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Miles Davis Thanks His Lucky Stars

On ‘Star People,’ his transcendent and wistful 1983 album

On October 20, 2022
Photo by Anthony Barboza

The cosmic goofiness of the space jazz aesthetic was never sophisticated or cool or effortlessly hip enough for Miles Davis — but neither was anything on the earth plane. He would insinuate astral realms rather than pretend to be an astronaut or an alien like some of his more outlandish contemporaries. Miles’ version of space music is more about the space to expand one’s tonal palate that privacy affords than any desperate swoon for intergalactic travel. He sought room to move and change course, both in his music and his life. Miles pursued the luxury of territory, and the freedom to be at once aloof and heartbreakingly candid. He moved from the psychedelic intonations of Bitches Brew (1970), Nefertiti (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969), and the blunt, ghetto melancholy of Water Babies (which combined outtakes from Nefertiti sessions), into silence, a stupor of transition that lasted about six years, from 1975 to 1981. 

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When he emerged, he was accompanied by Star People, and the resolve to update his style yet again. Two of his most effective and loyal collaborators, Teo Macero as producer and Gil Evans as arranger, joined him for the recording sessions. His own figure drawings anointed the cover, three slurring star queens in a jitterbugging forward march, a trinity echoing every n---a is a star, or foreshadowing its eternal return as a wish and a promise. With the sound and tempo of his reemergence came unpretentious optimism, which Miles layered with the internal critic that gives his cadences some of their elegance: always slightly recoiled, as if whispering a question to god; always reverent and cautious, even as he is mistaken for irreverent and vain. We’re only privy to the response to his wonder, not the tortured curiosity that leads him to definitive beauty, and gestures toward the next idea in an enigmatic loop that allows Miles Davis to reinvent himself again and again, without seeming desperate or contrived. He finds and becomes the distinction between desperation for relevance, and truly renewed concepts. 

Where the music just before his hiatus sounded menacing and urgent, like an adventure with no clear aim but catharsis, Star People is patient and unbothered as it strategizes coherence and rehabilitation in the calm after a crisis. Miles lets his accompanists — Al Foster on drums, Bill Evans on saxophone and John Scofield on electric guitar — do the agitating so that he can enter with angular blues accents, a little moody, a little giddy to be retrieving his artistic center, and as reserved as the center of attention should be to command real understanding. There’s a fluttering smile in the texture of his playing that he curtails just enough to remain stylish and not too eager. 

What had sustained many artists with radical spirits after 1968, when active social justice movements dissipated into new wars, was the shield of decadence that pacifists used to denounce global conflicts as they arose, a shield made of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll. Miles, having been raised with a keen sense of self-worth and economic security (his father was a well-to-do dentist in his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois), was wise enough to have marketed himself as a rock star just as so-called jazz music was being marginalized into obsolescence. He married singer and model Betty Mabry in September of 1968, and she helped him rebrand using her own allure, glamour and fashion sense, moving him from the stodgy three-pieces of 1960s jazz performance culture to suede vests, tasteful silk paisleys, bell bottoms, tight jeans, platform shoes, larger and darker glasses. With all of that ornament came a larger sound, bigger ensembles, braver contrasts and a move from purely acoustic instruments to a mix of electric and acoustic. With this new style, his innate charisma and lust for exploration of new sonic territory, Miles naturally began booking large rock festivals and gigs with upcoming stars of the folk revival like Laura Nyro, just as his peers were becoming displaced relics annexed to university jobs, college tours and European markets. 

The albums he generated from 1968 to 1970 were slick and psychedelic but not so far-out as to seem an insincere break from the ballad-driven quietness of his bebop mannerisms. This balance of new and classic made his never-look-back attitude make sense to listeners who could keep up. He would not play Kind of Blue for the rest of his life, and those who needed repetitive clichés would have to look elsewhere, or to the past as he transcended them. With his new sound and lifestyle, however, came new temptation. He had narrowly escaped heroin addiction early in his career. Through sheer will, he quit cold turkey, locking himself in his father’s guest house as he went through the cold sweats of withdrawals, a near impossible feat for many opioid addicts because of how deeply visceral the body’s cravings for the drugs are once it’s used to running on them. Now he would be tempted again with cocaine and women and all of the accouterments that accompany pseudo rockstardom, all the hype that tries to make offstage life as performative as live shows. 

This balance of new and classic made his never-look-back attitude make sense to listeners who could keep up. He would not play ‘Kind of Blue’ for the rest of his life, and those who needed repetitive clichés would have to look elsewhere, or to the past as he transcended them.

Was his sound patterned after the narcotics of each era he survived and dominated musically, or was his music giving people a reason to explore altered physiological states with drugs and lust? It’s hard to differentiate trends Miles started from those that influenced him, because he was so good at making things his own, taking elements of a style and using them in a way no one else could conceive, much less implement. Sometimes this meant sabotage; he became too good at his roles and insatiable for the attention and over-stimulation they offered him — too many drugs, too many women, possessiveness, neediness and focused intensity one moment, escapism and imperviousness the next. It was almost inevitable that he slipped into a years-long reverie based on the trajectory of his music. He and Betty divorced just one year after they were married. A few years later, he stepped away from performing and recording to explore spectacular brooding. The film made about this time in Miles’ life glosses over it as if it was one extended Blaxploitation flick or a grudge with the recording industry that his ego wouldn’t let him shake. In reality, after nearly 25 years of recording, performing and touring, it was natural to pause and reevaluate. Artists of his stature often have to pretend to go crazy or catatonic just to get a break from the stage. Subconsciously, Miles had such good timing, that he knew when to lose track of it. 

Cicely Tyson would check on him at his home in Manhattan during this period, continuing their on-again-off-again affair that had begun before he married Betty. They shared a deep psychic connection, and even when he was mean and unappreciative, she tried to make sure he had some semblance of care around him. She was eventually the influence that motivated him to give up cocaine and start eating better and swimming and boxing again, a return to his healthier approach to recreation. They married in 1981, and he credits her both explicitly and indirectly for his comeback, though he never completely gave up his so-called bad habits. With Cicely, he learned to function and make clear decisions again. The final track on Star People, “Star on Cicely” — though it feels and plays, in part, like an obligation — is also a record of their union, their bond and her role as one of his muses during this phase. It becomes the anchor for a song cycle that feels uncharacteristically modest. There’s a wounded humor to Star People, wherein Miles laughs at and with himself and the new age. The 1980s were tacky in a way that probably assaulted his impeccable tastes. To adjust without refusing to evolve, he accessed a mix of openness and sarcasm. He also made sure to bring along energies he trusted. How he manages to be so capricious and yet so faithful to the recognizable tenets of beauty and artistic value is mystifying, and it gives Miles an element of the supernatural to root into his tangible cool. 

Star People opens rollicking and celebrating, with the baiting track “Come Get It.” Its boisterous sound captures the feeling of being chased and compelled back into the spotlight. Miles’ reluctance to enter until two-and-a-half minutes in tells us he hasn’t lost his ability to command attention by backing away or leaning off a little while others step out front. He often complained when other musicians would “hog” the notes, and from this approach, we see what he meant in his criticism: He preferred to say less and seemed baffled by excess, as if it was a betrayal of true sounds. “It Gets Better,” the album’s second track, is a shimmering, muttering blues vamp that lets Miles play the slow lamenting registers with the steady poignance that only he can sustain. As the title insinuates, he sounds happy, almost rejoicing. The drums clap for him, the energy is relaxed enough to introduce a slight notion of mischief which just dangles there like a talisman, threatening but never upending the band’s casual composure. Part of the humility here is that it seems like the band has rehearsed and practiced extensively, like their conversation is a destiny they all shared lifetimes ago. As listeners, we are being caught up on established information, eavesdropping. It’s rare that you’d even try to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t gossip-laden or secretive, but here we just spy on the possibility of it getting better, listening closely to learn how that progression sounds. This is the heart of Star People, tragic wistfulness creating an occasion for itself, in a time when music and politics are in an identity crisis, neither revolutionary nor decadent, just limboing in marketable cheerfulness between trends, waiting for new passions. 

The title track settles on one. Heroic synths set its tone, and Miles enters early to corroborate them with sultry, swooping notes. He plays the personality that lurks between earth and elsewhere, the digital stratosphere where we now trade information as it might have sounded in the imagination in 1982 — before the internet, before data was so expendable, when there was still a manageable grammar to interstellar hope. There’s an innocence to it, Miles sounds like he’s in love with new musical ideas again, sidling up to them, irresistible in tone. This suite exceeds most of his electric albums of this era for its ability to stay away from the ’80s-sounding pitches that turned jazz too smooth and easy once they were normalized. The texture here is as substantial as on earlier albums, jagged enough to be interesting. For that, we have to thank the chemistry between Miles and Gil Evans. Men who could excavate and enhance one another’s voices with eerie accuracy, they collaborated like soul mates. 

An often overlooked aspect of Miles’ genius was his eagerness and lifelong need to collaborate, be with and speak with people. He married women again and again, and he invented bands over and over. He created unions and dynamics, chosen families that we will know forever as units. He saw and heard how things fit together, knew when they were failing and held on possessively until the bitter end, until the fitted whisper of his speaking voice was mimicked with his horn and we could inherit them together as one siren call, warning us that his level of beauty is always star-crossed, cosmically vetted and laced with pain. A hermit, semi-misanthropic, often cruelly belligerent with those he loved and, once in a while, a drug-induced socialite, Miles Davis’ secret wish was to cultivate enough tenderness outside of himself to make up for the suffering he projected onto those who allowed him to love them. On this album, he’s audibly thanking those lucky stars, and in many places, supplicating, repenting, asking forgiveness. It’s hard to listen and say no. 

Profile Picture of Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday

Harmony is a writer, dancer, archivist and the author of five collections of poetry, including Hollywood Forever and Maafa. She curates an archive of griot poetics and a related performance series at LA’s MOCA. She also runs a music and archive venue called 2220arts with several friends, also in Los Angeles. She has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a NYFA fellowship, a Schomburg Fellowship, a California Book Award and a research fellowship from Harvard. She’s currently showing a film commissioned for LA’s 2020-21 and working on a collection of essays and a biography of Abbey Lincoln, in addition to other writing, film and curatorial projects. 

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