The first JazzTimes issue of 1992 was an important one in the magazine’s history simply because of the cover story on the legacy of Miles Davis, published just a few months after his passing. It was the first time, but certainly not the last, that we did a long cover story. More importantly, it was our first try at an oral history piece on an artist, a format used famously by George Plimpton in his influential biography of socialite Edie Sedgwick and most recently by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner for their book on Mike Nichols, Life Isn’t Everything.
Bret Primack’s thoroughly researched and remarkably timeless story on Miles featured a who’s-who of jazz at that time, including Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Gary Peacock, Gary Bartz, David Liebman, John Scofield, and so many more, all of whom had vivid personal memories of the so-called Dark Prince. Often imitating Miles’ distinctive raspy voice (according to Bret), they told stories about the complex man, discussed his massive influence, and talked about his music—from his bebop years through his halcyon days all the way to his last months when he revisited the music of his past with his old friends. Bret somehow managed to weave their candid and sometime profane reflections into a chronological and seamless narrative that perfectly illustrated the complexity of this towering figure in jazz, warts and all. Reading it nearly 30 years later, it feels much like watching Stanley Nelson’s recent film on Miles: We see him in a new and different light.
Bret and JazzTimes would go on to do many more pieces in future issues using this first-person structure, from Art Blakey and Frank Sinatra to Jaco Pastorius to Michael Brecker (the latter two by Bill Milkowski). And in recent years, we’ve done oral histories on storied venues and scenes such as Seventh Avenue South, Bradley’s and, in this very issue [May 2020], the Knitting Factory. These pieces, with their Rashomon-like quality, always stayed away from hagiography. The flaws in the man or the place were an important part of the story. Maybe that’s why Miles is seen with a rare smile in the cover photo by Jeff Sedlik.Originally Published