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-201x300

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.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    Wynton never changed anything by his drawers. Miles was a fearless innovator.

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • 2happychick

    *but

  • Glazedyams

    “…pre-1968 Coltrane”?  John Coltrane died in 1967.

  • jun

    he was just a kid and seems still is.
    RIP Miles..

  • Nathan

    Miles Davis will be remember for ever as a innovator of jazz music a musician that was not afraid to change is music.While Wynton Marsalis will just be remember as footnote in Jazz as just another good Trumpeter in Jazz..

  • crocodile chuck

    Marsalis is a phony. Always has been, always will.

  • woolybear

    wynton isn’t good enough to have been Miles’ roadie

  • jorgecarreiro

    Marsalis… Who

  • djm

    I think everyone can respect Miles for all the reasons noted in these comments, and these are always the reasons people cite when talking about Miles: bold, courageous, innovator, influential. But you rarely hear people say “Miles sings to me. Miles changes my mood. I LOVE Miles!”. 80% of the people who bought/buy Kind of Blue did so either because it was approachable or because someone told them they should – and its a great dinner music album – my non jazz friends are sure to recognize it.

    Honestly, I own every album he’s done and very few do I ever find myself listening to for pure enjoyment. With Miles it is always “can you believe he was doing THIS, THEN ?!?!”. Great, he changed things, mad props for that, we desperately need innovators – but I really don’t like the music all that much, its pretty good – but rarely listen to it for pleasure. To me he lacked the virtuosity of Hubbard or Byrd and lacked the emotional involvement of Farmer or Morgan, hell, even Chet Baker.

    To sum it up: If I take Miles out of context, I just really can’t get into it. With Miles, you need all this context to explain his greatness.

    Wynton is sorta the same way, minus the innovation – just sort of a dry player to me. I honestly find myself enjoying his classical recordings more than his jazz stuff. And his best stuff is early jazz when he was at the highest command of his technical skills (which was probably from playing all that classical!). I used to be able to marvel at his sheer ability, but everything recent is just too glossy and dry. I do like his live shows and once sat through a master class he gave that was excellent.

    What is so great about music, this is just how it all makes me feel.

    Enough of my heresy…

    • Jay Thomas

      DJM…ha! you ever here Miles Ahead or Porgy and Bess or as a sideman on Something Else…..Cookin or Steamin…..if you have checked these out and that is what you feel about Miles…. i hope Santa brings you a cortex and a set of ears for Christmas…Miles was awesome….every second of every cut in a long career?…probably not….but…. i have been moved to tears many times by Miles ballad playing…and never by wynton…check out on Agitation on you tube…he did not have a problem getting around the horn either.

    • Dias

      Miles is the single most importante Jazz musician of all times for me. I play the guitar and there are many important jazz guitarrits that I listen to all the time. But I can’t go a month without listening to Miles Davis, there are many records and several musics that just make my life better, every single time I listen to them. Every single freaking time. Miles’s the man.

    • Tom Ritchford

      Miles sings to me. Miles changes my mood. I live Miles’ work.

      Each specific album has specific strong moods, in fact. Sketches of Spain is like the Castilian sun. Porgy and Bess is proud and tragic. In A Silent Way hangs modal moods like stars in the sky. Bitches Brew rips the floorboards up. I could go on almost indefinitely….

    • Terrell Anita Just

      I know what you mean, and I feel this way about many of the cool jazz
      players. They took it to the level of mind and away from the loins, and
      also further from the heart. Think about it. In a jazz club the audience
      sits and listens, in other types of music, they move, gotta dance.

      But
      Miles takes me to another dimension, apart from the mind/heart
      connection. Sometimes he makes me work, sometimes he slips in the back
      door. Listen to the second side of Filles de Kilimanjaro again. That’s
      my best example.
      Wynton….ahh let’s see. What? I’ll never know why
      he was chosen to narrate Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz when so many
      Jazz greats were still alive and performing – ones who had been there
      for much of the history. I find his temperament off-putting and his
      playing mediocre – without depth. Hell, he couldn’t even swing for the
      first 10 years of his career.
      No, Miles was the one. Under that
      crusty demeanor lived a man who craved innovation and insisted upon it;
      for himself and for his players. He knew who he was.

    • Rick Harris

      Well put djm. You have perfectly articulated what I have always felt; but was too intimidated to say. Effete snoberism and pseudo intellectialism.

  • http://twitter.com/6marK6 Mark Guszak

    Miles is legendary. Can’t say that about Marsalis .

  • truthor

    Miles was way ahead of his time, Marsalis is stuck in time.

    • Ryan Meagher

      Very succinct

  • Susie E Rice

    Miles is over-rated. There have been a lot of better trumpeters over the years. Woody Shaw could play circles around him.

    • Ryan Meagher

      It wasn’t just about Miles’s “playing.” Miles is my favorite musician of all-time. But he’s not my favorite “trumpet player.”

    • bob

      Shaw is probably the best jazz trumpet ever at least from a technical standpoint, but Miles had changed jazz a couple times before anyone had heard of Woody Shaw. I consider Shaw to be more of a “Musician’s Musician”: not particularly accessible, but astounding if you understand what he’s doing. Maybe that’s why Mile’s legacy has been so much more widespread than Woody’s.

    • bob

      Shaw is probably the best jazz trumpet ever at least from a technical standpoint, but Miles had changed jazz a couple times before anyone had heard of Woody Shaw. I consider Shaw to be more of a “Musician’s Musician”: not particularly accessible, but astounding if you understand what he’s doing. Maybe that’s why Mile’s legacy has been so much more widespread than Woody’s.

      • crocodilechuck

        “He can play different than all of them” Miles Davis on Woody Shaw

  • Jaloysiusm

    I doubt anyone would suggest that Marsalis was the equal, or even close, of Miles at his height. But , sorry, by the mid-eighties he’d moved into Kenny G-style noodling of pop treacle. I doubt any of his defenders below actually sit around listening to his recordings from that era.

    • aikimoe

      There are some absolutely beautiful pieces on “Tutu” and “Amandla” which I still frequently listen to.

  • Fuzztastic

    I was at that (in)famous Vancouver concert. The way I recall it, was that one of the concert promoters was egging Wynton to go on stage. Wynton was standing on stage left in the wings, but very visible to the audience. Wynton walked on and started playing. Miles stopped his playing and shouted for him to “get off my effing stage.” No whispers in no ears. That’s BS.

    • Jerome Taylor

      Thanks for the clarification!! From what I’ve learned about Miles, that’s what I thought!! Good job!

  • Donald Robinson

    Wynton is great, as great as miles davis, Blood on the tracks, and arise proves that! if you have not heard either, you are either slow, or do not know anything about the black music called jazz. Wynton reminds me of the GREAT Louis Armstrong.

    • Tom Ritchford

      Apparently you’ve seen Ken Burns’ Jazz. :-D

    • Ryan Meagher

      Blood on the Fields, maybe?

    • Terrell Anita Just

      Miles reminds me of nobody else. That is the difference.

  • madisontruth

    A performance space to a musician is like turf to a gang member. If the wrong person crosses a line, there will be drama.

  • AManCalledDa-da

    Wynton Marsalis as “current champion”? Jazz has indeed become, as Miles once told Da-da, “museum music.” And “fiery solos” from Wynton?? Which planet was this on? Sorry. Musicians know better.

  • Arthur Blythe

    The beauty of Miles was his lyrical expression, every note was always a natural.

    • crocodilechuck

      Mr. Blythe nails it.

  • jorgecarrero

    Marsalis+Crouch= Profiteers!

    • Jerome Taylor

      No, equals idiots!!!

      • jorgecarrero

        Of course, Jerome!

  • Jazzoperetry

    What’s fascinating about this article is the attempt to portray the two artists as if they were boxers, like Ali vs. Liston. It’s a little silly. For one, unless the monumental interchange between the two of them occurred twice (which would mean the article’s portrayal/character assessment of Wynton is downplayed to the point of being completely false) this event occurred in New York’s Lincoln Center, during a jazz festival in ’86–not Vancouver. I was there. And it happened almost exactly as Miles described it afterwards. But secondly, while Wynton wisely sung the praises of Pops (Louis) re the development of his technique, he said and made clear repeatedly that the Miles Davis of the early/mid 60s is the creative source of virtually everything he did in the 80s. BLACK CODES; HOTHOUSE FLOWERS; Wynton would have never found his soul without a previous avatar of Miles guiding him to it. You don’t hear as many stories about a young Coltrane dissing Charlie Parker or Mingus going off on Duke Ellington after Max Roach cussed out Tony Williams because, for the most part, these clashes and any fanciful ones like then, never happened; even Louis and Dizzy, who famously didn’t like each other, were always civil. This was a product of a young Wynton, whose mind was momentarily poisoned by Stanley Crouch during a shriller moment in his writing career, working out some Oedipal issues ON Miles, not with him.

    • David Goren

      Well, there’s some revisionist history going on here. There was plenty of animosity and competition among jazz players of all eras. Miles famously threw Coltrane down a flight of stairs, Charles Mingus punched out trombonist Jimmy Knepper among others. Ornette Coleman endured a lot of hostility, physical and otherwise throughout his career.

    • David Goren

      Well, there’s some revisionist history going on here. There was plenty of animosity and competition among jazz players of all eras. Miles famously threw Coltrane down a flight of stairs, Charles Mingus punched out trombonist Jimmy Knepper among others. Ornette Coleman endured a lot of hostility, physical and otherwise throughout his career.

  • Bongo Da Bongo

    I always dug Miles’ playing. I never felt the “Buzz” with Wynton. He was and is a great player, but he doesn’t connect with me. That’s it. That’s all.

  • Ryan Meagher

    I’m going on San Francisco’s KGO 810 AM on Jan. 12th, 2014 to talk about conservatism and exclusion in modern jazz. Thanks for sharing this! It’ll help.

  • Verneri

    Miles was original. He was an artist. Wynton is a catalogue of what has been. And a front man to the history of Jazz. Both play the trumpet, but represent totally different things alltogether. There is absolutely no point in comparing them in a competitive manner.

  • upstatetimmy

    Listening to Wynton and Branford play side by side, it’s amazing to hear which brother is the more soulful…

    • Gregory Waits

      It is clear which brother is more soulful. Wynton HAS no soul.

      Branford has it going on.

  • Andrew Jones

    Miles Davis is one of the great musical artists of the 20th century- whereas Wynton is another great Jazz Musician in the most academic of senses, who happens to have been anointed at a very young age by the corporate media as the “caretaker of jazz.” Go to New England Conservatory and meet a whole generation of players who are technically beyond Miles at his peak. Any one of them could catalog the music of the past like Wynton, but its a lot harder to make an artistic mark on music like Miles did time and time again- for a lot of reasons.

    • Andrew Jones

      Listening to Black Codes: “not to hate, and there’s some great playing here- but it sounds like 60s miles if you eliminated any element of risk.”

  • rastahippy1

    Why so much hostility to Wynton? Yes Miles was great. My own humble little opinion as a fellow citizen of earth is that Wynton is great too and even if he don’t connect with you his playing resonates with some people, and not a few, myself included. Instead of all this hate why can’t we all love the fact that these two individuals have made significant albeit different contributions to music and that some of us have had the pleasure to have seen either or both of them in person doing their thang?

    • Gregory Waits

      Why hostility? He invites it with his arrogant attitude. He appounted himself the chief of jazz. He is a bozo…..a rich bozo, but a clown nonetheless.

  • Jerome Taylor

    I never have or never will have any respect for Wynton Marsilly!! I’ve met him once and once is enough!! In comparison, Miles Davis has been at the forefront of Jazz from damn near the inception of the genre! Here comes this boy, who to this day, stays nestled at the “Jazz at the Lincoln Center” as “Creative Director or whatever his title is these days!! His playing ability although pretty good is nothing legendary and his solos sounds rehearsed! I have way more respect for his brother Branford whose adventurous solos succeeds in making what I feel is a legitimate statement while still furthering the cause of the jazz idiom!! In other words, he’s got balls!!! Miles was correct in throwing this dude off the stage and should have punched him the face!!!

    • jorgecarrero

      Exactly!!!!!!!

  • Gregory Waits

    Miles had every right to stop the band. And Marsalis was completely out of line to walk onto another man’s set.

    Wynton cannot swing. He is an arrogant poser.

    Screw him.

  • Guest

    I heard this from someone else, but it bears repeating– comparing Wynton to Miles is like comparing Bill Nye the Science Guy to Einstein

    • Jan Baynard

      LOL I like that comparison

  • bob

    Miles was a giant among giants. Wynton – who is so full of himself – has this puny, airy, nasty sound that i still can’t stand. They should not be talked about in the the same conversation. Or in the same article.

  • teledyn

    Both would have been forced to stand down had their mutually confessed master been there: “Listen to Armstrong’s music and you feel yourself in the presence of a profoundly optimistic man. When you learn that that man grew up on the roughest block of New Orleans, that his mother was a part-time prostitute, that his childhood was spent in conditions of the most abject poverty, then the spiritual achievement that issues in his optimism, I think, gives the music an even deeper resonance.”

    Pops would have stood between them and the hate would have evaporated, and love and respect would have shown in the playing that followed. Miles and Wynton both claimed to have learned from Louis Armstrong, but clearly neither had, by this point, learned what mattered.

    • tooonz

      Y’all think this is a basketball game. Respect a long and courageous carrer. You can’t innovate by not taking chances. Jazz is just a word. Duke Ellingto told me he never played jazz. He thought of it historically as it came up the river to Chicago as jass the music of the cat houses, He associated it with rag time and the dances it accompanied. His perspective was it went out of syle when the Charlston came in effect. No disrespect to the players because he loved the music and the players. He got the same kind of treatment whenever he did something new too.

  • Jan Baynard

    As the saying goes….
    Young man-Young man-…Your arms too short to box with God.

  • Joseph Wisgirda

    2 happy chick is right. How many memorable songs did Mr. Marsalis write? I don’t see any of his tunes in any of my real books, funny. Don’t get me wrong, Wynton is a fabulous technician, very capable of copping licks from Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown. I don’t hear any new music coming out of him though. And given the choice I would rather listen to Pops or Clifford, that’s the real thing.
    Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis have done a huge disservice to Jazz by trying to divorce traditional jazz from modern jazz, excluding modern jazz from even residing in the jazz category by their own definition. Unfortunately, through their effort and the one-sided documentary by Mr. Burns, they also managed to sway the public opinion of America their way. By doing this they are marginalizing and obfuscating the works of giants like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. They have managed to drive this vital creative and artistic period to the margins, by not only their classification but by their derision. Their opinion became America’s since they figuratively held the mic the whole time during the discussion. Their “young lions” movement seems more like a cult of personality than a movement. Don’t get me wrong, Nicolas Payton and Josh Redmann are smoking players, much props. But once again, how many memorable songs came out of that group? In the old days jazz musicians were amazing technicians AND strong creators, capable of cutting to the heart of the music by playing memorable music you held in your head for days after. While they were doing this, they were innovating by pushing harmonic and rhythmic boundaries during their compositions. None of those young lion cats are pushing anything. Their licks and ideas come from someone else by definition. This is what Wynton wants, as it fits his definition of jazz. Jazz is already a complete subject according to Mr. Marsalis, there is no more room necessary for innovation. To him it’s not just unneeded, it’s undesirable. And let’s face it, none of their albums of originals sell. It’s Christmas records, Vince Guaraldi and the music of Charlie brown, and the Haydn Trumpet concerto that put that dude on the map.
    To Crouch and Marsalis, Jazz cannot grow any furher. May as well put it in a jar of brine to preserve for posterity, according to those two.

    No, they are wrong. Jazz got it’s start as a vital creative music, has been from the get-go, and despite the damage to audiences done by Marsalis and Crouch still continues to be so. Go see and jazz show and support your local players and composers!
    – Joseph Wisgirda
    Student of John Tchicai
    Trumpet player
    http://www.soundcloud/dj-big-joe-daddy

  • Will Jayroe

    For me there are four names that stand out in the sea of Jazz and that is Armstrong, Coltrane, Davis, Ellington (not necessarily in that order). That’s it. That’s all she wrote. On LSD you might include Coleman. Might.