On July 16, 1991, just two short months before his death, iconic/iconoclastic jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis was honored with knighthood in France’s Legion of Honor, one of the highest cultural honors bestowed by that nation. From a New York Times wire service article:
Jack Land, French culture minister, described Davis as “the Picasso of jazz.”
“With Miles Davis, you are in constant musical adventure,” Lang said. “He has been able to cross all the eras while staying eternally avant-garde.”
Davis, 65, has recently given several concerts in France, which have not been well received. The headline on an article in Libération, a left-of-center national daily, read: “Miles Davis Bores Us.”
It’s tempting to write that kind of dismissal off as French radicals being, well, French (Libération was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, so it can hardly get any more radical or any more French in this particular instance) but by that time, Davis’ output was basically slick pop like Tutu, and his close-but-no-cigar attempt to catch up to acid jazz on the posthumously-released Doo-Bop. Trombonist and Village Voice jazz writer Mike Zwerin, who forever cemented his untouchable credibility by playing on Davis’ Birth of the Cool, wrote in an article in the International Herald Tribune the following day:
This summer he blanketed Europe under kliegs, playing not only a bass-heavy backbeat but also his hits of yesteryear (“Boplicity,” “Sketches of Spain”) and leading an all-star assortment of ex-employees (Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock). For at least a decade he has refused to look back, and I cannot help but wonder if this unexpected flurry of eclectic activity at age 65 is some sort of last roundup.
His current working sextet has been playing pretty much the same set and solos night after night, including Michael Jackson’s tired “Human Nature,” which has become his “Hello Dolly.” The band has lacked creative energy since freethinkers like Al Foster and John Scofield left in the ‘80s. No longer leading the way in the ‘90s, he is getting by on his (considerable) charisma, which is holding up better than his boredom-detector. When the French minister of culture, Jack Lang, made Miles Dewey Davis a knight of the Legion of Honor on Tuesday, it seemed somehow like final punctuation.
The article’s complete text is here. It’s excellent, very personal, and given how short a time Davis had to live, it serves accidentally as a fine eulogy.
Enjoy this brilliant footage of Davis in 1970, with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Jack DeJohnette, among others, at the Tanglewood Festival, performing “Bitches Brew.”