Jazz legend Miles Davis spent the last years of his life in Malibu, still playing his trumpet but also drawing and painting. Drawings he gave to his friends and other jazz memorabilia are part of an art, music, and history exhibit in Santa Monica.
By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times
In the late fall of 1946, Miles Davis left Los Angeles after being there a few months, saying, “I’m tired of this jive… I’ve got to go back to New York where the [expletive] is really happening.” That’s how he recalls it in his autobiography, anyway-in which he also wrote that a lot of people in Los Angeles thought the bebop music he played in the 1940s was “weird.” Davis further wrote, “The scene was slow. I wasn’t learning nothing.” However, 40 years later he would return to Los Angeles and spend the final years of his spinning, tumultuous life in a quiet Malibu beachfront home where he spent long hours playing and writing music, but also painting and drawing.
“He favored, of course, New York,” said Abbey Gallant, who became close friends with Davis when he lived in Malibu. “His heart was in New York and Europe.”
Davis was born and raised in East Saint Louis, Mo., but he grew up musically in New York. There he bounced around Harlem and 52nd Street playing in living room-sized jazz clubs with his musical heroes, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Throughout his adult life, until he moved to Malibu, Davis was based in New York. And even after he bought a home in Malibu in 1985, Davis spent a good portion of time playing and recording in New York.
Davis explained in his autobiography that he felt healthier and could write music better in Malibu’s quiet warmth. And by that time, his health needed nurturing.
Like many New York jazz musicians, Davis was at one time addicted to heroin. He lost numerous friends to drugs, including Bird, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. Davis survived various addictions and was clean by the time he moved to California, but the years of abuse and toil as a touring musician took a toll on his health.
Near the end of his life, Davis suffered a slight stroke and also ailed from diabetes and sickle cell anemia. In the summer of 1982, after a doctor told him he had to stay clean if he wanted to live, he began drawing in sketchbooks given to him by then-wife, Cicely Tyson.
“I think it was therapeutic at first, something to do with my spare time now that I wasn’t smoking or drinking or snorting,” Davis wrote in his 1989 autobiography. “I had to keep myself occupied so that I wouldn’t start thinking about doing those kinds of things again.”
Davis became increasingly involved with art, and when he lived in Malibu the last six years of his life, he painted five to six hours every day. The rest of the time he played trumpet and wrote music. As he was stretching into all kinds of musical styles-experimenting with rap and collaborating with Prince-he tried different styles of art, painting in the Memphis style, with bold colors and shapes, and using markers and pastels to create sensual pictures, often female dancers like his first wife, Frances Taylor.
One day, Gallant arrived at Davis’ house and Davis was drawing at his dining room table, where he always did. “He took me over to the table and said, ‘Do you like this?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do.’ I liked everything he did. And he said, ‘It’s for you.'” Davis held Gallant’s hand as he finished the drawing, and then he gave it to her.
The pastel Davis gave Gallant has female faces; long, stretched lines and eyes scattered throughout. The themes are typical of Davis’ art. “He very rarely did men, because he loved women.” Gallant said. “He loved necks. He loved heads, he loved eyes and he loved legs. It’s all jazz; it all connects.”
The drawing is displayed at the Santa Monica gallery Gallant co-owns with artist Dirk Dahl. Dahl and Gallant have put together a show including drawings Davis gave to Gallant and her daughter, a collection of jazz memorabilia from Dahl’s late father-in-law, Henry Nemo, and sculptures and statues that Dahl created after being inspired by Davis and Nemo.
Duke Ellington, one of Davis’ musical heroes, hired Nemo to write lyrics for his first complete original show, which played at Harlem’s Cotton Club and was Ellington’s big leap into fame. Nemo, known as the creator of jive, wrote “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” with Ellington, and the exhibit features the original draft of those lyrics as well as a telegram Nemo sent to Ellington in jive.
The exhibit at Dahl & Gallant Gallery, located on 1828 Broadway Suite A in Santa Monica, will run through July 31. On Saturday, there will be a reception from 7 p.m. to 10p.m. Members of Davis’ family will bring limited addition serigraphs of Davis’ paintings. For more information call 453.5100 or 795-4502.