Stephen Burke

Ithaca Notes

“The Birth of the Cool,” a documentary about Miles Davis, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is now playing at select theaters, mostly in big cities, but also here in Ithaca, which frequently proves big for its size in cultural matters.

Davis died in 1991 at age 65. He is among the most influential of American musicians. “Kind Of Blue,” which he recorded 50 years ago, is the best-selling jazz album of all time, and still sells thousands of copies a week. 

Despite his fame, and the films (there have been others) and books about him, Davis remains a confounding figure. 

The contradictions run deep. Davis is known as the creator of “cool” jazz, but personally he was anything but cool. In his private life he could be violent (he was guilty of domestic violence), and in his public life he was frequently, if not generally, called angry, combative, and hostile. 

Of course, the disparaging appraisals of his public (less important) persona came most often from critics of a certain caste (that is to say, Caucasian), or cast of mind (that is, conservative or racist). 

Possibly many such critics were acquainted (perhaps directly) with two favored words in Davis’s vocabulary that are largely considered the most objectionable in English, and judged him harshly for them. 

These words (a noun, and a related present participle functioning as an adjective) cannot be printed in this column, but they are similar in sound and number of syllables to “motorcycler” and “motorcycling.” 

Real meaning, of course, is in the ear of the behearer.

Spike Lee was in Ithaca last month, speaking at Cornell, and although I did not attend the engagement, I heard him a few days before in a radio interview. 

Lee happened to speak of Davis, calling him an artistic and personal forebear. He said he had met Davis a number of times, but despaired that Davis never addressed him as “motorcycler,” which he would have considered a mark of respect. 

I wish I had bumped into Lee here in Ithaca, not just for general fun, but especially because I could have mentioned that I met Davis once, and he provided me with this linguistic honorific about three dozen times in as many minutes.

Our impromptu meeting was in a locker room at a gym where Davis happened to be a member, in a New York City hotel where I was staying on my honeymoon. It took me a while to figure out that this striking-looking but strange-seeming guy who was asking me to look at his post-swimming saliva was in fact Miles Davis.

One tip-off was his scratchy voice describing the gob in his hand as “some sticky motorcycling [sic] stuff [also sic].” The definitive one was when he mentioned having taken sick while being  “in Russia with my band.” 

Once I realized who he was, and had calmed my nerves, we talked easily. He asked if I was a member of the club and I said no, I was staying in the hotel, on my honeymoon. He said, “You motorcycler. You got married?”

I said yeah, you know, you get married and you go on a honeymoon. He said, “You motorcycler, don’t tell me about no honeymoon. I been married four-five times,” which I knew wasn’t strictly true, but let pass as we both tried not to laugh.

After (as I say) a long talk, I told him I had to go, as my wife was expecting me, and I was late. We walked out of the locker room together. 

He asked me, “Think you in trouble?”

I said, “Maybe. Here comes my wife.” She was coming from the elevator to come find me. I knew she wouldn’t be mad, but I let him think otherwise.

“Wow,” he said. “Let me do the talking. Tell her it was all my fault.” 

“Don’t curse,” I said.

“Don’t curse?” he said, and I laughed. “”Motorcycler,” he said, under his breath.

He walked up to her with arms outstretched, calling her name. “I’m so sorry, baby. Here you are on your honeymoon and I’m keeping your husband late from you. But I’m so happy to meet you. I’m so happy for you on your marriage and your lives together. I wish you so many blessings.”

That’s the guy he could be, too. So much for angry, combative, hostile, aloof, arrogant, or racially inimical. I don’t think I’ve ever heard nicer extemporaneous words to any newlywed. I’ve never had a funnier, more generous conversation with anyone near his stature (in the time we spoke, I hardly got to ask him any questions, for all his about me). 

Still, there is the issue of his domestic violence. I would like to think that in this era he would be different. In any case, as things stand, October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I would like to think that if he were alive he would speak for it. As it is, there are the rest of us, to advocate and act. Please do.

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