Midway through “Miles Ahead,” the soon-to-be-released movie about Miles Davis – directed by and starring Don Cheadle – the famously irascible musician tells a freelance writer (played by Ewan McGregor) in a dowdy corduroy blazer, “You’re not driving me around looking like that no more.”
It’s 1979. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Getaway” had just been blasting on the stereo in Davis’ West 77th Street apartment. He slides open the door to a walk-in closet and the journalist sees a collection of silks, furs, scarves and lamé jackets.
“From Brooks Brothers sharp to Issey Miyake prints, leather and bright colors, Miles wore it all and was always cool doing it,” Cheadle said. “He made the clothes.”
Gersha Phillips, the costume designer who also made all the clothes for “Miles Ahead,” including a kimono in habutai, did not know how fashionable the trumpeter was until she started her research.
“I was quite amazed,” she said. “I just feel like he was always forward-thinking, and just the way he was with his music he was with fashion: ahead of his time.”
The main action takes place as Davis is considering a comeback after a five-year, self-imposed exile on the Upper West Side, with deft swings back to the 1950s and ‘60s. No matter the decade – as a sideman to Charlie Parker in the 1940s; birthing cool jazz with Gil Evans in the early ’50s; moving further ahead with John Coltrane in the late ’50s and then the mid-’60s, before an electric period from 1968 to 1975 – Davis is the focus, in part because of what he wore.
Making a statement
With Davis, it wasn’t a case of style over substance. His style was essential to his substance.
“His music, of course, everyone is familiar with,” said Marcus Miller, the bassist, composer and producer who was part of Davis’ band in 1980. “But when I knew him, he was painting as much as playing, and that was a real reflection of him, as well – and then his clothes. It was all the same thing. It was a statement of who he was and how he wanted to present himself.
“He was conscious that people were looking at him,” Miller said. “And the clothes were so important back then, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s, because this was an era when black artists were fighting to be recognized as more than simple entertainers. It was like, ‘We’re going to be as sharp as possible and we’re going to command respect.’”
The tenor saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who also played with Davis, said: “He grew up like that. He always dressed well, always in tune with fine things, and he didn’t see any reason why fine things should be denied to anyone.”
“Dexter (Gordon) hipped me to the importance of looking sharp. I thought he was the cleanest cat around.”
Miles Dewey Davis III was born into upper-middle-class comfort in Alton, Illinois, in 1926. His father was an oral surgeon and his mother was a music teacher; the family moved to East St. Louis when Davis was 1.
In his profane and profound 1989 autobiography, written with Quincy Troupe, he credited his mother for his fashion sense.
“She had mink coats, diamonds,” he wrote. “She was a very glamorous woman who was into all kinds of hats and things, and all my mother’s friends seemed just as glamorous to me as she was. She always dressed to kill. I got my looks from my mother and also my love of clothes and sense of style.”
Later, he took his cues from movie stars like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.
“I created a kind of hip, quasi-black English look: Brooks Brothers suits, butcher boy shoes, high top pants, shirts with high tab collars that were so stiff with starch I could hardly move my neck,” he wrote.
Sartorial role models
In late-1940s New York, when West 52nd was known as Swing Street, Coleman Hawkins, a titanic figure in jazz, was a role model for the young Davis.
“Bean taught me a lot about music,” Miles wrote, using Hawkins’ nickname. “Plus he used to give me clothes,” he wrote. “He bought the clothes from a hip store on Broadway and 52nd Street, then gave them to me for almost nothing.”
The debonair saxophonist Dexter Gordon was another sartorial influence.
“Dexter hipped me to the importance of looking sharp,” Davis wrote. “I thought he was the cleanest cat around.”
Like many jazz musicians, Davis was hampered in the early ’50s by heroin addiction, which took about four years to kick. When he finally did, he credited the discipline he observed in the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Davis eventually took up a boxing program to stay fit; it’s one of the reasons clothes draped so well on him.
The first ‘rock star’
As difficult as Davis was – and Cheadle’s film doesn’t shy away from this – he didn’t pressure his bandmates to dress a certain way.
“He left it up to us,” Shorter said. “Except when I first joined his band, he sent me to his tailor, who was down the street from his home, and he got me a tuxedo made to open up at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Herbie Hancock, who was in the same group (and who, like Shorter, makes a cameo in “Miles Ahead”), said, “When I first joined his band, the idea of playing with Miles meant you automatically sensed that you would wear something that was appropriate for Miles’ kind of presentation.”
Davis, who died in 1991, was a rock star before there were rock stars, gangsta long before hip-hop.
I was sitting in my red Ferrari, dressed in a turban, cobra-skinned pants and a sheepskin coat, with a real fine woman.”
He had run-ins with police, especially when he was in one of his Ferraris. In the late ’60s, he was stopped outside the Plaza Hotel for not having a registration sticker. In his memoir, Davis cited a different reason for this brush with the law: “I was sitting in my red Ferrari, dressed in a turban, cobra-skinned pants and a sheepskin coat, with a real fine woman.”
In 1969, when he was the victim of a drive-by shooting, his sense of style may have saved his life: “The guy must have shot five bullets at me, but I had on a leather suit that was kind of loosefitting,” Davis wrote. “If it hadn’t been for that leather jacket and the fact they shot through the door of a well-built Ferrari, I would have been dead.”
‘The hippest guy around’
Davis was not afraid to change with the times, either in the music he made or in the way he dressed. In the late 1960s, he wore dashikis and loose Indian shirts and suede pants from the young African-American designer Stephen Burrows. He adapted his style, once again, in the early 1980s.
“I remember once, in 1981, I’m hanging out in his house,” Miller said, “and he said, ‘Find me something to wear.’ So I went into the closet and it was all the baddest stuff I’d ever seen. But they were all from, like, 1973. Everything was bell-bottoms, fringes, vests, everything had 14 colors. I came out and said, ‘Miles, I can’t find anything for you in there, they’re too old.’ And he said, ‘Oh, man!’ and walked in there and cobbled something together. But once he got back on his feet, ’82, ’83, he began to re-establish himself in terms of his style.”
Envelope-pushing Japanese designers like Kohshin Satoh sent him stuff. In 1987, Davis modeled for a Satoh presentation at the Tunnel with Andy Warhol. He also wore his designs during a White House visit with Cicely Tyson, his wife at the time.
“Miles was always the hippest guy around,” Hancock said. “The way he moved, the way he walked, the way he stood when he played, what came out of his horn, and the cars he drove, all of that was stylish. That was part of his persona.”