Monday, August 10, 2015

Miles Davis and St. Louis

Last year, browsing the store at the Missouri History Museum, I purchased the book Miles Davis and American Culture, edited by Gerald Early (St Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001). At the time, I was interested in the essay “From Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew,” because I had discovered both albums while in college---I liked the first and couldn’t figure out the second. Now, in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve been reading the concluding essay, “Remembering Miles in St. Louis: A Conclusion” by Benjamin Cawthra (pp. 189-196).

It’s Ferguson that interests me, and also St. Louis landmarks and culture in general. Growing up near St. Louis, I visited the city with my parents fairly frequently. I remember coming to the city on U.S. 40, passing through the Metro East area, and crossing into downtown on what is now called the MLK Bridge. I don’t remember that we ever crossed on the MacArthur Bridge in East St Louis, which was the routes of old Route 66 and old U.S. 460. But Interstate 70 was under construction, and when it (and the Poplar Street Bridge) opened in the mid 1960s, we had no more need to pass through East St. Louis, which was in decline after being such a significant cultural and social place---though not without its racial tensions and tragedies---for many years.

Mikes Davis was born in nearby Alton, IL and grew up in East St. Louis. Cawthra writes that “Miles Davis never has been a major cultural icon [in the St. Louis area] beyond East St. Louis itself” (p. 189). As an example, he points out that Davis’ 1991 death was front-page news in the New York Times but only an AP notice in section D of St. Louis’ daily, the Post-Dispatch, and that no memorial services for Davis happened in St. Louis.

Davis’ own personality and history, which included domestic violence and drugs, may be among reasons our local area has been slow to embrace Davis (pp. 194-195). But more broadly, “The treatment of his death seemed to reinforce the city’s fundamental realities: economic stratification and racial segregation” (p. 190). Ferguson is up the road a bit off I-70, but a NYT article just yesterday provides a look at the problem of racial and economic segregation that affects it and other St. Louis communities. “For the St. Louis region to embrace Miles Davis as one of its own, it must confront the racism so deeply ingrained in its history and acknowledge a legacy full of division and compromised hopes...” (p. 189).

Cawthra discusses the influence of St. Louis upon Davis: his teachers, the musical scene and blues legacy of the city, the “countryness” of the area’s blacks (many of whom came to the area in the Great Migration), as well as the racism of the area and the not-forgotten 1917 East St. Louis riot. Davis himself wrote about aspects of local scene (and Cawthra quotes):

“After St. Louis closed down at night, everyone over there came to Brooklyn [Illinois] to listen to the music and party all night long. People in East St. Louis and St. Louis worked their asses off in them packing and slaughterhouses. So you know they was mad when they took off work. They didn’t want to hear no dumb shit off nobody, and would kill a motherfucker quick who brought them some stupid shit. That’s why they were serious about their partying and listening to music” (p. 194).

Cawthra also suggests subliminal influences: he writes that the bass line of “Shhh/Peaceful” on In a Silent Way harkens to the pace of the trains on the MacArthur Bridge (p. 191). Perhaps, too, Davis’ ability to innovate and thus shock and distress “middle-class sensibilities” (though from a middle-class family himself) was a carry-over from his local roots (pp. 193-194).

Just as East St. Louis has seen slow improvements (pp. 192-193), so Davis’ local “presence” has begun to be recovered: for instance, in the Missouri history Museum’s 2001 exhibition on Davis (which this book accompanied). With words that are still true in 2015, Cawthra concludes:

“For the St. Louis region to remember Miles Davis, it must do more than simply acknowledge one of the twentieth century’s great musicians. It must also re-examine its rich heritage of Arican American musical culture in this region and contront the legacy of racism that races back to slavery. In addition, it must also acknowledge one of the country’s most distressed urban areas where that musician lives so many years ago” (p. 196).

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