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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[An extract from a major interview by George Cole with Jo Gelbard in the April 2005 issue of Jazzwise].

Music had always been a major part of Miles Davis's life and the last year of his life was no exception. It was hectic period that revolved around playing, touring, and recording. And it was during this time that Miles toured the US and Europe and played two major retrospective concerts within two days in Montreux and Paris in July 1991. Miles also began recording a new album in New York that would include hip-hop tunes and Miles had so much material, that he wanted his next album to be a double one. The signs were of a man in a hurry, eager to cram in as much music into his life as he possibly could, and the reason for this was stark and simple: Miles knew he was living on borrowed time.

One person who was with Miles for almost all of this period was Jo Gelbard, an artist who had met Miles seven years earlier. Gelbard became Miles's art teacher, then his artistic collaborator and eventually, his companion. "I've met a woman whom I really feel comfortable with," said Miles about Gelbard, "she's a very nice loving woman who loves me for myself. We have a good time together."

George Cole with Jo Gelbard
George Cole and Jo Gelbard

When Gelbard first met Miles in 1984, she was a 34-year old sculptor with a husband and seven-year old son. At the time, Miles was 58 and married to his third wife, the actress Cicely Tyson. "We lived in the same building on 5thAvenue. I met him in the elevator. He was on crutches - he had just had a hip operation," says Gelbard, "he heard I was a sculptor and came to my apartment to see my work and he liked it. He asked if I could teach him a few things about art - and other things! I said I that I doubted if I could teach him about anything actually - I was scared to death! I could barely speak."

She adds. "He was sketching and he asked me to help him. So I visited his apartment upstairs and I looked at his art and told him what I thought of it. I would give him verbal criticisms, which didn't really help him, and then one day he said 'I have no fucking idea what you're talking about, why don't you just fix the painting?' And I fixed it and actually it looked pretty good and that's how it started. Then he said "I like it better with both of us on it, let's try and do something.' And that's how it came about."

Miles and Gelbard would meet in his apartment to paint. Gelbard explains how they worked together. "We would take a canvas or a paper and somebody would do something - put down a colour, or a line or a face or whatever - and the next person would say - without actually saying it verbally, but by doing it - 'I think it needs this'. And the next would say, 'I don't know, maybe this would be better.' And it would just go on without speaking until it was done. We never really knew where it was going. A lot of the times, he would watch me and wouldn't feel the need to jump in until a certain point and vice-versa. So there are some paintings that are fully fifty/fifty of us and there are others that have more of one person."

But the artistic partnership did not begin smoothly. "The way Miles painted was not the way he played or the way he sketched. He was so minimal and light-handed in his sound, in his walk. His body was very light; he was a slight man, a delicate kind of guy. His sketches are light and airy and minimal, but when he took his brush and paint, he was deadly -he was like a child with paints in kindergarten. He would pour it on and mix it until it got too muddy and over-paint. He just loved the texture and the feel. It got all over his clothes and his hands and his hair and it was just fun for him - I think it tapped into the childish part of his brain. But it wasn't great art."

Gelbard met Miles at a low point in his life. "He was physically a mess. He'd had his hip replacement, he had gotten over pneumonia and he was weak. He didn't seem to have any great passion for anything - he was struggling to find his way. But if you fall in love with somebody, the birds come out in spring and you re-invent yourself - that's what happened. Miles fell in love very late in life."

Jo Gelbard
Jo Gelbard with one of her collaborative paintings with Miles

The relationship moved on from being an artistic collaboration as Gelbard found herself getting more drawn into Miles's life. "He kept giving me these projects to handle for him: decorate the apartment, pick out some clothes for the show, handle the money, until I became like his wife. It was not so much as, 'we're in love' but more 'we're not leaving each other'. You just fall deeper and deeper in each other's life until you can't get out."

Many people might think that being Miles's partner would involve a life of parties, receptions and other social events, but nothing could be further from the truth, says Gelbard. "He was reclusive, so no one was really around us at any time. It's not like we ran around partying. My relationship with Miles was in his apartment. The only time we went out was to take a limo to a store to buy clothes and then directly back. Or we'd to a gig, where he performed and then we went directly home. We were rarely away from his apartment. We were always cooking or painting and he had rarely had people around him, maybe his musicians and maybe his road manager. I was the middleman between him and the world. Even when he felt good, he just wanted to shut the world out and he was very successful at it."

There were times when Miles was violent towards Gelbard. "A lot of the violence in the last year was due to a lot of medication that he was taking. There was no question that in the last year of his life, he was dying - he knew it and I knew it. His choice in the last year of his life was to almost accelerate the process, because he worked tremendously. He was painting a lot, he did this whole tour, he was recording, so he made almost a conscious choice to live his life full pressure until it was no longer possible. He orchestrated the last year of his life to be full steam ahead, but it took a lot of pain killers and medication and that affected his mind and his emotions and consequently he became very violent and volatile, a little psychotic at times. But it was my choice. There was no way I was not going to spend the end of his life with him; I owed him too much; I loved him."

Miles's last year was very hard on him. "He had this great aura and he had this great macho sex appeal and he looked good until the end. That was the picture he wanted to portray and it worked for him, but that's not the reality. It was a struggle for Miles. It was such a bad year. He was an old, very fragile, very sick man who needed a lot of care and a lot of patience."

Miles played his last concert at the Hollywood Bowl on 25 August 1991. Soon after, he became sick and was taken into hospital by Gelbard, who remained with him until he died. Miles died on 28 September 1991, the official cause of death being a stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure.

"He's always around," says Gelbard, "the people who die that you love - you just live with them. They don't die -they're just there all the time; they're on your shoulder. He's like that. He gave me my confidence and so he's always there saying 'fuck 'em!'"

Today, Gelbard is helping to run the family diamond business and she puts that down to Miles. "He changed me completely as a person. He gave me tremendous self-confidence, both as an artist and as a woman, because he believed in me. There is no greater validation than having Miles Davis believe in you creatively."

This is edited from a 5000-word interview that appeared in Jazzwise April 2005. In the full interview, Jo talks more about art and Miles, the prospect of marrying Miles, the 1991 Paris and Montreux concerts, Miles and hip-hop and the rumours surrounding Miles's death. Jo also provided photographs of her and Miles for the article. There are also two extracts from The Last Miles, which look at the musical relationship between Miles and Prince and the abandoned Rubberband album. For back issues and subscriptions information, go to www.jazzwise.com

Thanks to Jon Newey, editor, Jazzwise.

back to Interviews index




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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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