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The night that changed Miles Davis

One night in August, 1959, Miles Davis had an experience that he said changed him. He and his quintet were playing in the famous Birdland club in New York City. During a break, Miles Davis made his way outside and into a scuffle with a New York City police officer. Davis recounts the night:

I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed up to my name on the marquee all up in lights. He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!”

These events led to a fight between Miles and several officers. Davis was hit in the head with a billy club. The photograph of this event circulated wildly around the world, fueled the racial tension already festering in the country (especially in NYC), and dragged Davis into a legal battle, eventually ending with everyone simply walking away from the incident.

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However, the events of that night in August live on. Davis himself said in his autobiography, “That changed my whole life and whole attitude again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country.” Davis’ reputation as a rather cold, standoffish man would continue to grow, possibly perpetuated by that night.

More recently, the legend of that night has lived on in none other than Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. Davis’ blood-stained suit from the famous photo was a direct inspiration for Coyne’s bloody garb, a tiny but powerful trademark.

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Strangely enough, it wasn’t until 1985 when Davis released You’re Under Arrest that a clear stance against racism would make its way into his music. In case you’re like me and you listen to “You’re Under Arrest,” are unaffected and feel depressed that Miles Davis would create something that doesn’t blow you away, remember that he is still the guy that recorded Birth of the Cool (1957), Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), Bitches Brew (1970), and about a thousand other breathtaking records.

 

Further Reading:

Miles: The Autobiography

Miles Davis and American Culture

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