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(Credit: Tom Palumbo)


Exploring the visual artwork of Miles Davis

Many musicians have a penchant for visual art. There’s a deep, interconnected relationship between the aural and visual, and for a genuine artist, you cannot have one without the other. Although only a certain amount of people experience it fully, it’s not outrageous to argue that every creative, be it musician, painter or otherwise, experiences a certain degree of synesthesia when creating their work. 

A figure who did actually have synesthesia, however, was Miles Davis. The term means “perceive together”, and after understanding this, there’s no wonder that Davis’ musical work was so influential and pioneering. He understood music on a different level, giving it an edge that has never been matched. Without his work in music, modern jazz would be a completely different entity from what it is today. 

This tacit understanding of the connection between audio and visual is something Davis had cultivated from a young age. When he was four years old, his father introduced him and his siblings to drawing, as he felt that it would bring happiness and help to take “the edge off things” living as an African-American amidst the racist and economically bleak period of The Great Depression. Miles Davis Sr. was right.

Davis would remain in touch with visual art for the entirety of his life, but it would really gain significance in the early 1970s after he suffered a terrible car crash and broke both legs. At this time, he was also in the throes of the cocaine addiction that would blight him throughout the decade. Recovering from the horrific injury sustained in the accident, Davis didn’t play live for nearly a year and took to art as a means of passing the time positively. 

He once said: “Painting is like therapy for me, and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music.” After the crash, art became his main hobby and filled in the gaps that music did not. After he recovered and resumed recording and touring, he would become an avid artist, honing his own distinct style. 

In the ’80s, his work would really take off. Davis’ artwork was surreal, making use of bright colours and geometric shapes, evoking the synesthetic master Kandinsky, Picasso and Basquiat, all underpinned by the evident influence of traditional African art. Many of his works feature the human form, paying particular attention to human faces, again evoking the aforementioned greats. 

Ultimately, it was his declining health that led to his art flourishing, ironic given its fascination with the human body. Laer though, 1982, Davis suffered a minor stroke, and as a result, had a frozen hand. The doctor advised him to hold a pencil as a means of recovering, and it helped significantly. He began sketching, and this would carry him through the last chapter of his life.

The first public showing of his visual work came as the cover of his 1983 record Star People, which featured the trio of surreal, almost Dali-esque forms. His light, hand-drawn cover is genius, and it’s a shame that it has not had more attention in the years since his death. Davis, it goes without saying, could have been hailed as a modern master. 

In 1984, whilst suffering from ill-health, Davis met artist Jo Gelbard who lived in the same apartment block in New York. The two hit it off, and Gelbard helped Davis to take his artwork to the next level. She loved the delicacy of his sketches and his music and wanted him to be able to transfer this to the canvas using paint, a medium he was much less adept at using. 

(Credit: Miles Davis)

In a 2005 interview with Jazzwise, Gelbard explained: “People think of him as such a violent, dark heavy character. What he was looking for in life is this sweetness, this candy, this pink and happy light-filled space that he got lost in. It was his fantasy. It was what he was searching for and didn’t have, but it was somehow in his soul.”

Gelbard would critique Davis’ work in a bid to help him reach the next level, and eventually, they would work on art together. Davis would work on a piece until Gelbard critiqued it, and then she would take over, and vice-versa. This gave Davis’ work an internal dialogue, much like his music. The two would develop such a deep connection and understanding of each other and later became lovers. 

Their most famous artwork is the bold cover image for Davis’ lauded 1989 album, Amandla. Featuring a self-portrait of the jazz pioneer and an abstract drawing of a trumpet, it’s a multi-faceted piece that invokes all the colours of Africa. 

The word ‘Amandla’ is the Zulu term for power, and at the time, it was used as a slogan in the fight against South Africa’s racist hegemon, apartheid. However, as Davis explained in his autobiography, the title of the album actually means freedom. Freedom as people, and freedom as an artist. He was now artistically autonomous, unchained from his classic jazz period, now a visual artist as well as a musician, something incredibly fluid for the time. 2019’s surprisingly brilliant Rubberband also features a striking work by Davis. 

In a 2016 interview with BBC Radio 4, musician and former director of Davis’ group, Robert Irving III, recalled spending time with Davis at his New York apartment in the ’80s. He said: “I’d go and visit, and he’d be working on all these canvases. There would be canvases just overwhelming the room. One day he turned to me, and he said, ‘Bobby you should really try this painting because it’s really relaxing.’ He said music is a painting you can hear and a painting is music that you can see.”

Although his visual art never took off until the end of his life, retrospectively, they offer up a portal into the mind of the genius that was Miles Davis. Complex, stunning and sometimes slightly unnerving, he managed to translate his sound into the visual format, showing himself to be a true genius. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see his artwork flourish properly, but the one’s he did leave us with are reminders of the transcendent understanding of humanities that the jazz pioneer possessed. 

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(Credit: Miles Davis)
(Credit: Miles Davis)
(Credit: Miles Davis)
(Credit: Miles Davis)