Image courtesy Insight Editions from Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork
By Jeffery Renard Allen
“Please give my reflection a break from the face it's seeing now.”
– Rihanna ft. SZA
My sister is trying to get me to put my grandnephew in my band.
I tell her, I already got a guitarist.
Yeah, she says, but it ain’t him.
And it ain’t gon be him. Ain’t he sick?
Sugar. Just sugar.
Sugar? I’m thinking, First I heard about it. Shit, I was talking about his crutches. The nigger walks on crutches. Didn’t even know about the sugar. Cannonball had sugar. Dolphy had sugar. Plenty of niggers dead from sugar. But I don’t tell her that.
Yeah, sugar. Just hear him play.
Cicely keeps giving me advice where it’s not wanted. I’m open to her words as long as they don’t involve the music, my music.
Hearsay, she says. People calling him out of his name.
Is it? I say.
Problem is, I don’t know what to believe. Got to keep an open mind. Rumor is just that. In this world full of haters and the self-righteous, evil tongues will say anything.
Cicely says she don’t want to hear all that who-did-what, that who-shot-John. So what if Herbie likes men? Why do you care? He’s your pianist. You ain’t got to fuck him.
I look at her sideways. You got some lip on you, I say.
You should have thought about that before we got married.
I wasn’t thinking about it then and I ain’t thinking about it now.
So go ahead and fire him, she says.
Now you telling me who to fire?
The air in the room moves from the corners.
No, she says. I’m just trying to help you tell yourself, seeing that this is such a cause of concern. What will the world think if it turns out you got a—
You got a lot to say today.
The room listens. She hums back into resolution. As it should be. She should know by now, you’re either for me or against me. No in between. Like music. Only two kinds. Good or bad. No in between. We are stable: me, Cicely, the furniture and other objects, stability everywhere on the earth.
You want to hear a joke? she says.
How many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?
It’s a knock-knock joke. Knock knock.
How many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?
What the fuck do you care?
Wait for the right moment. Then catch into it with everything you have. One bar may hide another bar in the same way that one complaint usually holds another. (Why an argument once it gets started can never end.) Be in there somewhere. When you think too much you get something you don’t mean.
Begin with yourself underfoot. The beat is laid on your shoulders. Get up on the one.
The point between here and there is where you are your best. In coming to find a note you may find another. The call, the response. The sweet science of improvisation.
I came naked out of the mother. My daddy, a dentist, bought me the best garments for my body. (Got that from him, the clothing bug.) I never had to elbow my way up.
Music? I took it from where it came from.
As for anything good, you play it for me and I’ll listen to it.
Music recalls its steps. Ahead. And that feeling of coming after, late, behind the beat. When soloing, when you come to a passage, breathe and be patient so you can hear all that is there.
Let it lift and steady you.
Get up on the one. Get up as high as you can get.
The elevator opens. It’s full of white people, ofays. I don’t step on. Too white for me, I say. The doors close.
Unknown dust near me. Darkness in the trees. The white buildings leaning into the ground. The sky spread out. My ears penetrated by the noise of frogs and crickets. My body. And mosquitos flying about. The grass wrapped in clouds of red and white. The streetlamp casts tiny globes of light, little planets. The curb kneels so I may cross. Breathing on all sides. All things on all sides in motion. Darkness running on all fours.
I am the Prince of Darkness. My shadow lengthens at night. Night extends me.
Cicely, I have lost you. Have I lost you? How could I let that happen? You left me. I forced you to leave me.
You’re still in my heart. I can feel you go through there. Jigsaw fragments. Returning always.
Take this as it settles, then: Why should we mean nothing to each other when we’re really nothing?
I’m making no gestures. You’re two years older than me. The wiser one. More experienced. More mature. You are always the wiser.
Other troubles I can stand. Money. Ofays. Family. Music. But my woman?
My form takes up with you best.
Who took the message? Who lost the keys? Who left the door unlatched? Who forgot the dry cleaning? I left the sprinkler on? The heart going out over everything.
Out walking. Trying to clear my head. Thawed afternoon. Dust in the shallow air, green notes. Fog rising from my mouth. The light breeze can’t sway the branches. Black buildings thicken around me. Instead of going home, I walk some more, walk until I can’t walk anymore and just stay put, remain standing, my shadow growing inch by inch, a giant.
There is a certainty that makes us love each other. So how then did this separation come about?
Shaped by whatever breath I draw, whatever I finger. Lungs and hands. Valves and stops. The trumpet convinces the hand, the mouth that what you have you hold to practice with to play with to pose with. Back-breaking leisure. The stalled tightening of a run. The buzzing in the beehive of the mute. A language takes hold. What calls me is that sound that announces, insists at each moment that I am individual. Dark dazzle. Blowing fresh.
The music teacher loans me some sheet music (“St. Louis Blues”). He asks me to let him hold my clarinet (my second instrument, something to cut my musical teeth on). Weeks pass but he never returns my reed. I ask for it back.
Sure, Miles. After you return my sheet music.
I gave that back to you weeks ago.
He looks at me. Young man, let me tell you one thing. I have a PhD in Niggerology. Don’t try to run games on me.
I gave it back to you.
When you come clean, you can have your clarinet.
I thought about it. Where do you keep your sheet music?
He pointed to the place.
Motherfucker, go look.
Death, get all the way away. I will concede to anything stronger than I am. Give up. But even Death the butcher can’t cut me down. Only memory dies. When I was a kid I saw a little girl get hit by a truck. She lay in the middle of the street. The blood was thick like one big red note dropping from her body, the sound all the other notes wrap themselves around. Over the years I have lost so much of the day, how the recollections thin and disappear. I am no more certain than you are of the details. In her bright colorful dress she resembled a pink silhouette against the black tarmac. One foot propped behind her. This apparent precision of gesture. The shoe off. The layers clear now in the slant light of remembrance.
I ran home, the world tilting this way and that.
For days after, for weeks, for months, perhaps for years, I was spooked. Something would startle me, a voice in a room I thought was empty, pushing a door open and catching sight of a blurred shape fleeing from the room, an echo in a room that shouldn’t be there, my body making an extra shadow. Some slight fear of the dark even now. Spooked.
My grandnephew Tony wears his hair slicked back, a wing over each shoulder. He’s chilling with his knucklehead friend, some nigger whose name I didn’t catch, whose name ain’t worth remembering.
A week later I hear his crutches thump rubber feet against the floor. No easy matter to both walk on crutches and carry an instrument. He carries his axe the right way, like a fragile mummy.
He sees me and breaks out into a great grin. Uncle Miles.
Hobbles into the room, his right leg bent back away from the floor flamingo-like. He’s got his own style, dressed in vintage clothes, ruffled sleeves, checkered pants, all of him sunk into a motorcycle boot on his left foot.
He looks at the bowl of blow sitting on my counter, his big gaze opening by the minute. What has he gotten himself into?
Nigger, I say, that ain’t popcorn.
I point to a chair, and like a construction worker making his way down from a scaffold, he maneuvers his crutches then flops down into the chair.
I hold him in a long gaze, but he doesn’t seem to be intimidated. Only perks up his ears to take in what I’m listening to. He grabs one crutch and uses his ringed finger to tap out a little polyrhythm, Philly Joe Jones, then laughs out loud, taken with himself.
He’s handsome, a pretty boy, smooth skin, Roman features, smiling an animated smile, but balding prematurely (thirty-three years old), his receding hairline like a body of water at low tide. Our chairs closely approaching, he rushes into talk, a mouthful, selling himself. How good he is. How he’s ambidextrous. And how he owns both left-handed and right-handed axes. How he has perfect pitch. How he can read. How he knows all my songs and thousands more à la Sonny Rollins. Everything he will bring to my band.
I’m thinking, A damaged boy with an instrument.
I ask him about his leg. He rolls up his pants leg, unwraps the brown bandage, shows me his calf black with the missing flesh as if bitten by a dirty-toothed shark, the whole muscle eaten away.
How did that happen?
Two years ago.
Two years ago?
Yeah, he says. At the end of the semester during final exams. I took my last exam, knew I had aced it. I was so happy, so proud, so relieved after all the stress. So I found me an empty classroom, took a seat over by the radiator and figured I’d take a nap. I touched the radiator. It was cold to the touch, the heat off, the room nice and cool, so I propped my legs up on the radiator to get comfortable. Fell asleep. When I woke up I smelled a funny smell. This is the leg that was actually touching the radiator.
Your leg was burning and you couldn’t feel that shit?
No. I guess because of the diabetes.
I shake my head. Ain’t that a bitch.
Yeah. Surgeries and skin grafts and more surgeries. Antibiotics. All because of one nap. The doctors don’t think it will heal and want to amputate. Fuck that shit.
I keep looking at him. Let them take your leg. If they cut off my dick I’d find a way to get it back. As long as I have my mind.
He just looks at me.
Anyway, fuck all the talking, motherfucker. Just play something.
He picks up his axe and plays me something, blows my mind. Sounds like Jimi.
I see myself rising to give him a spoonful of cocaine.
At least once a week someone rings my bell thinking my house is still a place of worship. I open the door and find a living breathing person on my doorstep. I only let in the ones I know I can fuck. (The evil of living.) The pretense of amazement when I open the door—How did you find me? You’ve come to the right place. God must have sent you to me—letting sunlight and a body into the granite airy space. The basilica remains untouched: confessionals—a priest’s haunted face behind the grille of one booth for all eternity—side altars, baptismal fountains, stained-glass windows, the holy pictures and crucifixes, oval prints and paintings of ordained faces, and the reliquary housing the flesh from a saint (lips, I’m told).
Through my body I see, feel, all the other bodies I have had.
They come. And I await them. Summoned. In the depths of one face I can see all the faces I’ve had.
I’ll take them into me, the ones that come here, my house, this old basilica, a listening post.
A perfect set. The band takes bows. I look at Al Foster. Played his ass off tonight. Solid shifts of drumming charged with invented changes. Fat time. I go over and kiss him on the mouth. Fat Time.
t took a black cat to make two white cats play their asses off. Jimi.
The sense that she was trying too hard. The flowers perfectly arranged. Lemon-scented soap. A gondola. In the middle of her fucking living room. Framed watercolors of every variety (storms, landscapes, still lifes, portraits) cheapen the sight of a Steinway with lid raised up. Chimes out on the balcony, banking in and out of view. The view of the city in the windows muted through the glass. Pastel walls. Painted birds. Light seems to come from everywhere. Her crib more like a supposition than the real. Suppose I place this here.
I had accepted her invitation. Is this what I’d been waiting all week for? Too eager to visit, now too eager to leave. Not the first or last time a rich white person will invite me to their home because I’m Miles Davis.
She enters the room with a bulky mobile phone pushed to her ear, her appearance a mixture of formal and casual. Wearing flip-flops. (That crunch sound like a shoe pressing into snow.) Her face makeup-less, shining with power. (What difference does it make how you look close-up?) A long tangle of fat pearls. A silk scarf. Rich white bitch.
I find myself in her garden. The hedges have grown past the height of the windows like stacks of children’s blocks. Several grasses grow raggedly together. A branch bends burdened with six-winged birds spying on our conversation. She speaks very little, sensing that I have things on my mind. We go a little way into the greenish, almost submarine grotto of a cluster of tall trees, where we hear wind lashing and rain splashing on the top branches. Sunshine in the rain.
She says I should learn to ride horses. The talking authority of she who knows, passed on with a look of hard-ass wisdom. I could tell her that my daddy was rich, a dentist, and owned his own farm where I learned to ride horses.
Saying these words because we should play white people, play them for what we can get, even if we don’t need what they give, gift. Listen, don’t get on the elevator with them. Instead, wait for them to invite you into their home. Then take them for everything you can.
The look I see on my father’s face. For days I walk my father’s farm sick, living on the nerve. Pulsing at the cold borders of a world borne down by smack like a black iceberg frozen in place. Heart high sorrowful, burning forehead, parched tongue. Heat making me. The wind making my body ruffle. The wind pummels a tree, and the branches rise and fall like a conductor’s baton, thick leaves spilling to the ground. That same wind rolls the earth over, waves.
I rotate inside the black silo of my body, burrowing into the tunnel of the past. The hours given and taken in school. The scuffles in the coatrooms, the arguments with my mother and pissing contests with my father (strong-willed and stubborn like me; he gets it from me, Father of Darkness). The scrapples in the Apple, the time I’d sat beside the sick and dying holding their hands, feeling their last days, the light going out in the body, the cells going dark. (I will never die.) And the cats like Navarro, Clifford, Cannonball, Dolphy (bean eater), Chambers, Bird (grimy motherfucker), Trane, Jimi (horny motherfucker), and Rhoades who died before their time like leaves that drop from trees too early.
I hurry back up the river of time until I splash into the sea where present past and future exist all at once. Fat time. My brain passes me pictures of the future. See myself. Older now. So much still inside me. Prowling the streets in the shook heart of New York. Full of energy. Saddled. A horse. Looking to fuck, get high. The city dragging strays about it. Down and out in New York City. Sirens reddening the air. What can be remembered and can never be forgotten. (What is the word for a future foretold and remembered?)
The sun sinks toward the darkening hills. Dark bodies pass by far out at the horizon, a countryside of black plants. Gobble up. Strong horse circling for me alone. I circle with it until I can catch up, hop on, ride. Raking my fingers through the horse’s mane. Blood galloping inside my body. Thousands of years go by. Wheezes of air. Past the gate post stained with goat’s blood. Along the edge of the woods that echo a rustling junction. Through the cemetery, the gravestones rising and falling in sleep. Following riding/walking trails through bent grasses that go over long fields, including a stubble field with water standing in it. Small in the passed-through air, I dismount. Move through that swinging soil. Drink water with my hands, my cupped fingers ladling silt.
Tembling. Particles of skin flaking away. Coughing bits of flesh. I use pipe cleaners to poke the sludge clogging my veins but no luck at getting them open, clear. I move along the ground near the fallen twigs.
The sun stands out in black on a reddish background like a funeral chariot on a piece of terra-cotta. The doctor arrives, rattling with green bottles full with the light of the sky. He speaks to me in even tones. Brain-ready, he plans to inject me, thinks I will let him. No. Only one way beyond this pain, addiction. Cold turkey.
I rise and walk. Going to show the bats and the birds and the rockets and satellites that I can fly too. Prince of Darkness. Rise above the high trees surrounding the house, far into the piney tops. Beaming distances. Idling in space. The moon rolls on in shadow. At this elevation, I feel deprived of weight. How uncommon the light when clouds clear. I lean back from the glow of the moon. I can always come back to earth.
We were the same height, the same size. I make an accidental discovery. I can fit into her clothes, into her shoes. Wearing her around the house becomes habit. Like an extension of myself, another me, Miles plus.
lay a little more of that.
What is it like to be a musician? I hear music all the time, even now. I heard my father’s deep voice rumbling from the body of his layers of tailored clothing. I hear the cry of small animals in the furs I wear. Fuck them.
The world tells me what it wants to tell me. Can’t turn it off. Tell me, freight train. Tell me in the voice of the sea, deep structured roar, or in the light chirping of a bird. Train. Whistle. Trumpet.
You’re supposed to like your “listeners,” be grateful for these ordinary motherfuckers because they buy your records and come to your shows. Fans. Fan clubs. No, I wish I could club all these motherfuckers. Clobber them. They take up all the space in the world, suck up all the air, crowd you into corners. No, motherfucker, I don’t care if you like my music. No, I don’t want to meet your girlfriend or your wife. Take that bitch and get out of my face. Give me some room. Some quiet time to myself. Can’t you see I’m here drinking at the bar. I don’t want to see no fucking body.
The one good thing about being on stage, the chance to be alone with motherfuckers you want to spend time with. That’s why I turn my back to those ordinary motherfuckers sitting out there looking at me, admiring me, wishing they could be me.
Before I can reach her, Cicely senses me like an owl, flies up to the ceiling, wings spread, claws out, beak at the ready. I leave the herd of four-legged furniture, three-legged stools, and one-legged lamps for the garden. Cicadas cover the ground like carpet bombs dropped from a fleet of war planes. They don’t relent. I think about Cicely, her features glazed. Color and velocity.
She keeps a compact inside her antelope purse. She fills the sink with water, removes the compact, stares into her reflection. Puts her mirror at the bottom. Every day her face becomes clearer. Can’t she see me there? Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the meanest son-of-a-bitch of them all? Me, the Prince of Darkness.
Darkness feeds me, sustains me, provides longevity, eternity. I cannot die. Be that as it may, Cicely saved me, more than once. Like the time I snorted the longest line of blow ever, around the four corners of a room inside the apartment of an abandoned building, snorted from one corner to the next then out the door, into the hallway, along the floor to the next corner, then around the corner, through the door, and onto the stoop where Cicely waited.
I dig Jimi. So much is not spoken. We compare notes. Which bitches are fuckin and which bitches are not. Who among our friends believes in free love—I fucking don’t—and who does not. The best characteristics of Band-Aids.
My fingers crack. Hands. I paint my daybreak. Folded in faint light. The snot and blow clotted inside my nostrils. Trudge. No words as well. The skin touches glow. I smell the odor emanating from the canvas. A few random straws from the brush sticking to the trapped canvas like whiskers or trapped rays of sunlight. I breathe. The air getting raw between me and the canvas. Blue and red squares. Fragile yellows, rich greens. White nailed there. What these colors are growing through. I extend my figures, laying out in circles. The thing itself before it is made into anything.
I pull over but don’t kill the engine. The doors lift like two wings and I step out of the whip. Exposed. Like a turtle out of its shell. How do I look? My hair brushed back, shellacked in a windblown manner like the speed of my whip. The day is all sun. I don’t remove my shades. They blaze with darkness. My whip idling in its nest of smoke.
The producer touches a button on his computer. He touches another button. Everything seems purposeful. I’m not about to set the time right, get up on the one. His beat. His groove. So be it. Wait and make the sound surrounding “No.”
Now a slow plunge and lift. I play my riff although I don’t feel equal to the track. I’m already sensing a new shift, the anticipation for what is to come already giving way to some other feeling I cannot name.
Speaking in a southern twang—did they say he’s from New Orleans? Houston? Atlanta?—he gives a rambling monologue filled with long passages of obscenity (he has a fixation on shit), oaths, aphorisms, curses, and his Five Percenter beliefs—he keeps calling the host God—that makes the air buzz violently around his head bee-like, a beehive of thoughts about his head.
I bend my frown into the camera’s light. Say, Who can prove one place more than another? The man who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner. He to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. Let the place talk.
Since they rely on me, the judgment I form is important. They are stronger with me than against me. Reach the heights together. The rise of any bird is larger the larger the bird is. A leader. Not some ordinary motherfucker like ninety-five percent of the world. What it means to be a leader. Support and surpass.
I can’t tell him that I owe my longevity to darkness. Instead, I answer him with questions of my own. Why must I never repeat myself? Why do I grow into something new, invent new styles? Where will I go? Who will I meet? What will I do? What am I after?
It all hangs together. What they call a career. The designs of time. What they call a body of work, your oeuvre. You made it. You made it. And you changed music five times. How many people can say that? Fifty years of fingers, of mouth. Five times. Move among stars. Keep the ground turning with the earth. Set the heavens moving around us. Five times. I know. And I ain’t dead yet.
Filled with fluid, his body is wide as a tree trunk. His right arm is swollen the size of a tree, too heavy for him to lift. He’s lying on his right side, his right arm extended, his defeated body like a black horizon along the white bed.