Electric Miles: A Conversation

Seven men who worked with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1991 share their memories of a musical revolution

Miles Davis in 1971
Miles Davis in 1971 (photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives)

On Feb. 18, 1969, at CBS’ 30th Street Studio in New York, Miles Davis definitively went in the direction that he’d already been leaning toward for a year or so: full electricity. The album that emerged from that fateful recording session, In a Silent Way, established a new jazz-rock path that would be further cemented by the double-disc Bitches Brew, cut later that same year and released in 1970. Miles’ days of working within a traditional acoustic format were over, and jazz would never be the same.

All of the above facts are indisputable. Yet even now, opinions diverge on what Miles was trying to achieve by going electric, and on what lasting significance his radical stylistic shift has had on jazz, and on music in general. And so it seemed appropriate, 50 years on, to bring up those subjects and more with some of the musicians who worked with Miles during his electric years. Seven of those players—drummer Lenny White, bassist Michael Henderson, saxophonists Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz, percussionist Mtume, drummer (and Miles’ nephew) Vince Wilburn Jr., and trumpeter Wallace Roney—gathered in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room during the second annual Jazz Congress this past January for a discussion moderated by journalist and broadcaster Mark Ruffin. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. —Mac Randall

MARK RUFFIN: Going chronologically, which would make Lenny first, I’d like for folks to tell how they got with Miles.

LENNY WHITE: My mentor, who I call “God Drums,” Tony Williams, played with Miles. Miles had heard Tony’s band, Lifetime, and he wanted to have the band be his band—“Miles Davis Presents Tony Williams’ Lifetime”—and Tony wasn’t having that. So they had a rift. When Miles was going to do Bitches Brew, he wanted to have Jack DeJohnette and Tony play on it, but Tony said he wasn’t going to play with Miles anymore, and I believe that he gave a recommendation for me. I had played with Jackie McLean, Tony had played with Jackie McLean, Jack had played with Jackie McLean, so everybody said, “Now you’re going to play with Miles Davis!” And I said, “Yeah, right.” But that actually did happen.

I got a call to go to Miles’ house and rehearse for this album. It was Jack, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter. We went to 77th Street, where Miles used to live, and all he asked me to bring was a cymbal and a snare drum. All we did was rehearse the very first part of Bitches Brew. And he said, “Be there at 10 a.m., Columbia Studios.” I was there at 9:30, the cleaning lady let me in. I’m setting up my stuff and everybody’s starting to come in now. I set up right next to Jack and was testing my drums out, and Miles comes in and over the talkback he says, “Hey, Jack!” Jack says, “Yeah, Miles?” He says, “Tell that young drummer to shut up.” And that’s the way the session started.

MICHAEL HENDERSON: I got a call one day after working with Stevie Wonder here in New York at the Apollo and the Copacabana. It was this voice on the phone: “Hey, what’chu doin’?” I said, “Who the hell is this?” “It’s Miles.” I hung up on him. I didn’t know! I’d never heard his voice before, I thought it was a prankster. He called back. It was like three in the morning—that’s the time everybody functions, that’s when they call you, while you’re trying to sleep. He said, “I wanted to talk with you about joining the band.” So he came down to the Copacabana with [then-wife] Betty Davis. You remember Betty? He was a big freak, so she was woah, woah, woah! See-through top and everything, and I was a little kid [19, to be exact]. And [Miles] came up to the dressing room and said to Stevie, “I’m taking your bass player.” He gave me his phone number, and I said, “Wow.”

Jack Johnson [recorded in 1970 and released in 1971] was the first record [I worked on with Miles]. He flew me in, we went over to the [studio] and Jack DeJohnette was there, Keith Jarrett was there, Airto was there, John McLaughlin was there. Buddy Miles actually was supposed to be doing the session, but he didn’t show up. Billy Cobham played the drums because Buddy didn’t show up. Herbie Hancock came with a bag of groceries—he was working in the studio down the hall and said, “I’m cutting my record down the street,” and Miles said, “Go over and play that machine over there.” It was an electric keyboard, and so Herbie went down there and played and Miles went, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s it! Play that.” And so John McLaughlin kicked off something and Billy Cobham started playing—I was rolling with them, and the next thing you know, we had Jack Johnson.

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RUFFIN: That was an improvised bassline on “Right Off”?

HENDERSON: Yeah, we just started playing. And that’s what happened.

The Electric Miles panel at the 2019 Jazz Congress (L to R): Mtume, Mark Ruffin, Gary Bartz, Vince Wilburn, Jr., Wallace Roney, Dave Liebman, Michael Henderson, Lenny White
The Electric Miles panel at the 2019 Jazz Congress (L to R): Mtume, Mark Ruffin, Gary Bartz, Vince Wilburn, Jr., Wallace Roney, Dave Liebman, Michael Henderson, Lenny White (photo: Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center)

DAVE LIEBMAN: I lived in a building on West 19th Street with three lofts. On the first floor was Chick Corea, then Dave Holland and myself. And because they were with Miles, I sort of had been around him, backstage and such. Sometime in the spring of ’72, I was in a doctor’s office and the secretary says, “Is there a David Liebman here?” I say, “Yes, ma’am.” She checks the phone and says, “There’s somebody on the line named Teo Macero.” I said, “Excuse me, one more time with that?” I took the phone and [Teo] said, “You know where the studio is, come immediately.” By complete luck, I had my soprano with me. I don’t know why. And if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. It was just … the forces.

I walked in[to the studio] and Miles sees me and goes like this to me [plays air sax], so I take the soprano out. Then he takes my arm and puts me in front of that microphone, which is about as big as this room. And I play a little bit. This is the first track on [1972’s] On the Corner. Everybody’s plugged in, except of course drums, and this is a cast of thousands: McLaughlin, Chick, Herbie, Badal Roy, Collin Walcott, Don Alias. And I couldn’t hear the key, because there were no headphones and everybody was plugged in. And I think I heard him, but I couldn’t really make out what was going on. So I could take you through that solo and tell you what was going on in my mind as I started to try to find something to play.

Anyway, we finished the session, or we finished that tune, I don’t even know. I’m going over to the control room and Miles passes me. He’s on his way out, which I found out was the normal way—record, get out quick with the cassette in his hands, there’s a car waiting for him. And as he passed me, he said, “Join my band.” It was just out of nowhere. I said, “I’m with Elvin [Jones], I can’t do that.” He said, “Elvin.” They probably go back centuries with some whatever.

And that’s the end of it. Until six months later, at the Village Vanguard, I’m playing with Elvin and on opening night, Miles comes down. He starts working on my girlfriend at the time, on me—“You got to join my band. This is some old shit.” But very nice, and very approachable. Of course, Elvin was like, “Miles Davis in the house, what’s going on?” The next day, he came back again, and I said, “You’ve got to talk to Elvin.” He said, “I’ll take care of that.” So then, 4:30 in the morning—like you [Henderson] say, business—he calls up and says, “Elvin said it’s okay. Finish the week, do Boston next week, and then you’re mine. Friday night, you’re going to play the first set at the Fillmore.”

The next night I walk into the Vanguard, and Elvin’s there, unusually early, sitting at the bar. Nobody else in the club. And he sees me. Now, those of you who knew Elvin Jones personally know that he’d pick you up in a bear hug and lift you, no matter how much you weighed. He did one of those, and he said—these are very heavy words—“If Miles Davis wants you, you’ve got to go.” And I said [bows and puts hand on heart], “Shalom.” And he said, “Finish up with me, and then you do what you’ve got to do.” And I went.

“Everybody wanted to be Miles—not just play like Miles, but be Miles.”—Lenny White

GARY BARTZ: I had seen Miles from the time I was 15—I went to see the band with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers over in Washington, D.C. When I moved to New York in ’58, I would go down to Birdland all the time, he’d be hanging on the bar with J.J. Johnson or somebody, and I would always try to be near him. I know he saw me. I would sit right under him at the Vanguard, looking up at him, so I knew he knew who I was, but we never spoke. I started working with Max Roach, and we did 10 days at Count Basie’s in Harlem opposite Miles, so he was listening to me every night. And that’s the first time he started talking to me. One night, he came down to Slugs’ when I was working with McCoy Tyner. I didn’t see him but they said, “Miles was here,” and I went to go see him but he had left already. The following week, he called me and said, “Gary, this is Miles.” So me and my friend Jack, we would always tease each other. We would call each other and say [in a Miles-like rasp], “Hey Jack, how you doin’?” So I’m thinking this is Jack. I say, “Come on, Jack. What do you want?” He said, “No, this is Miles.” I said, “Jack, stop playing.” He said, “No, this is Miles.” And when he said it that time, I said, “Oh, shit. This is Miles!” So he asked me to join the band.

RUFFIN: And what was your first record?

BARTZ: Actually, I never went in the studio with him. For some reason, he felt that the band I was in with him was a more organic kind of band. We would do two-and-a-half-hour shows! If we went in the studio, we’d be in there all day. The first record I did that they released was Live-Evil, and that was excerpts from [a series of shows at] the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. That was a funny album because John McLaughlin was on it but we had done a week there without John and then he came in, a surprise to the band—a surprise to me, anyway—so that added a little something different.

Miles Davis in 1970
Miles Davis in 1970 (photo: Sandy Speiser/Sony Music Archives)

MTUME: Well, I first got with Miles because I was a conga player. The first thing that he told me was, “I want you to be my Tony”—meaning Tony Williams—and I’ll tell you right now, tears ran down my eyes, because I was a conga player that didn’t like conga players. I was studying Elvin, Tony, Rashied Ali. So Miles basically gave me the latitude to do what I call dividing the rhythms into liquid, solid, and vapor. Art Blakey’s solid. Liquid is Elvin. Vapor is Rashied Ali. But I was allowed to do that. I could superimpose time signatures. Say that the band was in four; he could look at me and I could go into seven.

Now, the true conversation about the electric period of Miles has never been told. I [recently] saw a picture of the band when we did Agharta [in 1975], and I realized that four cats in the picture were dead. And I said, “Before we let these critics, or crickets, whatever you want to call them, decide”—because the critics were so hard on that band, not because what we were playing was out, but because they didn’t understand, and the arrogance of isolation would not allow them to ask us. So we’re going to talk about that. I said, “Most of those critics were like inviting Kool-Aid drinkers to a wine tasting. They didn’t even have the palate.” They dogged that band, and I’m going to say it right here—thank God for YouTube. Because when YouTube came out, it introduced us to a whole new audience of young people who had only heard those records, they didn’t see what we were playing.

I talked to Dave Matthews, I talked to the Rolling Stones, I talked to all these cats. Miles’ music, during Kind of Blue and all that, directly influenced jazz. After Bitches Brew, it directly and indirectly influenced all music—rock & roll, country, I don’t care what it was.

RUFFIN: To back him up, you know the album Big Fun? Acid jazz and drum ‘n’ bass happened 20, 30 years later, and as you listen to Big Fun it sounds like Miles is in the ’90s putting out new music. And with that, can you guys talk about making music afterward, mixing jazz with other forms? How did playing with Miles shape the music you made in the ’70s?

WHITE: When Bitches Brew was done, 50 years ago, rock & roll had become king. There was Woodstock, all these things happening. So Miles said that he could put the best rock & roll band together. Bitches Brew was Miles’ version of what rock & roll should be. And it did shape all the music afterwards. You’ve got hip-hop guys, you’ve got rock guys, what’s the group that did OK Computer? Radiohead. I mean, this is documented well. All these guys have talked about that album and said that Miles—this is like the first ambient music. But it started with Miles having a vision, finding people that could help him realize his vision, and telling everybody what to do.

Everybody wanted to be Miles—not just play like Miles, but be Miles. He was able to take all different kinds of musics and put them together in his head. That helped me. When I make music, there’s not any particular lane, I try to use all the different experiences that I’ve had and put them all together. And I put them all together through what I thought Miles would do.

“Miles was like the Duke Ellington of electric music. Tony [Williams] might have started it, but Miles put the instrumentation together.”—Wallace Roney

MTUME: See, Miles could hear better than almost anybody. He heard from the inside, and when you hear from the inside, you can take what’s outside and bring what you hear, bring yourself, into it. And that’s what he did. I mean, I look at pictures of him, he was always listening. That’s the most important thing. That’s what I learned from him.

HENDERSON: I started out recording “You Are My Starship” [later a hit for Norman Connors] with Miles Davis. Miles kept saying to me, “Give me one of those hit records you do on everybody else!” I said, “Okay.” We went in the studio and cut “You Are My Starship” with Keith Jarrett, Reggie Lucas, and the rest of the guys.

RUFFIN: So Norman Connors stole it from Miles?

HENDERSON: Norman was aware. He was aware that we were working on this song.

RUFFIN: So where’s the tape of Miles playing “You Are My Starship”?

HENDERSON: Vince [Wilburn, Jr.] got it.

MTUME: No, Miles did not play on [the Mtume album] Juicy Fruit. I’m messing with you, but go ahead.

RUFFIN: But how did he influence what you did and the success you had?

MTUME: We all absorbed from Miles the understanding of the distinction between having sight and having a vision. A lot of people have sight. You play with Miles, you learn to have vision. When we left Miles, we all did something else. My thing was bringing a different kind of chordal integration into pop music.

RUFFIN: And Miles was there the whole time?

MTUME: He was always there. He’s here right now in this room, man. We understood: It’s not where the music is, it’s where the music has to go.

VINCE WILBURN, JR.: I would rehearse in my mom’s basement in Chicago, Uncle Miles would call and my mom would put the phone down, and it would just lie there while we would play, maybe two hours. After rehearsal, we’d pick the phone up and he’d say, “Pass the phone around to each musician.” And he would tell us what to work on—“Try this, do this”—and hang up. My mom would let us rehearse five days a week, and he did this every day. And one day he said, “You guys want to make a record?” Because I guess he heard something. And that record was [1981’s] The Man with the Horn. I just got to say this: He kept reaching, trying to change the music. A lot of people were against playing pop music, but he just loved music, you know? He didn’t give a shit what people thought. It’s about believing in what you believe in. And that’s what we all learned from him. Perseverance.

Miles Davis in 1986
Miles Davis in 1986 (photo: Ken Franckling)

RUFFIN: Like Miles, Wallace isn’t afraid of stepping out of acoustic music and also, if I’m not mistaken, you were hand-picked by Miles to help him with the Montreux recording that Quincy Jones did in 1991. Can you talk a little bit about Miles and your relationship with him?

WALLACE RONEY: I’m proudly in Miles’ shadow. I love him, he’s my idol, my hero. I met him in 1983, Columbia Records did something for him at Radio City and he got his honorary degree [from Juilliard] and I was part of that. From that point on I got to hang with him and I got to hear all these great stories. So now I’ve got all you guys here, and I’m going to give you Miles’ perspective on this stuff. Okay.

Miles loved the band with Trane, and he loved the band with Tony and Herbie and Wayne. I heard that so much. He didn’t like so much the band with Jack and Chick and Dave, I hate to break it to you guys. He told me Dave Holland—this is for you, Michael—he said, “Dave always playing [runs fingers quickly up and down an imaginary fingerboard and makes noodly sounds]”—he called him kinetic. Because Miles liked playing free, but for his kind of free he wanted stability. Ron Carter would change the harmony or might play a line against something, but he said Dave played like [more miming and sounds]. And he liked Dave, but he said, “Dave, why you playing like that? You know it’s a bass!” And he’d say, “Miles, this is what I’m hearing.” So Miles said, “Okay, then I heard a young bass player with Stevie Wonder. I got him on the bandstand, and Dave came to me and said, ‘Miles, what’s he doing here?’ I said, ‘That’s Michael Henderson. He plays the bass. So you can go [more air noodling].’” I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what he told me!

And Gary, Miles told me this: Jack DeJohnette was trying to get Wayne [Shorter] out of the band, and he was recommending Bennie Maupin. So Miles went down to hear Bennie with McCoy Tyner’s band, and he didn’t really like Bennie’s tenor playing so much. But he liked the other saxophone player that was with McCoy. That was Gary. Is that right?

BARTZ: That’s right.

RONEY: But he got Bennie, and he made Bennie play bass clarinet. To me, that was a stroke of genius. Miles was like the Duke Ellington of electric music. Tony might have started it, but Miles put the instrumentation together. Miles loved Gary.

So, Lenny. This is what Miles told me about how Lenny got in the band. Lenny said the story right, but what happened was—well, Tony Williams and Betty Davis were probably the two most influential people at that point in Miles’ life, because Betty was young and, in his words, “fine,” and she was running around with the new rock scene, and Tony was talking about playing with the rock cats, telling Miles to get a guitar player. Miles didn’t know what kind of guitar player to get, that’s why George Benson was on [1968’s Miles in the Sky]. But Tony found John McLaughlin. And when Miles heard that band [the first Lifetime, with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young] live, he went up to Tony and said, “I want your band.” And Tony said, “Well, if you call it Miles Davis Presents the Tony Williams Lifetime,” and Miles said no. Because Miles wanted it to be the Miles Davis group and Tony said, “No, I think I’ve got something special here and I want to keep it special.” Miles said, “Well, will you make my record date tomorrow?” And Tony said, “Yeah.”

Now after Tony had packed up, Miles went to John: “Man, you a motherfucker. I’ve got a record date tomorrow. You want to play?” And he goes to Larry and says the same thing. So the next morning Tony goes to the date, and there’s his band. The very thing he’d asked Miles not to do. Tony told me, “Man, everybody thinks on In a Silent Way I’m playing a certain way because of [Miles’ instructions]. I did that because I was mad.” That’s why he didn’t hardly play, except at the end he gave Miles a taste of it. And he told Miles right after they finished, “I’ll never play with you again.” So Miles found the young Lenny White.

RUFFIN: How old were you, Lenny?

WHITE: Nineteen.

RONEY: There you go.

MTUME: A lesson I learned from Miles about tension—and it involves you, Gary, and Keith Jarrett—we were playing in Italy with Gato Barbieri. I’m in the dressing room with Miles, and Gary, you came in cussing like twelve sailors! “I can’t stand Keith! I’m sick of that stuff! Matter of fact, I don’t even want him to play when I’m soloing!” And I’m sitting there like, “Oh, shit!” And Miles just did this “Okay, okay.” So then Gary, you left the room and Miles tells Jim Rose, the road manager, “Go get Keith.” Keith comes in and I swear on my mother’s grave, Miles looked at Keith and said, “Gary said he loves everything you play. As a matter of fact, he said, ‘Play more of that shit!’” But here’s the moral of the story: That next set, man, that music went there [raises hand to the sky]! Gary’s looking at Keith, hating it, and Keith’s smiling, “Yeah!” That’s Miles Davis!

Read author Paul Tingen’s in-depth look at the making of Bitches Brew.

Mark Ruffin

Mark Ruffin, host of Real Jazz on SiriusXM Channel 67, is a two-time Emmy-winning broadcaster and journalist who played jazz on the airwaves in Chicago for over 25 years before moving to satellite radio. He has written more than 600 articles for DownBeat, Jazziz, Playboy, Chicago Magazine, and others.