Who Was Miles Davis? An Intimate Look at The Man Who Was Always Miles Ahead in Music

Who was Miles Davis?  A virtuoso trumpeter, a jazz innovator, or a protean bandleader? Trick question, the answer: All of the above. In 1991 Rolling Stone magazine coined Davis “the Man that Changed Music.” Bold statement for an even bolder man. However, we at Musichead will up the ante and stand by an even more intrepid proclamation on “The Prince of Darkness”. There is no cool, modern, or contemporary jazz as we know it without Miles Davis. 

This assertion of influence becomes an unequivocal fact when assessing Davis’ career that spanned over five decades! Davis’ prolific output saw him collaborating with a number of legends, from bassist Charles Mingus, to pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist John Coltrane. It follows that the Grammy Organization honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990 and inducted ten of his albums into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Even beyond the grave he continued to accumulate accolades and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Accolades are nice but you know what’s even better? A conversation with someone who knew Miles Davis personally. To start off our new Musichead Musings series, we will share a conversation with someone who knew the icon intimately beyond Birth of Cool, "Blue and Green", and Tutu.

We are proud and happy to welcome Vince Wilburn Jr. as our first guest in our new series, Musichead Musings. Vince is Miles Davis’ nephew, a Chicago native who grew up watching Uncle Miles play in clubs whenever his band came through town. Miles gifted him his first drum kit, and the rest was history. Vince subsequently recorded, toured, and produced records alongside Miles Davis. He would later become the founder and leader of Miles Electric Band.

Can you please describe the moment when you realized that playing music was definitely the path you wanted to take?

I had a drum set in my basement in Chicago. I used to play for some of my mom and dad's parties, you know, this little drum set. Then there was a guy named Michael Smith who played piano. His father, Tony Smith, is a well-known drummer in Chicago. So Michael would come over and we'd play duets. However, what truly cemented it was when we did an eighth-grade talent show and we got the girls screaming. We were so popular after that show. [laughs]At what age did you realize that your Uncle Miles was something very unique in the world?Well, I'm kind of telling my age, but back in the day when traveling, you could go to the gate and greet the passengers at the actual airport terminal gate. So when Uncle Miles would be playing with the band, coming back to the baggage claim, and to the car, he would get stopped. I was like, “Why is everybody stopping Uncle Miles?” Every five steps, ten steps. I didn't understand it, but, I'm just like, “wow, this is something,” you know, but I was too young to really comprehend what it was.

Can you describe what it was like the very first time you played drums with your Uncle Miles? What was the situation?

Well, we had a band in Chicago and he used to call my mom and dad and have my mom put the phone down and listen to us rehearse. He would listen to us rehearse for two or three hours. So after rehearsal, he would critique us. It was like a masterclass, at Miles Davis University!So one day we finished– I will never forget it.  Uncle Miles said, “y'all want to make a record?” George Butler was the head of the Columbia Records Jazz department and he flew us out to New York to record.They put us up at the Sheraton Center, and it was the whole deal with limo and room service. We rehearsed it at Uncle Miles brownstone. They shipped all this gear from Studio Instruments Rental in New York. We rehearsed for about a week. Then we went into the famous Columbia Records 30th Street Studio. We recorded 30 songs.It was one of the most amazing periods of my life.That's beautiful. Okay. So I'm going to shift over to Miles and talk about him a little bit. Now, the man changed the course of music in 1949, 1959 and 1969.

What do you feel are some of his most important contributions to jazz and to music?

The music world at large. I'm not being funny and this is not a sarcastic answer. He changed the course of music. He was always looking forward. Always. He never looked back. He was about evolution. He was always searching for something in order to move the needle forward on music. That's how he was throughout his whole career.

You can hear it. I'm going to talk about your band now, the Miles Davis Electric band. What was your original thought when you put this together? And what did you want it to accomplish? 

Well, it started off as a tribute to “Bitches Brew” and Karen Sundell, our publicist at the time said, “ do you want to do Sunset Junction in commemoration of your Uncle Miles?”

Sunset Junction in Silver Lake was a big one in California. She thought it'd be cool if I got some of the guys who played with Miles and put a band together. The first person I thought about was Wallace Roney, then his brother Antoine and some of the guys that played with Miles. They thought it was a great idea! So we put the band together and it was a hit.So Miles is quoted as saying,  “To me, music and life are all about style”. And I know that from my experience, having walked into the auditorium, when Man With a Horn came out and he went on that tour, I'll never forget the feeling of walking into this: It was about a 6,000-seat auditorium in Detroit. And everybody was styling and profiling that night. He set the tone for style in all the decades, as well as the music that he put forward. That was part of his aura. It was part of his vibe, you know? Can you talk a little bit about that or how he felt about that?He's always been a trendsetter, you know? I think he got that from his parents. My grandmother was a very proud black woman. His father was a prominent dentist with a practice in East St. Louis and his uncles were all scholars. And were all very well-dressed. I probably saw my uncle wear jean overalls one time while painting.From where you sit and with your band, how do you feel about the future of jazz?You know, I don't think about the future of jazz. I think that if we all focus on progress and evolution then the music is going to be in good hands. There are a lot of amazing young players that have something to say and are in the right place.

Final question: What is Miles Davis to Music? 

That is a tough question to answer. I've played with a lot of musicians and in a lot of different situations, musically, but I've never felt that way, not just because he's my uncle. I've never felt what I felt when I played with my Uncle Miles.

It's like the ultimate in space travel. It's the ultimate. Wherever you're trying to go! Because once you play with him, you can do anything. You know, you know what I mean? You don't want to be limited. You don't want to play a certain one style. You don't want to dress a certain way. You want to evolve. 

 I'm sure anyone who ever played with my Uncle Miles would say it was “life-changing,” and that's hard to describe. To sum up, a person like my Uncle Miles in one word is hard. How do you describe a person that was so full of life and passion? You can't. You just had to experience it!

Well, I just want to thank you for talking with me today. Thank you for all the contributions you've already made and the contributions you're going to make for the musical world. Interested in finding out more about Miles Davis? Consider enjoying his music at Miles Davis Radio on Sirius XM, learning more about Miles and collecting unique merchandise at milesdavis.com, or purchasing a print of Davis at  mrmusichead.com

Photographer's Images in Blog:

Featured Image- Luciano Viti 

Row One- Don Hunstein

Row Two- Earl Gibson III, Aura of Columbia Records, Today Show Staff, and Corey Nickols/Contour 

Row Three- William "Popsie" Randolph

Row Four- Luciano Viti

Row Five- Luciano Viti

Note- All images, with the exception of Row 2, are for sale at Mr Musichead Gallery

August 04, 2022 — Sarah Anderson