The Last Miles - the Music Of Miles Davis 1980 - 1991
the last miles
the music of Miles Davis 1980 - 1991
a book by George Cole

published by Equinox Publishing in the UK
and University of Michigan Press in the USA
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Donald Harrison was one of the few alto saxophonists Miles had in his bands (others included Sonny Fortune, Kenny Garrett and Cannonball Adderley), when he played for a couple weeks in December 1986, sharing the saxophone chair with Bob Berg. Sadly, none of Donald's performances are available officially, but a private recording of the first gig he did with Miles (in Syracuse, New York) reveals what a formidable player he is and how well he fitted in with Berg.

With typical bad timing, I only managed to track down Donald after my manuscript for The Last Miles had gone off to the printers, but here is an exclusive interview with Donald, who talks about his playing and his time with Miles.

Donald Harrison
Donald Harrison © Bennie. Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison

TheLastMiles.com: Donald, can you tell us a little about your background please?

Donald Harrison: I was born in New Orleans in June 1960. Before joining Miles, I played with Art Blakey and Terrence Blanchard. My inspirations were Charlie Parker, Miles, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane - the guys who really followed their voices.

TLM: How did you get the miles gig?

DH: Somebody called me and told me to call me to call this number and Miles told me to come to his house. When I got there, he gave me some CDs to learn the music. Marcus Miller called me to the studio to do some track, but I don't know what happened to it - it didn't come out. [editors note: this is possibly a very early session for the album that became Amandla].

TLM: How did Miles direct you on-stage?

DH: He'd just point at you to play or hit you in the ribs with his elbow!

TLM: How did you and Bob Berg work together?

DH: For me, it was a case of 'learn the music on your own.' I didn't have any rehearsals. My first gig was somewhere upstate New York.

TLM: What did you learn from playing with Miles?

DH: The greatest thing about that was what I learnt musically. How to focus at all times and how to try and find the premier sound.

TLM: What was Miles like as a person?

DH: He was a sweetheart to me. He was very supportive. At the time my focus was with a band I had with Terence Blanchard. When the band broke up, Miles hooked me up his manager and tried to get me a record deal with Warner Bros.

TLM: Why did you leave the band?

DH: I talked to Miles and I don't know why it didn't happen. At the time I told him the focus with the Harris and Blanchard group. At the time I really believed in electronic music and I had to play acoustic [saxophone] with him. I didn't quit the band; it just didn't happen. After that first night I think I learned what I needed to learn, so I didn't care. He felt I was going to do something but I don't think I was the right cat for that band. I loved the music Miles played, but felt that when you're moving music forward, everybody has to know the whole scope. Miles knew it from bebop to rock 'n' roll to African. All the musicians had to have that depth to move on. They were all incredible musicians [in the band], but for me, that path and the energy I wanted around me wasn't there. At the time, I don't think everybody at the time had a knowledge of acoustic jazz. But after I left the band I still got phone calls from Miles. He was always asking what was happening in my life and was thinking about me.

TLM: Who were you closest to in the band?

DH: I liked Adam Holzman, Vince Wilburn and The Munch [Darryl Jones]. Those musicians are of the highest calibre and incredible people.


Donald Harrison © and courtesy Steven Sussman

TLM: What was special about Miles?

DH: To me, he was really into people. He was fully aware of what was going on in the world of music. I learnt that to get it right, you have to have an understanding of people. Because whenever you study people, you write music that is informed from the times that you live in. That's why he was always correct.

TLM: What did you do after Miles?

DH: I played with various people such as, Tony Williams and Terrence Blanchard - I was doing a lot of stuff. I'm also been finishing off a three-album project comprised of acoustic, hip-hop, and r&b/hip-hop music. A little bit of cross pollination.

TLM: Did you see Miles afterwards?

DH: I was once asked to open up for Miles in Spain. I remember going to the dressing room to say hello and he wouldn't let us in the dressing room! And then they told us Miles didn't want us to play! So we said, 'okay'. We were packing up our gear and then they said 'Miles wanted us to play.' The next day we saw Miles at the airport. He said 'Donald, what are you doing here?' we said: 'we opened for you last night! We tried to come and see you in the dressing and you wouldn't let us in, and then you didn't want us to play.' He said 'I wanted you to play. Why didn't you come to the dressing room?'

TLM: Miles's 1980s music was controversial. What's your take on it?

DH: I think Miles's greatest period was from the middle 50s to Wayne Shorter, Herbie and those guys. The sidemen that he chose had more focus and were more like him. I think he started hiring musicians who weren't like him after that. They were great musicians in their own right, but they weren't as well-versed in so many things as he was. I think he just wanted to get a different texture, a different feeling. All of his music is great. Some of the last records got played on smooth-jazz stations. He was happy and he must have achieved what he wanted to achieve. All that matters is that, if a musician plays music and one person likes it, then it's valid. If it touches one person, it's valid.

TLM: Some people were shocked by Miles recording hip-hop on his last album, Doo-Bop

DH: I wasn't surprised. He could do what he wanted to do! A musician should have the right to do what they what. And if it touches you, you deal with it, and if it doesn't, you move on. People heard some of the great CDs Miles did in the past and they wanted Miles to be that way all the time, but he couldn't be like that - he had to move on.

Many thanks to Donald for sharing his memories of Miles and to Steven Sussman for the great shot of Donald. Check out Steven's amazing portfolio of jazz photography at http://sussmanphotography.com/

 

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‘The best Miles Davis book ever.’ Randy Hall, singer/guitarist/producer, who worked with Miles in the 1980s

‘An important book.’ Brian Priestley, co-author of ‘The Rough Guide to Jazz’, jazz pianist, critic and reviewer

‘Very moving, emotional material.’ Gordon Meltzer, Miles’s last road manager and executive producer of the ‘Doo-Bop’ album

‘George Cole’s writing, his choice of references, his descriptions of many incidents – it is all so clear and respectful, and shows a deep understanding.’ Palle Mikkelborg, composer, arranger and producer of the ‘Aura’ album

"Wow! What a great book. Finally, something that really gets it right. Thank you for capturing what was going on, the mood, everything." Adam Holzman, Milesís keyboardist and musical director 1985-1989

"Wonderful job, congratulations! An immense amount of work must have gone into it, I can't even imagine. But it was very cool to see that era of Miles treated with the same respect as every other... someone gets it!" Benny Rietveld, Miles's bassist 1988-1990

"The book is wonderful. Congratulations for your very important contribution to the historical documentation of many [musicians] who would otherwise have been overlooked!!!!" Robert Irving III Miles’s musical director 1983-1988

"I have to say that you did a marvellous job! It brought back strong memories of that time period and answered a number of questions I had, especially the chapter on the Rubberband sessions. A brilliant job!" Patrick Murray, who worked on the road with Miles from 1986-1990 and was Miles’s concert sound mixer from 1988-1990

"It is truly an excellent body of work that literally takes a reader from hearing rumours to realising truths about the Chicago group and our collective take on the Miles Davis comeback." Glenn Burris, co-writer of "Shout"

"The most immediate impact that this book had on me was to make me listen again to Miles’ later recordings with a completely regenerated ear and this really is the reason why this book works so well and is an essential read for any true Miles Davis appreciator… you will be hard pressed to find a more inspirational read, written by a man who quite simply loves Miles Davis’ music." Mike Chadwick, Ejazz.fm

"There are large chunks of fresh material here…Fill[s] in quite a few gaps and dismisses blanket condemnations of [Miles’s] pop phase." Stephen Graham, Jazzwise

"Cole does for Miles’ late work what Ian Macdonald’s ‘Revolution In The Head’ does for The Beatles, examining each album in meticulous detail." John Lewis, Time Out

"Cole’s analysis has a meticulous, forensic character… [and] is able to bring a wealth of new information to light….This book should get people talking. It should be the first rather than the last word on an intriguing chapter of the life an extraordinarily complex artist. And Davis’s vanity would surely have loved that." Kevin Le Gendre, Independent on Sunday

"The book is beautiful. I think you did a great job on covering Miles’s life and legacy." Sid Reynolds, hip-hop producer

"GREATFUCKINJOBWITDABOOK" Foley, Miles’s lead bassist 1987-1991

"Cole’s certainly produced a fascinating book." Chris Ingham, Mojo

"As with any good musical biography, Cole had made me think again about those albums such as Siesta, You’re Under Arrest, The Man with the Horn, that are now stashed in my attic."  John Bungey, The Times

"I thought it was wonderful. It’s a very detailed look at a certain part of the career and life of Miles Davis. A lot of people didn’t pay attention to this and I’m glad that George Cole took the time to focus on these final years of Miles’s life." Easy Mo Bee, co-producer of Doo-Bop

"Many people have come to me in the past about how the "last miles" bands had been overlooked and ignored by journalists. This book is a comprehensive answer to these omissions. From my discussions with musicians from the latter years with Miles it seems pretty clear they feel some vindication as a result of this book. I thank you sincerely for telling our story. Most everything I have read is as close to my memory of how things happened as any book could hope to be. I think you've done a wonderful job." Darryl Jones, bassist with Miles 1983-85, 1986-1988

"The title is likely to send most jazzbos running, with received wisdom having handed down the rule that in the 80's Miles was only good for playing live; and half of that was just the pleasure of seeing him in person.  For a single man to take on the 400-page+ task of changing popular opinion is a very tall order indeed.  For him to make you want to actively revisit the decade in question is a near-miracle. Detailing album histories and giving final verdicts, Cole has made every effort to lay the evidence out bare.  The analysis could have been a chore were it not for the presence of first-hand interviews with all the major players, making this not just a scholarly study, but a tribute to the man himself,  And for a book such as this, you learn more about Davis that could have been expected." Jason Draper, Record Collector

"There simply hasn’t been another book published on Miles Davis, in any period that has managed to obtain the wealth of interview material and cover his recorded work and various live tours in such a complete and comprehensive fashion... Engagingly written from start to finish, filled with more facts than you’ll be able to remember first time through, The Last Miles is an essential portrait of Miles’ last decade and a strong argument that his music was both valid and perfectly in keeping with a musical philosophy that would ultimately stretch over six decades." John Kelman, All About Jazz.com

"We veterans of Miles’ last bands are lucky to have such a thorough and insightful look into Miles last period...I really enjoyed the book!" John Scofield, Miles's guitarist 1982-1985

"Cole has spoken to practically everyone who worked with Miles in his final decade. He has traced the evolution of each of those final albums, cut by cut, splice by splice….[Miles] comes out of Cole’s account larger, warmer and if anything even more important than ever." Brian Morton (co-writer of The Penguin Guide to Jazz), The Wire

"Through lively analyses of all Miles’ recorded work from this period and much that went unreleased, including the ‘lost’ album Rubberband, [Cole] does enough to send readers back to the original albums." Simon Evans, Choice

"... Cole is a persuasive writer: he prompted me to go and dig out albums that I'd dismissed as inconsequential and listen again with fresh ears. ...  A rewarding read" Charles Waring, Blues & Soul

"Cole takes us on an exhaustive journey deep into the heart of Miles’ late recordings…The Last Miles needs to be covered by working musicians, producers and Miles’ fans alike." Livingstone Marquis, Straight, No Chaser

" George Cole has written a book that should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in Davis’ life and work irrespective of which period of his music you prefer. It offers a valuable insight into this most complex of personalities, and reveals a side to Miles that many may not have known existed…for this reader it has prompted a re-examination of this decade which has revealed a fascinating area of music that I had previously overlooked." Nick Lea, Jazzviews.co.uk

"In the flurry of books since [Miles Davis's] death, none has dealt in depth with the music of this period. Music writer George Cole fills this gap. . . It is so detailed and intimate that the reader feels he is virtually living with Davis as he seeks to reinvent himself… a rich and rewarding read." Irwin Block, The Montreal Gazette

"This is a must for every Miles fan." Neal Gardner, Blogcritics.org

“A fantastic book, an amazing insight into Miles. Guy Barker, jazz trumpeter

“For Miles fans, this book is a must.” Jez Nelson, presenter BBC Radio Jazz on 3

“I really do recommend The Last Miles…it is a fine work.” John Cavanagh, presenter Radio Scotland’s Bebop to Hip-Hop

"A great book that plays a great tribute to the last years of Miles’ life.” Erik Telford, presenter Miles Radio.com

"The fact of having personally interviewed all those characters...without much recall to interviews already noted and the usual anecdotes, renders "The Last Miles" as excellent...a book that certainly is seen as a work of reference."Maurizio Comandini, All About Jazz.com Italy

"[Cole] has written a comprehensive account of the comeback and the albums it produced...He takes the reader through each of the albums, cut by cut, examining the musical choices, the musicians and their successes...Cole's book is a valuable resource on the last 11 years of a true music legend's life."Chris Smith, Winnipeg Free Press

"I've been thoroughly enjoying your book. I'm sure it'll go a long way towards rectifying some of the negative historical appraisals of  Miles' later works that have become prevalent." Kei Akagi, keyboardist in Miles's band 1989-1990.

"Cole gives an exhaustive account of every track recorded [and, it seems, every live show] in that decade and of every one of the dozens of musicians who played on them but what's most interesting is the portrait of Miles Davis that emerges from it all. Sometimes an asshole and a bully, yes, but also a very funny guy who was a good friend to many and a mentor to even more, a man with drug problems who was more often in great pain from other maladies. Through it all, Davis was obsessed with moving his music forward with anyone who could help him do it - from Prince to Public Enemy, from Scritti Politti to a violinist he saw on Johnny Carson and hired on the spot." Rock & Rap Confidential

"I thought your book was awesome and straight to the point. To tell stories the way it really happened is nothing but the truth! Congratulations and thanks!"Ricky Wellman, Miles's drummer 1987-1991

"George Cole has made a major contribution to jazz scholarship...written over a three-year period, the degree of detail is quite astonishing and the research so extensive that it becomes possible to contradict claims made by Miles himself in his autobiography. Every track on every 1981-1991 album is discussed in length …a very valuable book.” Chris Yates, The Jazz Rag

“This book is a model of how these types of books should be…If late period Miles is in the readers’ interest, the reader should rush out and purchase this volume. It is invaluable.” Robert Iannapollo, ARSC Journal

The Last Miles was voted one of the top ten music books of 2005 by Record Collector magazine.

The Last Miles was joint winner of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ Best Jazz History Book 2006 award.

 

the last miles:
the music of Miles Davis1980 to 1991 a book by George Cole
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