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Wallace Roney: The Man with the Horn

Selections from previously unpublished interviews with the late trumpeter

Miles Davis' blue trumpet
Miles’ blue horn (photo: Ernest Gregory)

One day in 1991 Miles said to me, “I’m going to put my old band back together and play some things by Gil [Evans]. And if I do it, I want you to play with me because you play all my stuff but perfect.” I thought he was kidding or just saying stuff. But he started to say it a lot. Then one day it really happened.

When Miles said “old band,” he was talking Herbie, Tony, Ron, and Wayne. He also said, “…and Darryl Jones or Marcus Miller and Foley.” He still wanted to play some of the stuff he was playing then and have his current sound, but he wanted to marry it with Nefertiti. He said, “Because all the keyboard players are trying to play Herbie anyway, right? And you can get a go-go drummer, he could play the cold-blooded groove, but he can’t play nothing else.”

I remember that was the idea for Paris—to bring back his old band, and I remember when he had them make the call to Tony but he declined. I won’t say exactly why, but I think there were two reasons. One was that after the In a Silent Way record date Tony told him, “I will never play with you again.” And I also think Tony still had some resentment about being the youngest in the band back in the ’60s and he felt a lot of times he got shorted.

When I saw Miles again, he said, “How come Tony don’t want to play with me, Wally?” I just said, “I think Tony had some other commitments. He was supposed to do this tour with Jan Hammer…” Miles said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right … I think Tony did say that.” He really wanted to believe it but he was kind of hurt by that. So then he asked Herbie’s people and they worked it out. Wayne was ready. Wayne didn’t give him no problems. Then he called Chick [Corea] and Dave Holland and others. From that point on, that Paris show became a tribute or something.

Anyway, on the same tour as Paris, Quincy [Jones] was booking the Montreux Jazz Festival and he convinced Miles to do the music of Gil Evans. His girlfriend Jo [Gelbard] said that he didn’t want to do it. He very well might’ve told her that, but what Miles said to me was, “Wally, you know why I’m doing this? Because I looked in the mirror one day and I saw Gil in there and he said, ‘You know, you got to do this again.’ And I said, ‘Oh man, this shit is hard.’ He said, ‘I know, but you know you gotta do it again.’”

Miles used to say stuff like that, you know. One time we were talking and something fell: “Oh, that’s my mother, she’s trying to get my attention.”

In Montreux Gil Goldstein had found the charts for Gil’s arrangements and there were rehearsals. When it came time for the band to play, I think everybody was shocked I came right up front and played with Miles in the rehearsal. Miles said, “Okay, Wally, I’m here, you can sit here.” Right next to him. So I sat there and I played note for note with him and we shared a solo and all of a sudden he started giving me more solos to play. It was definitely 50/50 in the end. But of course I think his 50 was the most important. To me it felt like King Oliver asking Louis Armstrong up at the same time. He was the mentor and I was the student.

The second day was the dress rehearsal. We’re going back and forth with solos, and this is the first time I’m really locking horns with him. Then Miles gets up off the seat with no explanation, and walks away. Gone. Quincy stopped the music and was like, “What’s wrong?” I’m telling myself, “Damn, did I piss him off?” Quincy started to go after him and say something but Miles didn’t want to talk, just kept walking, right off the stage. Quincy came back and said, “Well, the show must go on.” So we started playing anyway and I’m thinking, “Is this it? Is he coming back? If I have to play his part people will be disappointed, but I’m going to have to hold it down.” And I was going for it, man. Really going for it.

It turned out Miles wasn’t mad, he was just tired. After we finished, he walked back on stage and came to me and this time he looked me square in the eye, he said, “Wally, you sure sound good playing that stuff up there.” First time he ever did that. Oh man. What a thing to say. I said, “Man, I’m not doing nothing but playing your stuff.” He said, “No, no. You sound good playing that stuff, don’t give me that being humble stuff anymore. You should be great up here.” I said, “Thank you.” That was that moment things really unlocked for me, and he never had to say no more of that being humble shit.

There’s a moment that still feels like a passing of the torch, if I might call it that, on “Blues for Pablo.” We started out the tune and Miles played this fanfare, then he played all the way up to his solo, this long blues, he played half of the solo, and I finished it out. I played my stuff on it but then I played this phrase that Miles played, and everybody went “Whoaaaa,” and Miles looked at me and took his towel and started waving it at me like to cool me down, you know? Then he smiled and let me finish the song. He started it, I ended it. That “Blues for Pablo” has to be one of the most special moments of my life—just beautiful.

I said, “Man, I’m not doing nothing but playing your stuff.” Miles said, “No, no. You sound good playing that stuff, don’t give me that being humble stuff anymore.” That was that moment things really unlocked for me.

People talk about what Miles did at Montreux and in Paris, they were two different things but they were both like tributes and looking back, and then he died. I think he knew something, and this is what he wanted to leave the people with.

I didn’t realize Miles was dying when we were at Montreux. I really didn’t. That really shocked me when I heard he died a few months later. I thought we had another good 10 years with him. We had gotten to a place that was just like father and son, where we had played together and he was talking about how we were going to tour with this, which meant that would be the time I would have to tell Tony, “I’ll see you later.”

I remembered one day not long before Montreux we were talking, and he talked almost all day. I had gotten some great conversations out of him before, but not like this. I wasn’t even saying anything—he just talked. Stuff about his father, his mother. Stuff about Uncle Vern, stuff about Bird. Most of it I had never heard before. That’s the day I saw him cry over Bird. I didn’t think nothing of it because, you know, tomorrow it might be some more stuff.

One night at Montreux Miles did the same thing—just talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. It was only after he died that I started thinking how just before Art Blakey died, we were at Sweet Basil’s and … Art could talk anyway, but that night I think he talked from three in the morning to about 11 o’clock. I was falling asleep but Art just kept talking. I was very close to my grandfather, and he didn’t talk much at all but he did the same thing just before he went into the hospital and died.

I’m telling you, man, I love Miles. We had some of the greatest, deepest conversations.

There’s always that question that people have—what would Miles have done had he not left, you know? Where would he be with his music? I think I know where he would have been. He’d be doing projects and some shows, no long tours. He’d have a quintet and he’d be staying current. He probably would have some of the top current producers put some tracks down, and then he’d have his quintet play over it and he’d be playing all his bad stuff on top of that. If he was successful in getting Herbie and Tony and Ron to play with him, I think he’d still be doing those kinds of gigs too.

One thing I know is that he’d be playing the trumpet. He couldn’t put that down. I know he did do that once, in the ’70s. Miles talked to me about when he stopped playing, how he was in a lot of pain. The way he said it, “I started taking painkillers and the next thing I looked up and wow, that was five years ago.”

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Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.