Miles Davis Was a Boxing Fan

  • February 9th, 2011
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Jazz musician friends told me that the legendary Miles Davis was a devoted boxing lover. With curiosity, I decided to research Miles Davis and what he said about the art of pugilism in his biography “So What: The Life of Miles Davis” by John Szwed.

This is what I learned:

Miles was drawn to boxing in his childhood in East St. Louis. “Though he and his friends did not train or enter the ring – never going beyond wrestling or playful punches on the chest – it occupied their thoughts and shaped their images of themselves. Boxing was popular in E. St Louis among black me, though to most it did not represent a possible means of economic or social mobility. Not was it a metaphor for a kind of art or intellectual activity. Rather, it was a stance, a way of moving in your clothes, a way of being a man.”

“Miles roomed for two years with Stan Levey, a professional boxer recently converted to drummer. Levey introduced Miles to training, taking him with him to Stillman’s Gym or to Sugar Ray Robinson’s. Miles loved that scene, the acrid smell of it, the crowd that hung round there, the brutal discipline of the place – and he became a convert. For many years afterward, he skipped rope, did floor exercises and worked the speedbag with bebop phrasing and triple-tongue rhythms, and for breath and endurance he threw himself into the heavy bag with bass drum explosions.”

“In Chicago, Miles met Johnny Bratton, a flashy welterweight boxer from Akansas who had made the city his home base. Bratton was a year younger than Miles and they were similar in physiques and tastes, though the fighter dressed a bit flashier with brilliantined hair and a fondness for purple shirts.”

“Miles went out with Johnny a few times in his new convertible. One time the cops stopped Johnny for speeding but let him go when they recognized him. It’s Honey Boy Bratton! Miles was really impressed by that. Bratton was a classy and graceful fighter who took on some of the best boxers like Ike Williams and Beau Jack. When Ray Robinson moved up to middleweight, Johnny won the welterweight title and held it for a few months until Cuban Hawk Kid Gavilan, took it away from him. Bratton fought professionally for 11 years but his career ended badly and he wound up living in his car, then homeless, and finally in and out of mental hospitals. But it was said he was a sharp dresser even to the end.”

“Bill Cayton, fight manager and president of Big Fights Inc. was directing a documentary about Jack Johnson (“Breaking Barriers”) and asked Miles Davis to do the music for it. Davis went to work on it enthusastically, reading everything he could about Johnson and boxing history, watching films of classic matches and sleeping with a photo of Johnson near his bed. He would discuss boxing with an intensity you couldn’t imagine, said Cayton. He’d come to our office and ask for a bunch of films. He’d put the spool on the projector, then sit there and watch for hours. Every once in a while he’d come running up to me and say, Bill why did this happen? How come Joe Louis got hit with that shot?”

“Jack Johnson was one of Miles’ favorite recordings for a long time and it’s obvious why from the first note.”

“Miles Davis once recorded a tribute to Roberto Duran, who was an avid musician himself.”

“When Miles lived in Brooklyn, his son Gregory was picked on and provoked to fight. My father got me a private trainer – Johnny Greenwich, said Gregory. And from the age of 12 I started to go the gym every day after school. When I was living with my father I did roadwork every morning at 5am, come home, drink some tea and honey and get ready for school. My father pushed me into boxing because that was one of his greatest loves….When I got into boxing seriously, I was in a club and won my little smokers – I won them all. But my father couldn’t deal with the fact that I might get hurt. He couldn’t sit there and see me in a combative situation. Gregory continue to box as he grew up and was the most successful member of his army team while he was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam war.”

“Before performances, Miles stayed away from others and often drove away anyone who might approach him. Like a boxer, preparing for a fight, he denied himself food and sex before playing, believing that a musician should perform hungry and unsatisfied…Like a fighter, he tied his shoelaces as tightly as he could bear, on shoes that were already a size smaller than his size 7 feet, so he could feel firmly in place”

“Miles would muse that he could have been a contender but he avoided actual fighting so as not to injure his mouth and hands. Once though, he said he sparred a few rounds with Roberto Duran. Like Berry Gordy, who switched from professional boxer to jazz drummer and later became the emperor of Motown, Miles understood that the boxer must finally lose his title, by either retirement or defeat, while the musician can remain king forever. Boxers and musicians are both itinerant workers in the arena of individualism, both pay the dues of a brutal meritocracy, and though public figures, both are embedded in a shadowy elite with its own code of values under the spotlights.”

Excerpts from “So What: The Life of Miles Davis” by John Szwed, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

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