Miles Davis is undoubtedly imprinted in the DNA of American music. The Revivalist spent an afternoon at a bustling Flatiron café with the heirs and next generation lineage of “the prince of darkness”, Vince Wilburn (Davis’ nephew and once band member) and Erin Davis (Miles’ son), who disclosed some insiders information about Miles: his extravagant tastes, infamous temperament, and post Miles music and culture.
Tell us about what the two of you are working on in regards to preserving the legacy of your late uncle.
Vince Wilburn: Currently we have our production company. It’s a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week process. We are dealing with the [Miles Davis] Estate. I also have a production company and am recording music.
You have a LLC. What are some projects you are working on?
Vince: We have our team. We basically were tired of not being in control of things. All of a sudden we see his song in the movie and we’re like, we didn’t even know about that. Now everything comes through us and we’ll make sure we like it. It has to be right by Miles.
Thank god we all get along, Erin and I, and his sister. She’s the one that really doesn’t hold back on how much she really thinks about her dad, and rightfully so.
It looks like you guys have the family business down to a science. It seems like other musicians who have a long catalogue of music, when they pass, it is dispersed all over the place, like in the case of James Brown. You really seem like you have a good grasp on managing his catalogue.
Vince: We get hit up sometimes by other family members of famous people who need guidance. When Rick James passed away his daughter called us.
Sometimes families really get screwed, like in the case with J Dilla.
Vince: Yeah I know. It’s real tragic. We did a panel with his mom about two years ago.
Erin Davis: The panel was I think about estates. They had the guy who run’s the Marley’s estate. Johnny Cash’s daughter run’s his estate. I think it had something to do with the Johnny Cash thing. Then J Dilla’s mom, and she just came totally different. She said, “I have no control over it. I have seen nothing, they just ran me out.” We were like “Damn, this is nuts.”
Do you think it is possible to keep an artist’s catalogue entirely within the family?
Erin: It depends on who you are dealing with. It depends on who has the catalogue, and what kind of deal the artist made in their prime. I know that Frank Zappa’s wife run’s their estate like the army. You can’t do anything that resembles something that he might have said or done. She will go after it. I think that there was a yogurt shop in Iowa or something that she was after. On the other hand there are people who have no control at all, and they don’t know that they can get it. You just have to have legal representation. You have to know where to get all of the contacts. We deal with Sony mostly. We also have Warner Brothers, Concord and Capital. So we have that settled, but now what? Image, licensing, other things? You have to have it all together so then you know what things are supposed to be happening, so when you decide you want to make a movie, you don’t have to go to eight different people to decide what to do.
THE ICON, THE ENIGMA
Miles was an icon because he was able to weave together all of the intricacies of his craft, the emotive expression, his perfectionism as well as professionalism. Today, it seems as though you see less and less of that. Where now is jazz without the presence of all of these pieces working in tandem?
Erin: I don’t think the general public knows anything about any modern jazz. The general public, if they know anything about jazz, it’s older jazz, classical jazz. There are a lot of great guys out there now, but there are no good resources to promote them. They just play, and the hardcore fans show up. It would have been cool if Sony Jazz had come out 15 or 20 years before. I think it’s tough for anybody to want to just be a traditional jazz genre based musician. I don’t think anybody should do that. They should be able to play all types of genres, and have a broader horizon of what you want to do.
Erin, Miles came from a fairly affluent family. Had that not been his background, would becoming a music virtuoso and jazz pioneer have been his fate?
Erin: Probably. I don’t think he could have been denied if he really wanted to. His mother wanted him to play the violin, and he was like, “Nah”. He was pretty determined to do it one way or another.
When he was growing up, he had to know how to read music before he played with anybody. When I grew up it wasn’t like that. I got caught up in that whole LA thing in the eighties where it was like, “put a demo out, and get a record deal.” That was really what I thought you could do. Now it’s like you don’t even have to do that. You and your buddies can just make some noise in the garage, record it on something and put it on the internet—on Myspace, and you’re waiting on success.
I’ve seen people all the time, and I’m like “you guys don’t practice”. You don’t realize that the singer can’t hear himself. He’s not in the same key as everyone else, and he’s all out of tune, and the time fluctuates. Fortunate for me and Vince, we were able to work in a situation with Miles where there was no “out of tune”, there was no time for error. If you can’t hear something, you better figure out how to tell someone that you can’t hear the bass or whatever. I remember sometime we went to somebody’s rehearsal at night and I had to stop them. I was like “stop”. I felt bad later, but I don’t think these guys knew what they’re doing.
Was there a method to the madness when Miles selected his band members?
Vince: He just had an uncanny way of knowing. Sometimes he would go by recommendation. I recommended Darryl [Jones] to him. He called Darryl on the phone, he said “Man, you play bass right?” He said “When can you get here?” So Darryl said, “Miles, maybe in two or three days”. He said “What you gonna do, walk?” he wanted him to come right away. Like ASAP. He said, “If you can’t play, I’m going to kick my nephew’s ass.” I mean, it was funny. His bass was in the car, and he had to run out of the car and get the bass, and audition basically over the phone. Uncle Miles just knew, he would call, and put together the right team right in his head. Remember Garth Weber? Guitar player, Robin Moore? One time we had Gary Thomas and Bob Berg, two tenor players. That was like really uncomfortable.
Vince: There was this story that during a Hank Mobley solo, uncle Miles goes over and whispers in his ear, you got Sonny Rollins phone number? Hahaha. But you know. He was the man. He knew.
INSIDE THE INDUSTRY
Why is jazz much more revered overseas?
Erin: They don’t get caught up in trends that everyone wants to be Radiohead, or everybody wants to be U2. It’s trendy here. In Europe, they just accept it, and it’s not just set aside because of a trend.
Music in this country has been more about business and producing commodities rather than art. How have you seen the industry change over the years?
Erin: There are less record companies now. A lot of it has to do with the guy that we work with at Sony, Steve Berkowitz, a real A&R. He knows his history. I know some people in LA who are A&R and they have no idea what the business is. They just send them around there to go see shows, and they’re like “Do you like them? Cool, let’s sign them.” Then you have the rest of the record companies stocked with accountants, not people who know music. Then you wonder why this whole sort of collapse of the industry happened—cause they took everybody who knew about music out of the business. They try to squeeze people like Clive Davis out, the guy who literally built the industry. So now, in Europe it’s a little different. There are people who are still hanging on by a thread, but have been around for a while. I talk to people who own the old school jazz labels. They fortunately have some money where they can still pull out records.
Vince: I had like seven groups for my production company that recorded. We spent a ton of money and got one group signed. All of my boys were fired to sign, but I’m a musician, so I recorded. I recorded different types of music that I liked, that I thought other people would like, but they said they didn’t hear a hit. Well, what the hell is a hit? If you start not accepting creativity and you start having manufactured songs, then what is—where is the industry going? What do you get inspiration from? You know what I mean? That’s why Miles was Miles, because he was really able to create, and just have a blank canvass and create masterpieces. They don’t do that anymore I don’t think. It’s now just one hit wonders.
It sounds like what you are pinpointing is an issue of lost integrity in the industry. How can we get it back to what it was like in Miles’ day?
Erin: We were talking to Thievery Corporation. They wanted to do something with us, and we were like “Who are these guys?” They had their own label, their own artists. They sit outside of the main frame of making decisions on their own. Those are examples of artists with that leverage.
Vince: I think it’s happening in terms of indie labels, indie start-ups, indie groups. I think we should be getting more into that. I remember Jay-Z signing a lot of indie groups—that’s his thing now, and that’s where it is—Indie bands. They take their music seriously. They record at home, in a place where it doesn’t cost a lot, and they put it out themselves. I just thank god I came up when I did.
Interview by Majorca Murphy and Boyuan Gao
Special interviewer: Eagle Nebula