assurance, was certain that white basketball players were clearly superior. Miles, never known for tact or modesty, was certain that black basketball players were superior.
I’m glad I wasn’t there and was never asked, for I knew nothing about basketball. Disappinted though that I’d not met Miles, for I’d been a fan ever since my friend Lefevre gave me that Porgy and Bess album as a birthday present during high school years. I’d played it over and over in the basement of our home.
In this basement, I’d painted three walls pale blue and one wall burnt orange, and with an intricate speaker-cabinet planned from Mechanics Illustrated and with materials salvaged from my award-winning and bogus science fair exhibit, the sound was magnificent in this basement, with Miles’ pinched tone sounding now and again in little short phrases.
Jerry described that sound as playing through fishnets, but that wasn’t it. I’ve heard that once Miles was asked why he liked the trumpet; he said that it sounded like the human voice. But that wasn’t what it sounded like, either. What it sounded like, was Miles.
So. Beverly Hills at 3 am, and the switchboard rings, and Miles’ gravel-voice asks my name. My name was then Richard, and I told him.
“Richard,” he said. “My wife’s there.” I agreed; she was. In room such-a-number. He thought a while.
“She’s upset,” he said. I agreed; she was. About something. Or about nothing. Who knows? We didn’t know. “She’s upset,” he said. “See if you can’t calm her down, OK?”
How the hell was I supposed to do that? Or, expressed differently, what would be the best approach for a 24-year-old white boy with acne, completely inept with women, an employee of the hotel, to deal with a lushiously beautiful black woman possibly strung-out and cranky on drugs in one of our rooms, to calm her down as a favor to the most famous horn player in the world, calling in from New York?
“Gee, Mr. Davis,” I stuttered, “I don’t know what to do.” He brushed my objection aside.
“Just talk to her,” he said. “Calm her down, OK? Just try, OK?”
OK, I said. I did call her, and asked if everything was OK. She told me off, and then, apparently, everybody was happy.
And now, years later, standing shocked and blocking the line to the breakfast buffet in this Burbank hotel, I read that Miles is dead. He’s gone. I don’t know the guy, but it hurt.
Why did it hit me so?
Recently, Johnny Cash died. It seemed like a part of my life had gone. Adrienne had rushed into my Mount Shasta office to tell me; she’d heard it on the radio. The next day, we were talking about trains, and she asked me what was the Johnny Cash song about the train. “Folson Prison Blues,” I told her, and started to sing the first verse. She burst into tears.
“Don’t!” she said. “Don’t, please.”
Why does it hit us so?
I think it’s this. Most of us have heard a trumpet. But we’d never heard that trumpet. Most of us have heard a freight train. But maybe we’d never fully heard the lonliness in that late-night whistle. In songs, the singer brings us something, and it becomes a part of our lives.
Miles gave us a trumpet, and a sound. Johnny Cash gave us freight trains.