A Missed Opportunity: Miles Davis and “Little Miles”Posted: July 22, 2012
(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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Someone let this train-wreck happen in front of Miles Davis.
- Someone didn’t get the kid off or go to commercial when it was (blatantly) obvious what was about to happen.
- 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.