How does a black guy from East Saint Louis influence the life of a white boy
in Montana? I had an aunt once, Aunt Mabel, who used to smile at me when I
asked her a question. She’d say, “Stevie, that’s the sixty four thousand dollar
Yes, back in the ’40’s and early ’50’s there was a radio show called, you
guessed it… the $64,000 question. Now my question isn’t worth much,
partly because I already know the answer. And I will share it with you if you’re
willing to give me 5-10 minutes of your time. It’s not a great story by any
stretch, but I’m telling it anyway. Occasionally, some of these stories just
have to be told…
Why Miles? And how? Easy. A winter’s night at the U. of Montana in Jan. ’64,
a dorm room, a sophomore music student flunking out, mostly for lack of interest
in the classical agenda the school was selling, in hopes of making teachers
of us. I was playing a new Miles Davis album I’d bought earlier in the day, and
was drinking a warm beer, hitting a golf ball into a paper cup across the dorm
room and listening to my new album.
I didn’t like Miles at first. In my defense, I’d been listening to Andre Previn and
Al Hirt, for christ’s sake! Think about it… jazz in Montana back then?? You had
to really look for it. Anyway, the album was Someday My Prince Will Come. It
was a Wynton Kelly solo that got me. I’ll never forget it. I played that solo over
and over that night, and knew that’s the way I wanted to make the piano sound.
That night changed the direction of my life. Because of that album and Wynton’s
superb playing, I ended up at the Berklee School Of Music in Boston, and that
Berklee opened all the jazz doors, new players, new heroes, new ways to
play… it was fairly mind-blowing. I learned nearly as much from my fellow
students on the coffee breaks in the first two years! After all, they were mostly
Eastern city guys who had already heard many of the jazz greats live, while I
hadn’t even heard of them. I’d heard a Louis Armstrong concert live in late ’63
and it was by far the best thing I’d every heard live! Just so you know, the only
other live name I’d ever heard in concert live was when Faron Young came to
our high school. I know… “Who the hell is Faron Young?” Never mind.
I was absorbing these new names and all these new sounds, songs and players.
And I heard Miles live at the Jazz Workshop in Boston in ’66! I still wasn’t wild
about Miles… he turned his back to the audience about half the time. But his
band, his band!! They were incredible, and they lit me up in ways I’d never felt
before! Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock. I totally
loved everything that Herbie played back then, he was my new hero. From that
band I learned so much… that my time would never be as good or as fluid as
theirs; that I would always be way more stuck on the chord structure of a tune
than they were at that point; and that the raw, unrestrained brilliance I heard
in their playing was not in me… nor was it likely to ever be. I am forever grateful
to Miles and that band for that knowledge, though it hurt somewhat at the time.
Over the years I’ve grown to love nearly everything Miles ever did. He lost me,
of course, when he went electric in the ’70’s, but who cared? By then I had seven
or eight albums of great bands he had brewed through the ’50’s and ’60’s. My
favorites are what nearly everyone’s favorites are – Someday, Kind Of Blue, and
Seven Steps To Heaven.
Some 43 years after my epiphany in the dorm room, I was, once again, back
in Montana, in my cabin, living through a particularly rough winter… lots of
snow, wind, and below-zero weather. Sitting in front of my crackling wood stove,
faithful Jameson’s close at hand, I was reminiscing about music and my career,
and it occurred to me that I had played standards all my life… that if someone
asked me to play, for instance, a Miles Tune any more complex than Footprints,
I wouldn’t be able to do it… I simply couldn’t hear most complex chord changes
that weren’t built around II-V’s. Wait, I could play Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence.
But that wasn’t a hard tune, really. Who did the hard, complex tunes? Ah, Miles,
of course! The first Miles CD I found was Nefertiti. Fair enough. I put it on,
refilled my glass and sat back down to see if the years of playing had sharpened
my ear to the point where I could learn to play a couple of these tunes by ear.
Ha! No way in hell. So I began searching through my Miles Albums for some of
his obtuse tunes that I might have a chance of figuring out. Came up with a
pretty decent list of nine songs that I would have to listen to over and over to
figure out. Knowing winters in Montana usually last ’til May at least, I knew I had
the time… it was still February. So, in a few days, I began a project to learn and
record in my little studio there, the nine songs I’d picked out.
It wasn’t easy, but Ron Carer’s bass helped me analyze a lot of it. Herbie’s
cluster chords… not so much sometimes. But by the middle of the third song
my ear was reaching further, understanding more, and the deeper I got into
the project, the more fun it became. I ended up doing Mascualero, Footprints,
Pee Wee, Prince Of Darkness, Drad Dog, Eight One, Fall, E.S.P. and Iris.
Several funny realizations came to me during this project. One was that my
interp of these Miles tunes was so soft, so simple, almost as if to make Miles’
tunes a hip form of elevator music! My god, we didn’t want that, now, did we?
but there it was. I realized that Miles’ recordings of these (and many other)
tunes had a hard edge to them, even a darkness, that was totally missing in
my interpretations. The mystery in his versions was gone, the insanely deep
and wonderful playing of his band was gone… and without that, well, in my
mind, the tunes simply weren’t that good. Oh sure, they were loose, wildly
different and open to great solo opportunities. But they weren’t Richard
Rogers… and there you have it. Miles tunes were largely not memorable.
did not bring with them any warm fuzzies, and were basically the polar
opposite of most popular music.
Along this line, i also learned that I could hear strings in almost every song
I tried to play or record. So I put some strings on a few of the Miles Tunes…
sacrilege!! but I did it, because I heard it. And what I did in the end is turn a
hard knife edge into a warm marshmallow! Not what I’d intended at all, but
that was certainly the result.
Anyway, I learned the songs, recorded them and soloed on them as best
I could. Turned out my original thought was correct, I’m fine in the world of
II-V’s, but throw me into the world of non-logical chord progression, and of
multiple time signatures, and you might as well throw me to the wolves! I
may not be a bonefied jazz player, but please don’t ever call me a smooth
Here is my version of Fall.
Did I ever learn to play as well as Wynton Kelly? No, goddamnit! But I’m