Wallace Roney’s departure on the last day of March 2020 was a gut-punch in a year filled with far too many shocks. In the opening phase of the worldwide lockdown, his death was among the first to hit so directly, so close to home: a longtime member of the jazz family taken too early.
Keeping Roney’s memory alive is a film called Universe, a five-year project completed in recent months and shown at the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest and DOC NYC film festivals. Universe focuses on the trumpeter honoring one of Miles Davis’ last requests. In 1991, Davis had asked Wayne Shorter to make sure a full suite of music, composed by the saxophonist in 1966 for the Miles Davis Quintet plus a string section, was finally performed and recorded. In 2015, Shorter gave “The Universe Compositions” to Roney, and in 2017, with cameras having documented the process, the suite debuted at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
It was fitting, indeed a given, that Roney would take the lead role in reviving Shorter’s music for the Second Great Quintet. Roney’s relationship with Miles Davis—friendship, mentorship, and much more—was a central part of his life. It boosted his career and guided his path. He was one of the few musicians, and possibly the only trumpeter, to whom Miles freely offered musical insights and professional guidance. Their closeness was one that might make a younger musician question, “Why me?”; as Roney often recalled, it led a number of musicians to ask, “Why you?”
In 2011, I ran into Roney recording at a session in Brooklyn; Lenny White was helping produce keyboardist Beka Gochiashvili’s debut. We sat outside the control room on a couch and, for whatever reason, our chat that night opened up into hours of storytelling and laugh-sharing. We met a few more times in later weeks for more open-ended conversations; some we recorded, a lot of it simply flowed out and into the air. There was no explicit reason for these discussions or for recording them, no assigned article or plan for pitching a biography. A few of his Miles-focused stories follow, in his own words, shared here as another way of remembering a gentle, generous spirit and inspired musician.
Man, that was a really deep time in the early ’80s. In 1983, I got the call to play with Art Blakey and be a Messenger, so I hocked my trumpet to get some money to get to New York, and I was playing these loaners that I would get from Giardinelli’s, this great store in midtown. Man, that was the place. I’d get a trumpet to try out for a week and make the gigs, then bring it back—“Nooo. That wasn’t too good—let me try another.” I think Giardinelli had a feeling what I was doing, but he let me go.
One night that year, George Butler from Columbia Records heard me at the Bottom Line, playing with Art, and he asked if I wanted to be part of a tribute to Miles. Miles was getting an honorary degree. Miles Davis. Man. I’d be playing the opening part with four other trumpeters. Art Farmer, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jimmy Owens—and me. We’d play with Miles’ rhythm section: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams. I couldn’t believe it.
I noticed when I played one of my solos, Herbie and Tony were responding to me. You know, not just plunk-plunk-plunk, not that they ever really do that. But they were really responding, and I could see they didn’t do that much with the other guys. After the set, Ron called me over and said, “Hey, what’s your name?” Then he introduced himself, and Herbie came over. We spoke for a bit and then Miles and them played the second half.
I was hanging out after the show downstairs with my brother [saxophonist Antoine Roney] and Cindy Blackman, and someone came and said Miles wanted to see me. I must have looked a little shy or scared because Antoine and Cindy both told me to get going. I took the elevator up to his dressing room and when I got there he came up to me, right in my face, and said, “I heard you up there.” He wasn’t smiling but I could tell he liked it. I was shaking—man, this was the first time I’m meeting him and I’m looking at him like he’s my hero. He asked me about the horn I was using, and we spoke about horns for a while and I told him mine was just a loaner. He told me to come by his place later in the week because he had a horn for me. I said I would. He was staying with Cicely Tyson back then, and when I came by they asked if I had an appointment because he was sleeping. I told them and they woke him and he said give him a few minutes and then we hung out and he gave me the first horn I had in New York.
That’s when it started, how we met and started to hang out. After that I started to hang with Miles a lot—he’d call me or I’d call him, and we’d hang whenever he was in town or if I was in Europe and we’d be playing the same festivals. I’d see he was on the bill and run over to his dressing room or hotel and hang with him. I never played with him at this point but sometimes later he’d talk about us doing it.
In 1986, I had come through a kind of slow period. That year I made an album with Kenny Barron [What If?] that helped me back into the spotlight a little, and that’s when Art Blakey asked me to come and play with him, and Tony Williams was starting his first band and he asked me to join around the same time. For a while I thought I could do both Art and Tony, that the dates would work out themselves and, like, no problem. Wouldn’t you know it—the very first night Tony was opening with this new band at Mikell’s [on Manhattan’s Upper West Side], Art had a show in Ohio!
I remember my dad offered to come up from Philadelphia and he’d rent a car to help me get from Art’s show to the airport and then I’d fly to New York and he’d hang with some school buddies. I made both gigs that night, and then kept trying to stay with both bands.
One time after that I was playing with Art Blakey and he said, “Let’s go see Miles.” Later I realized that this was something that had been planned by Art and Miles, because Art felt I was going to leave to play with Tony and he wanted me to stay with him, and he let Miles know this. So we go over to see Miles and Miles is acting all open and friendly with Art, calling him “Bu!” I mean, it’s Miles with the gloves off and all that stuff, you know? Then he started with the advice, telling me, “Wally, you got to stay with Buhaina—Bu is the man.” Then he started to talking about how much fun he and Bu had in 1953. “You really want to hear something?” And it was one story after another. They went on and on for a while and I was just sitting there listening. Then Bu left and I stayed for a while with Miles.