Locking Horns: When Miles Davis Met Wynton Marsalis

In hip-hop, they call it “beef.” Someone’s slight at a summer festival leads to another’s mixtape verse and the next thing you know, the Internet bubbles, posses squabble, and spectators pick sides to make art into sport. A mini-industry swirls around “beef,” generating album sales, DVDs, and entire careers out of he said/he said narratives.


Miles Davis

Jazz, by and large, has avoided such personal sniping. The music depends on communal collaboration with other musicians through listening and improvised response. Artists use their instruments to “cut” each other in jam sessions, not in magazines or on the street.

Or that’s the norm. This year marks the 25th anniversary of a very personal onstage flare-up. On one side: an aging iconoclast whose career rested on his will to forsake the past and radically change directions. On the other: a burgeoning talent at the forefront of a crusade to restore jazz’s rightful lineage.

In June 1986, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis played the first Vancouver Jazz Festival, with Miles on the schedule the night before Wynton. After a hiatus in the late ‘70s, Davis reemerged in 1980 with an electric band that featured synthesizers, covered Cyndi Lauper, and inflamed critics. While the names had changed, the effort was typical Miles: unafraid to risk reputation in pursuit of new trends, the latest tools, and wider influence. Whatever you think of his 1980s work, never accuse the man of retreating into his catalog.

Wynton Marsalis vs. Miles Davis.

Wynton Marsalis

At the same time, Marsalis was in the midst of an unprecedented run of successes, including Grammys in both jazz and classical music, lavish media attention, and the establishment of the “Young Lions” generation as a major force in jazz. Though more record industry conceit than defined movement, “Young Lions” described a rising class of musicians (including New Orleanians Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and the Marsalis brothers) that mined the territory of Bird, Monk, pre-Impulse-Records Coltrane, and, yes, Miles, to reclaim jazz from rock ’n’ roll tempos, fusionist excess, and Eurocentric conceptualism. In interviews, Marsalis defined true jazz as acoustic, blues-based, and decidedly African-American. He backed this up with fiery solos and a collection of brilliant young sidemen. Listen to 1985’s Black Codes (From the Underground) if you doubt the power of Wynton in this period.

For a time, Davis and Marsalis were label mates at Columbia, with Miles not a little scornful of the handling of the young star. “They got Wynton playing some old dead European music,” Miles complained later in his autobiography. “If he keeps on, they’re going to fuck him up.” By 1986, Miles had left Columbia and Marsalis had found a mouthpiece in the critic Stanley Crouch, who that year published an essay, “The Selling-Out of Miles Davis,” accusing Davis of squandering his talents and emulating the “drag-queen” Prince in an ongoing effort to cash in. However friendly their previous interactions, the time was not ripe for a passing of the torch.

Instead came the events of June 28, 1986. From Davis’ autobiography: “All of a sudden I feel this presence coming up on me, this body movement, and I see that the crowd is kind of wanting to cheer or gasp….Then Wynton whispers in my ear—and I’m still trying to play—‘They told me to come up here.’… I said, ‘Man, what the fuck are you doing up here on stage? Get the fuck off the stage!’”

Marsalis’ version, from a 1990 Downbeat article: “I went on his bandstand to address some disparaging statements he was making about me publicly. I felt I should address them publicly with my horn. I don’t know who this mysterious ‘they’ was that he claims told me to go up there. I told me to go up there.”

All parties recall Miles stopping the music when Wynton began to play, then refusing to resume until the younger man exited. It was a quick, heated skirmish, but the story spread. For some musicians, Marsalis’ taking the stage uninvited was a condemnable act. “The ultimate statement of arrogance,” percussionist and former Davis sideman James Mtume calls it. “A straight-up attack on Miles. Miles was so beyond that. It was about, ‘What the fuck are you doing? How you’re going to challenge me and I’ve changed music four or five times.’ It was to the point where he would’ve punched him. And believe me, he would have.”

In the same Downbeat article, Marsalis defended his actions and made clear his disdain. “No amount of race-baiting, women- hating, self-elevation and the other aspects of Mr. Davis’ persona that he has adopted, none of that is going to help him, especially when it comes time to deal with some music…. will show up anywhere in the world at any time with my horn to let it be known publicly how I feel about these things.”

Miles Davis passed way in 1991, and Marsalis is unavailable for comment due to a busy schedule, including a stop at this year’s Vancouver Jazz Festival. Perhaps the Miles-Wynton “beef” was simply a flashpoint of inevitable tension between a former and a current champion. Neither man ever shied from conflict, but given the accusations leveled before and after their clash, the moment resounds as a revealing footnote in two careers, each dedicated to changing the direction of jazz. Hardly a surprise that one bandstand could not hold them both.