A Missed Opportunity: Miles Davis and “Little Miles”

(Edit: someone claiming to be “Little Miles” has now commented on this and said that he was fine with it. That’s great, but he also says that he accepted Miles’ comments in the face of him being known for being curt. It’s worth a read and, of course, I was speculating but my comments on the utility of Miles’ comments stand. Miles was known for being like this and I don’t see talent, even talent as great as Miles’, as being an excuse for bad behaviour. Jazz people may feel differently. I’m in the business of education, not torturing students. I would suggest that this is something all exemplars in a field should keep in mind if they want their area to flourish.)

If you click on this linked video (SFW) (YouTube), you’ll see a young trumpet player, who goes by the nickname “Little Miles”, play “On Green Dolphin Street” in front of Miles Davis. Now, it appears that, if I’ve done my detective work correctly, it’s a 1986 interview conducted by Bill Boggs (corrections welcome!).

Now, if you’ve watched that video, you’ve seen three things.

  1. You’ve seen a young trumpet player, who really isn’t that good, do a tolerable version of a song with a couple of mistakes.
  2. You’ve seen Miles Davis sit all the way back in his chair, then, finally, in a dismissive tone offer the advice of “Get some more practice” and “It’s in E Flat, you’re playing it in D Natural”, which is about as close to telling the kid to go back to wherever he came from and take up the tambourine as you can without actually going to the effort of doing so.
  3. You’ve seen a young trumpet player who, more than likely, is not going to keep playing the trumpet for much longer. The host quickly gets him off stage before anything more unpleasant can happen to him.

Now there is a world of wrong-thinking going on here to even let a young boy, who is called (whether he calls it himself or not) “Little Miles”, anywhere within fifty metres of Miles Davis, unless that young trumpet player is so, SO, good that Miles is going to have to accept that it’s not that much of an insult. And, being honest, the kid’s not that good. When you look at Miles Davis’ past, he was playing professionally for 3-4 years and studying at Juilliard before he went out and hunted down his idol, Coltrane. (Edit: my apologies, it was, of course, Charlie Parker. Thank you, Lewis, for noticing this!) When you think about it like that, wandering into a television studio calling yourself “Little Bird” after playing the sax for a few years and, obviously, not at a standard where you could play professionally – that’s a pretty silly thing to do.

But, of course, Miles’ reaction was pretty toxic. It was unnecessary. The kid wasn’t a threat to anyone and, after playing that way, “Little Miles” was going to fade away, unless he practiced a whole heap more. Taking Miles’ comments at face value, could they have been educational? Ehhhh, not in that tone and with that delay and posture. It was a “Buzz off, kid” if it was anything.

The funny thing is that this is a cascade of bad decision making, which resulted in the worst kind of outcome – no-one actually learned anything.

  1. Whoever was putting the boy up should have either prepared him better or held him back until he was. He shouldn’t have been here.
  2. Whoever gave the kid the name or encouraged him to use it should really had thought twice about it, if proximity to the real thing was even on the horizon.
  3. Someone let this train-wreck happen in front of Miles Davis.
  4. Someone didn’t get the kid off or go to commercial when it was (blatantly) obvious what was about to happen.
  5. Miles was offensively honest in a way designed to injure.

So, someone had put together a view of jazz trumpet playing and exposed the student to it so that they thought that their version of “On Green Dolphin Street” was good enough that they could stand on a stage, called “Little Miles” and expect anything else. That’s a problem with the teacher, for me.

That name… Oh! That name! The hubris required to call yourself that, unless you are so, so, very good that the comparisons leap to all lips. Somebody didn’t sit back and look at that from enough perspectives to work out that it was sending completely the wrong message.

What could the boy learn from listening to Miles? Practice more and stay on key. Wow. Thanks. It was, as I’ve said, not designed to be educational but hurtful – and of course it had no real educational value. It was a punishment and, like any punishment, it’s designed to make you avoid a behaviour, not train you into a new behaviour. Stay away from the trumpet, Kid.

The boy learned nothing that he couldn’t have known by playing with some echo. He certainly didn’t learn anything from one of the finest horn players in the world. What worries me the most is that, after this all happened, his parents or his teacher came up to him and said something “Well, what does that Miles Davis know, anyway?”

“What does he know? I named myself (or you named me) after him as a nickname. I’ve been looking forward to this for three months (say). And now you say it’s nothing?”

Little Miles now has two extreme options, as well as the continuum of compromise in the middle. Either he’s crazy enough to believe that Miles Davis was wrong and that he’s going to be the best ever, spending his life pursuing a vindictive dream where  any intrinsic motivation is swamped by a burning hatred for Gold Lamé, or he suddenly realises that his teachers and his parents don’t know that much about music – and that everything that they’ve said has been wrong.

I started out talking about education, but I’m coming to finish up talking about joy. Yes, there was a failure to educate, a failure of guardianship, many failures of judgement but there has also been a loss of joy. That young man was happy, mistakes and all, until Miles Davis slammed his angry fist down on him and I can’t really see how his love of trumpet would have survived that, without being at least a little bent and mangled.

It’s really easy to be unpleasantly critical and it’s hard to be constructively critical, especially when people are washed in the warm milk of low expectations, but I really wonder sometime why more people just don’t try a little harder to do it.


10 Comments on “A Missed Opportunity: Miles Davis and “Little Miles””

  1. lizphillips says:

    Your example of teaching and learning prompts me to share two examples with you. The American national anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing. The key and range of notes are cruel to the vocal cords that attempt it. It grates on my nerves when somebody messes up the words because I had to learn them when I applied for citizenship. I’ve heard famous singers mess it up at the local NASCAR track, and even when the words are right, it sounded frightful to the point that I’m glad when military jets fly overhead and drown out the singer’s attempt. Twice I’ve wondered if the pilots decided to fly over early to put everyone out of their misery!

    Now, I bring this up because I have two clips I show my students. The first shows a young lady at a hockey game who tries to sing the Anthem. She messes up twice before going to get a copy of the words…

    My students laugh along with the audience and the ESPN commentators. I ask them why it is funny. I even write their answers on the white board so they know the lesson I am presenting is serious. Some students are unhappy with the video clip and the cutting up in the classroom.
    When I have given two or three minutes of my time to writing things down, I show them a second clip of an even younger girl making an attempt…

    My students start to laugh until something remarkable happens. Mo Weeks saves the day. That girl’s experience is far different from the first girl’s. We talk about that. I offer to show the first clip again, but nobody wants to see it. They get the point EVERY time.

    How we respond to young people is vitally important. How a parent or teacher responds is so important to the self-esteem of a child/student. There is rarely a call for being brutally blunt or thoughtlessly cruel. But bashing is in style. It’s been in style a long time, long enough for an entire generation to think it is the norm. Perhaps that is why people tell their kids they are the greatest…to cushion them from all the abuse. Or maybe adults who feed false credulity were bashed so much they think it is kind to pamper and soft serve criticism as praise.

    The fist clip shows no teaching, no learning. The second does. The second sets an example. Teachers set the tone. They teach more than content and skill. They teach a student to be the best he/she can be at whatever task is set before them, whether it be to write a paragraph, solve a computer programming problem, or go about creating opportunities for resolution of national or international conflict. What is more, human beings need to be real. We need to recognize our gifts, our talents, our needs, or weaknesses. We need deliberate practice in all things worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about music, mathematics, writing, or just being a decent person. Praise should be genuine. Criticism constructive. And asking for help or clarification should get affirmative response from more than one person who is willing to facilitate a positive outcome.

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    • nickfalkner says:

      What a difference the example at the front makes – the crowd was starting to go off, much in the same way as the first clip, in the second clip and when Mo Weeks stands up and helps – THEY START SINGING ALONG.

      Could there be a better example of positive action? The mob is always the mob and that crowd could have turned on the girl just as easily as the other crowd did, but they followed the example and the positive tone to be helpful.

      Wow! Thank you so much for these clips. It must be dusty in my office because, after watching the second clip, there was a little something in my eye.

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  2. Nick, this was a great analysis and synthesis. The impact of words, spoken and unspoken, is powerful.

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  3. […] A Missed Opportunity: Miles Davis and “Little Miles” […]

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  4. Lewis says:

    Nick, while at Julliard the idol that Miles Davis sought out was Charlie Parker, not John Coltrane.

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    • nickfalkner says:

      Thanks, Lewis. I had meant to write Charlie Parker (from the Bird reference in the next sentence) but this did not come out of my fingers correctly. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Regards,
      Nick.

      Like

  5. nickfalkner says:

    There was another comment stream here but the comment poster apparently couldn’t fathom the difference between biography and autobiography. He called me a bad teacher because I was entrenched in my ways, so I’ll leave his insult here although I’ll spare you the detail – another poster considers my views on Miles so deeply entrenched and wrong that I am a bad teacher. (That, by the way, is how real people frame that statement, not as a dismissive and guarded set of weasel words at the end of the statement.)

    He also said that I didn’t understand Jazz enough to realise that Miles was providing invaluable advice. I disagree on the advice level, but I am not a Jazz expert so I record his views here for posterity. I am ready to be wrong (and I may well be, I’m not forcing you to see through my eyes) but the fact that I was supposed to personally know Miles to be able to pass comment on his personality was just too much. It invalidates any possible criticism of Miles that contradicts the commenter I’ve deleted and such an approach is the enemy of open discourse. It would have been a waste of all of your time to watch the two of us bantering over it. So I deleted the thread and summarised his critiques, accusations and insults here. Semantic summaries!

    To the original poster, your point here is made. If you want to insult someone, own it, don’t frame it in weasel words. But don’t do it here. Go away. Bother some other folk. Claiming that someone needs to know a dead person when they are referring to an autobiography is nonsense. Critique their summary of the statements that the person made when they were alive, and recorded in the autobiography, critique the autobiography itself, or wander away. No doubt, this makes me a ‘bad something’ because you don’t get to control this environment in the way that you wish to, despite your lack of coherent contribution. Tant pis, Jazzman.

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  6. Little Miles says:

    This is Little Miles 30 years later. I never called myself Little Miles no one did except a coach from another sport who called me Miles Davis after the show aired I believe. The first time I heard that was when Bill Boggs said it. I almost looked around wondering who he was talking about. My jazz teacher has taught and worked with world class musicians My parents teacher etc never said whatdoesmilesknow anyway miles may not have been impressed with my playing but he was distracted the whole show with the piano player Joeys playing he didn’t seem too interested with what the tall white trumpet player was saying either. I was 12 extremely nervous playing in front of a legend and at the time music was just 1 of the extra curricular activities I was doing at the time I didn’t have my own combo or anything at the time To me I wasn’t that bad I had 1 almost cracked note and to me miles Davis’s response was not that cruel especially knowing miles Davis’s famous reputation for being somewhat Curt and mercurial. I was not crushed by Miles response no one rushed me off stage and I was fine with Miles’s response I hadn’t been playing serious jazz that long when I went on the show

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    • nickfalkner says:

      Well, thank you for following up on this. I’m still wondering if Miles’ comments could have been more useful to you if he’d bothered to listen and give you useful feedback. Educators educate, curmudgeons hide behind bad behaviour and curtness. I’ve never doubted Miles’ talent but I’ve also never accepted that talent is an excuse for being rude to other people. There’s too much of that in every discipline, especially my own, and it’s not as useful as real and genuine feedback.

      So, are you still playing jazz? As a performer, how do you interact with junior players now?

      Why not let people know where you’re playing or recording, given that this is vaguely visible on the Internet. 🙂

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