In 1959, while he was standing outside a venue with his name on it, jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis was brutalised by police officers in an unprovoked attack. The assault occurred when Davis was at the height of his fame, having just released his seminal Kind of Blue. And yet, all that fame meant nothing to the police officers who beat him on the sidewalk.
That attack would follow Davis his entire life. In his autobiography, he recalled the night in vivid detail, as though it had occurred only the day before. “I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit,” he wrote. “I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August.
“This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. I said, ‘Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis’, and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights,” Davis wrote. “He said, ‘I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you’,” the story continued.
“I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, ‘You’re under arrest!’ He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back…I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head…A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on,” he concluded.
Stories like this reveal just how little has changed since the 1950s and ’60s – decades which are frequently held up as examples of how far we’ve progressed as a society. If the murder of George Floyd teaches us anything, it’s surely that our entire understanding of progress is skewed.
Musicians who worked with Miles Davis following the incident have sometimes mentioned the way that he would appear to have flashbacks to that night in 1959. Indeed, years later, his rage and bewilderment about the way he’d been treated continued to come through in interviews. Speaking in 1985, for example, Davis described the sheer level of racism he faced simply because he was “Black and living in a beachfront house in Malibu”.
“One time, my wife, Cicely, was asleep beside me in the car when they stopped me,” he began, describing being pulled over by the police. “When she woke up she heard them accusing me of being drunk. She told them I didn’t drink. But they don’t care about that. It’s just racist. But we black folks know about that. It happens every day to a black person. It happens here just like it happens in South Africa”.
“I mean, a cop who has to work every day really be mad when what I’m drivin’ costs more than what he makes in a whole year! You know what I mean? One cop, after askin’ me to pull over, says to me, ‘Didn’t you see me behind you?’ ‘Naw,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t looking behind me watchin’ you. You watchin’ me.’ I didn’t know he was behind me. I don’t care if he’s behind me. Fuck him!,” Davis continued, going on to add: “Policemen are weird. They do weird shit. They’re like stormtroopers. Shit, they even go to Germany on excursions to learn how to do more of the weird shit they do”.
A damning reflection of how little has changed in society.