The very first thing I remember in my early childhood is a flame, a blue flame jumping off a gas stove somebody lit. It might have been me playing around with the stove. I don't remember who it was. Anyway, I remember being shocked by the whoosh of the blue flame jumping off the burner, the suddenness of it. That's as far back as I can remember; any further back than this is just fog, you know, just mystery. But that stove flame is as clear as music is in my mind. I was three years old.
I saw that flame and felt that hotness of it close to my face. I felt fear, real fear, for the first time in my life. But I remember it also like some kind of adventure, some kind of weird joy, too. I guess that experience took me someplace in my head I hadn't been before. To some frontier, the edge, maybe, of everything possible. I don't know; I never tried to analyze it before. The fear I had was almost like an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about. That's where I think my personal philosophy of life and my commitment to everything I believe in started, with that moment. I don't know, but I think it might be true. Who knows? What the fuck did I know about anything back then? In my mind I have always believed and thought since then that my motion had to be forward, away from the heat of that flame.
Looking back, I don't remember much of my first years -- I never liked to look back much anyway. But one thing I do know is that the year after I was born a bad tornado hit St. Louis and tore it all up. Seems like I remember something about that -- something in the bottom of my memory. Maybe that's why I have such a bad temper sometimes; that tornado left some of its violent creativity in me. Maybe it left some of its strong winds. You know, you need strong wind to play trumpet. I do believe in mystery and the supernatural and a tornado sure enough is mysterious and supernatural.
I was born May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, a little river town up on the Mississippi River about twenty-five miles north of East St. Louis. I was named after my father; he was named after his father. That made me Miles Dewey Davis III, but everybody in my family called me Junior. I always hated that nickname.
My father was from Arkansas. He grew up there on a farm that his father, Miles Dewey Davis I, owned. My grandfather was a bookkeeper, so good at what he did he did it for white people and made a whole lot of money. He bought five hundred acres of land in Arkansas around the turn of the century. When he bought all that land, the white people in the area who had used him to straighten out their financial matters, their money books, turned against him. Ran him off his land. In their minds, a black man wasn't supposed to have all that land and all that money. He wasn't supposed to be smart, smarter than them. It hasn't changed too much; things are like that even today.
For most of my life my grandfather lived under threats from white men. He even used his son, my Uncle Frank, as a bodyguard to protect him from them. The Davises were always ahead of the game, my father and grandfather told me. And I believed them. They told me that people in our family were special people -- artists, businessmen, professionals, and musicians -- who played for the plantation owners back in the old days before slavery was over. These Davises played classical music, according to my grandfather. That's the reason my father couldn't play or listen to music after slavery was over, because my grandfather said, "They only let black people play in gin houses and honky-tonks." What he meant was that they -- the white people -- didn't want to listen to no black folks playing classical music anymore; they only wanted to hear them sing spirituals or the blues. Now, I don't know how true this is, but that's what my father told me.
My father also told me my grandfather told him that whenever he got some money, no matter where or who he got it from, to count it and see if it was all there. He said you can't trust no one when it comes to money, not even people in your family. One time my grandfather gave my father what he said was $1,000 and sent him to the bank with it. The bank was thirty miles away from where they lived. It was about 100 degrees in the shade -- summertime in Arkansas. And he had to walk and ride a horse. When my father got down there to the bank, he counted the money and there was only $950. He counted it again and got the same amount: $950. So he went on back home, so scared he was just about ready to shit in his pants. When he got back he went to my grandfather and said that he lost $50. So Grandpa just stood there and looked at him and said, "Did you count the money before you left? Do you know if it was all there?" My father said, no, he didn't count the money before he left. "That's right," my grandfather told him, "because I didn't give you nothing but $950. You didn't lose anything. But didn't I tell you to count the money, anybody's money, even mine? Here's $50. Count it. And then go ahead on back and put that money in the bank like I told you." Now what you got to keep in mind about all of this is that not only was the bank thirty miles away but it was hotter than a motherfucker. It was cold of my grandfather to do that. But sometimes you've got to be cold like that. It was a lesson my father never forgot and he passed it on to his kids. So today I count all my money.
My father, like my mother, Cleota Henry Davis, was born in 1900 in Arkansas. He went to elementary school there. My father and his brothers and sisters didn't go to high school, just skipped right over it and went straight to college. He graduated from Arkansas Baptist College, from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and from Northwestern University's College of Dentistry, so my father received three degrees and I remember looking at them motherfuckers up on his office wall after I got older and saying, "Goddamn, I hope he won't ask me to do that." I also remember seeing a picture somewhere of his graduating class from Northwestern and counting only three black faces there. He was twenty-four when he graduated from Northwestern.
His brother, Ferdinand, went to Harvard and some college in Berlin. He was a year or two older than my father, and like my father, he skipped over high school. He went straight into college after passing the entrance exam with high scores. He was a brilliant guy also; used to talk to me all the time about Caesar and Hannibal, and black history. He traveled all over the world. He was more intellectual than my father, and a ladies' man and player, editor of a magazine called Color. He was so smart he made me feel almost dumb; he was the only person I knew growing up who made me feel this way. Uncle Ferdinand was something else. I loved being around him, hearing him talk and tell stories about his travels, his women. And he was stylish as a motherfucker, too. I hung around him so n that my mother would get mad.
My father got out of Northwestern and married my mother. She played the violin and the piano. Her mother had been an organ teacher in Arkansas. She never talked much about her father, so I don't know much about her side of the family, never did, never asked either. I don't know why that is. From what I have heard of them, though, and the ones I did meet, they seemed to be middle class and a little uppity in their attitudes.
My mother was a beautiful woman. She had a whole lot of style, with an East Indian, Carmen McRae look, and dark, nut-brown, smooth skin. High cheekbones and Indian-like hair. Big beautiful eyes. Me and my brother Vernon looked like her. She had mink coats, diamonds; she was a very glamorous woman who was into all kinds of hats and things, and all my mother's friends seemed just as glamorous to me as she was. She always dressed to kill. I got my looks from my mother and also my love of clothes and sense of style. I guess you could say I got whatever artistic talent I have from her also.
But I didn't get along with her too well. Maybe it was because we both had strong, independent personalities. We seemed to argue all the time. I loved my mother; she was something else. She didn't even know how to cook. But, like I said, I loved her even if we weren't close. She had her mind about the way I should be doing things and I had mine. I was this way even when I was young. I guess you could say I was more like my mother than my father. Although I've got some of him in me, too.
My father settled first in Alton, Illinois, where me and my sister Dorothy were born, then moved the family to East St. Louis, on 14th and Broadway, where my father had his dental practice up over Daut's Drugstore. At first we lived upstairs behind his office, in the back.
Another thing I think about with East St. Louis is that it was there, back in 1917, that those crazy, sick white people killed all those black people in a race riot. See, St. Louis and East St. Louis were -- and still are -- big packing-house towns, towns where they slaughter cows and pigs for grocery stores and supermarkets, restaurants and everything else. They ship the cows and pigs up from Texas or from wherever else it is that they come from and then they kill them and pack them up in St. Louis and East St. Louis. That's what the East St. Louis race riot in 1917 was supposed to be about: black workers replacing white workers in the packing houses. So, the white workers got mad and went on a rampage killing all them black people. That same year black men were fighting in World War I to help the United States save the world for democracy. They sent us to war to fight and die for them over there; killed us like nothing over here. And it's still like that today. Now, ain't that a bitch. Anyway, maybe some of remembering that is in my personality and comes out in the way I look at most white people. Not all, because there are some great white people. But the way they killed all them black people back then -- just shot them down like they were out shooting pigs or stray dogs. Shot them in their houses, shot babies and women. Burned down houses with people in them and hung some black men from lampposts. Anyway, black people there who survived used to talk about it. When I was coming up in East St. Louis, black people I knew never forgot what sick white people had done to them back in 1917.
My brother Vernon was born the year the stock market crashed and all the rich white men started jumping out of them Wall Street windows. It was 1929. We had been living in East St. Louis for about two years. My older sister, Dorothy, was five. There was just three of us, Dorothy, Vernon, and me in the middle. We have always been close all our lives, my sister and my brother, even when we are arguing.
The neighborhood was very nice, with row houses, something like the ones they have in Philadelphia or Baltimore. It was a pretty little city. It's not like that anymore. But I remember it was that way back then. The neighborhood was also integrated, with Jews and Germans and Armenians and Greeks living all around us. Catercorner across the street from the house was Golden Rule's Grocery Store, owned by Jews. On one side was a filling station, with ambulances coming in all the time, sirens blasting, to fill up with gas. Next door was my father's best friend, Dr. John Eubanks, who was a physician. Dr. Eubanks was so light he almost looked white. His wife, Alma, or Josephine, I forget which, was almost white, too. She was a fine lady, yellow, like Lena Horne, with curly black, shiny hair. My mother would send me over to their house to get something and his wife would be sitting there with her legs crossed, looking finer than a motherfucker. She had great legs and she didn't mind showing them either. As a matter of fact she looked good everywhere! Anyway, Uncle Johnny -- that's what we called her husband, Dr. Eubanks -- gave me my first trumpet.
Next to the drugstore under us, and before you got to Uncle Johnny's house, was a tavern owned by John Hoskins, a black man who everybody called Uncle Johnny Hoskins. He played saxophone in the back of his tavern. All the old-timers in the neighborhood went there to drink, talk, and listen to music. When I got older, I played there once or twice. Then there was a restaurant owned by a black man named Thigpen down the block. He sold good soul food; the place was real nice. His daughter Leticia and my sister, Dorothy, were good friends. Next to the restaurant was a German lady who owned a dry goods store. This was all on Broadway going toward the Mississippi River. And there was the Deluxe Theatre, a neighborhood movie theater on 15th going toward Bond Street, away from the river. All along 15th paralleling the river toward Bond were all kinds of stores and places like that owned by blacks, or Jews, or Germans, or Greeks, or Armenians, who had most of the cleaning places.
Over on 16th and Broadway this Greek family owned a fish market and made the best jack salmon sandwiches in East St. Louis. I was friends with the son of the guy who owned it. His name was Leo. Everytime I'd see him, as we got bigger, we'd wrestle. We were about six. But he died when the house he lived in burned down. I remember them bringing him out on a stretcher with his skin all peeling off. He was burnt like a hot dog when you fry it. It was grotesque, horrible-looking shit, man. Later, when somebody asked me about that and whether Leo said anything to me when they brought him out, I remember saying, "He didn't say, 'Hello, Miles, how you doing, let's wrestle,' or nothing like that." Anyway, that was shocking to me because we were both around the same age, though I think he was a little older. He was a nice little cat. I used to have a lot of fun with him.
The first school I went to was John Robinson. It was located on 15th and Bond. Dorothy, my sister, went one year at a Catholic school, then transferred over to John Robinson, too. I met my first best friend in the first grade there. His name was Millard Curtis, and for years after we met we went almost everywhere together. We were the same age. I had other good friends in East St. Louis later, as I got more into music -- musician friends -- because Millard didn't play music. But I knew him the longest and we did so many things together that we were almost like brothers.
I'm pretty sure Millard came to my sixth birthday party. I remember this birthday party because my boys, guys I was hanging out with at the time, said to me, let's go hang out on the runway -- the wooden scaffolding that runs across sign boards, them billboards that have them ads all pasted over them. We would go and climb up on them, sit on the scaffolds with our feet dangling down in the air and eat crackers and potted ham. Anyway, my boys told me we might as well go do this because later I was having a birthday party, so wasn't none of them going to school that day. See, it was supposed to be a surprise birthday party, but all of them knew it and told me all about what was happening. Anyway, I think I was six; I could have been seven. I remember this cute little girl named Velma Brooks being at the party. Her and a whole lot of other pretty little girls with short dresses, like miniskirts, on. I don't remember any little white girls and boys being there; there might have been some -- maybe Leo before he died and his sister, I don't know -- but I don't remember any being there.
The real reason I remember that party was because I got my first kiss from a little girl there. I kissed all the little girls, but I remember kissing Velma Brooks the longest. Man, was she cute. But then my sister, Dorothy, tried to ruin everything by running and telling my mother that I was in there kissing all over Velma Brooks. My sister did this to me all my life; she was always telling on me or my brother Vernon about something. After my mother told my father to go in there and stop me from kissing on Velma, he said, "If he was kissing on a boy like Junior Quinn, now that would be something to tell. But kissing on Velma Brooks ain't nothing to tell; that's what the boy supposed to be doing. So as long as it ain't Junior Quinn he's kissing on, then everything's cool."
My sister left in a huff with her mouth stuck out, saying over her shoulder, "Well, he's in there kissing on her and somebody ought to stop him before he give her a baby." Later, my mother told me that I had been a bad boy kissing all over Velma and that I shouldn't do that and if she had it to do all over again that she wouldn't have had no son like me who was so bad. Then she slapped the shit out of me.
I never forgot that day. At that age, I used to remember feeling that nobody liked me, because they always seemed to be whipping on me for something, but they never beat on my brother Vernon. I mean, his feet hardly ever touched the floor. He was like a little black doll for my sister and my mother and everybody else. They spoiled the shit out of him. Every time Dorothy had her friends over, they would bathe him, comb his hair, and dress him up just like he was a little baby girl doll.
Before I was into music I was really into sports -- baseball, football, basketball, swimming, and boxing. I was a small, skinny kid, with the skinniest legs anybody ever had -- my legs stayed skinny until today. But I loved sports so much I couldn't be intimidated or scared by people bigger than me. I ain't never been the scaredy type, never was. And if I liked someone I liked them, no matter what. But if I didn't like you, I didn't like you. I don't know why that is but that's the way I am. That's the way I've always been. For me, it's always been a vibe thing, a spiritual thing, whether I like someone or not. Like people say that I'm arrogant, but I've always been the way I am; I haven't changed that much.
Anyway, Millard and I would always be looking to find a game of football or baseball to play. We'd play a game called Indian ball, too, which was a kind of baseball game played with three or four guys to a team. If we weren't playing this, we were playing regular baseball on some vacant lot or baseball diamond. I played shortstop and could play my ass off. I could really field the ball and I was a pretty good hitter, though I didn't hit too many home runs because of my small size. But man, I loved baseball, and swimming and football and boxing.
I remember we used to play tackle football on the little plots of grass in between the sidewalk and the curb. This was on 14th Street in front of Tilford Brooks's house, who later got a Ph.D. in music and lives in St. Louis today. Then we'd go over and play in front of Millard's house. Man, we'd be getting tackled and falling on our heads and busting them wide open and bleeding like butchered hogs. Scarring up our legs and giving our mothers fits. But it was fun, man, it was a lot of fun.
I liked to swim, I loved to box. Even today those are the favorite sports I like to do. I would swim every chance I got then, and I swim every chance I get now. But boxing was and is my heart. I just love it. I can't explain why. Man, I would listen to all of Joe Louis's fights like everybody else. We'd be all crowded around the radio waiting to hear the announcer describe Joe knocking some motherfucker out. And when he did, the whole goddamn black community of East St. Louis would go crazy, celebrate in the streets, drinking and dancing and making a lot of noise. But it was joyful noise. And they did the same thing -- but not as loud -- when Henry Armstrong won, because he was from across the river, from St. Louis, so that made him a black local, a hometown hero. But Joe Louis was the man.
Even though I loved boxing, I didn't get into fights when I was young. We would body punch, you know, hit each other in the chest, but nothing more serious than that. We were just like every other normal bunch of kids, growing up and having fun.
But there were gangs all around East St. Louis, bad gangs like the Termites. And they had some real bad ones over in St. Louis. East St. Louis was a rough place to grow up in, because you had a lot of cats, black and white, who didn't take no shit off nobody. I wasn't into fighting until I got to be a teenager. I wasn't into no gangs when I was growing up because I was into music so much. I even stopped playing sports because of music. Now, don't get me wrong, I used to fight with motherfuckers and shit, especially when they called me Buckwheat, because I was little, skinny and dark. I didn't like that name, so if anybody called me that they had to fight. I didn't like the name Buckwheat because I didn't like what the name meant, what it represented, that stupid Our Gang bullshit image white people had about black people. I knew I wasn't like that, that I came from people who were somebodies and that whenever anybody called me by that name they were trying to make fun of me. I knew even way back then that you've got to fight to protect who you are. So, I'd fight a lot. But I never was in no gangs. And I don't think I'm arrogant, I think I'm confident of myself. Know what I want, always have known what I wanted for as long as I can remember. I can't be intimidated. But back then, when I was growing up, everybody seemed to like me, even though I didn't talk too much; I still don't like to talk too much now.
It was even tough in the schools as well as out in the streets. They had an all-white school up the street from where I lived, Irving School, I think it was called, that was clean as a whistle. But couldn't no black kids go there; we had to go past it to get to our school. We had good teachers, like the Turner sisters at John Robinson where I went. They were the great-granddaughters of Nat Turner and they were race-conscious just like he was. They taught us to have pride in ourselves. The teachers were good, but the black schools were all fucked up, with running toilets and things like that. They stunk like a motherfucker, man, like open cesspools in Africa where poor people live. I mean that shit made me not want to eat while I was going to elementary school, made me sick to my stomach then -- and now whenever I think about it. They treated us black kids like we was just a bunch of cattle. Some people I went to school with say it wasn't this bad, but that's the way I remember it.
That's why I used to love to go to my grandfather's place in Arkansas. Down there out in the fields, man, you could walk with your shoes off and you wouldn't step into no pile of shit and get it all running and sticky and funky all over your feet, like in elementary school.
My mother was always -- it seems now -- putting me, my brother, and my sister on trains when we were real young to go visit my grandfather. She pinned name tags on us, gave us boxes of chicken, and put us on the train. And man, that chicken was gone soon as the train left the station. Then we'd starve all the way to wherever we were going. We always ate up the chicken too fast. Never did stop doing that. Never did learn to eat that chicken slowly. It was so good we couldn't wait. We'd be crying all the way to my grandfather's house, hungry and mad. Soon as we got to his place, I always wanted to stay. My grandfather gave me my first horse.
He had a fish farm down in Arkansas. We would catch fish all day long, buckets of them, tubs of them. Man, we ate fried fish all day long, and talk about good? Shit, that fish was a motherfucker. So, we'd run around all day. Ride horses. Go to bed early. Get up early. And do the same thing all over again. Man, it was fun being on my grandfather's farm. My grandfather was about six feet tall, brown-skinned with big eyes; looked something like my father, only taller. My grandmother's name was Ivy, and we called her Miss Ivy.
I remember getting into all kinds of things there you couldn't get into back in a town like East St. Louis. One time me and my Uncle Ed, my father's youngest brother, who was a year younger than me, went out one morning busting up nearly all of Grandpa's watermelons. We went from one watermelon patch to another and busted up every watermelon we could find. We took the heart, the center, out of them, ate some, but mostly left all the rest behind. I think I was ten and he was nine. Later, back in the house, we laid up laughing like two motherfuckers. When Grandpa found out, he told me, "You can't ride your horse for a week." That cured me forever of busting up watermelons. Like my father, my grandfather was something else, didn't take no shit off no one.
When I was about nine or ten I got me a paper route and started delivering papers on weekends to make some extra money. Not that I needed it, because my father by now was making a whole lot of money. I just wanted to make my own money and not have to ask my parents for anything. I've always been like that, always been independent, always wanted to make it on my own. I didn't make much, maybe sixty-five cents a week, but it was mine. I could buy me some candy. I kept a pocketful of candy and a pocketful of marbles. I would trade candy for marbles and marbles for candy, soda, and chewing gum. Somehow I learned back then that you've got to make deals -- and I don't really remember who I learned it from, but it could have been from my father. In the middle of the Depression, I remember a lot of people were hungry and poor. But not my family, because my father was taking care of the money side.
I used to deliver papers to the best barbecue man in East St. Louis, old man Piggease. His place was located around 15th and Broadway, where they had all the rest of those businesses. Mr. Piggease had the best barbecue in town because he'd get the fresh meat from them packing houses in St. Louis and East St. Louis. His barbecue sauce was just outta sight. Man, that shit was so good I can taste it now. Nobody made barbecue sauce like Mr. Piggease, nobody, then or now. Nobody knew how he made his sauce, nobody knew what he put in it. He never told nobody. Then, he made this dip for the bread and that was a motherfucker, too! Plus fish sandwiches that were outta sight. His jack salmon sandwiches eventually got as good as my friend Leo's father's.
Mr. Piggease didn't have nothing but a shack that he sold his barbecue out of. Only about ten people could get in there at any one time. He had his barbecue grill laid with bricks, made it himself. He also built the chimney and you could smell that charcoal smoke all over 15th Street. So everybody got themselves a sandwich or one of those bad small ends of barbecue before the day was out. The stuff was ready about six o'clock; he had it all cooked and done. I'd be there at six on the dot, giving him his paper, the Chicago Defender or the Pittsburgh Courier, both black newspapers. I'd give him both of those papers and he'd give me two pig snouts; pig snouts cost fifteen cents apiece. But because Mr. Piggease liked me, thought I was smart, he'd let me slide for the dime and sometimes throw in an extra pig snout, or pig ear sandwich -- that's where he got his nickname "Mr. Pig Ears" -- or rib tip, whatever he felt like giving me that day. Sometimes he'd throw in a piece of sweet potato pie or candied yams and a drink of milk. So, he put that shit on paper plates, which would absorb all that fucking great flavor, in between slices of that funky, tasty bread he got from the bakery. Then, he'd wrap it all up in newspapers, yesterday's newspapers. Man, that was good. Ten cents for a jack salmon, fifteen cents for a snout. So I'd get my shit and sit down and talk to him for a while, with him behind the counter, dealing with everybody. I learned a lot from Mr. Piggease, but mainly he taught me -- along with my father -- to avoid unnecessary bullshit.
But I learned the most from my father. He was something else. He was a good-looking guy, about my height but a little bit on the plump side. As he got older, he began to lose his hair -- which fucked with his head a little bit, in my opinion. He was a well-bred man, liked nice things, clothes and cars, just like my mother.
My father was pro-black, very pro-black. Back in those days someone like him was called a "race man." He was definitely not an "Uncle Tom." Some of his African classmates at Lincoln University, like Nkrumah of Ghana, became presidents of their countries, or high up in their country's governments. And so my father had these connections over in Africa. He liked Marcus Garvey more than the politics of the NAACP. He felt that Garvey was good for the black race, because he got all those black people together back in the 1920s. My father thought that was important and hated the way people like William Pickens of the NAACP thought and talked about Garvey. Pickens was a relative, an uncle, I think, of my mother's, and sometimes when he was passing through St. Louis he would call her up and come over. At the time I think he was high up in the NAACP, a secretary or something. Anyway, I remember him calling up to come by one time and when my mother told my father, he said, "Fuck William Pickens, because the son of a bitch never did like Marcus Garvey and Marcus Garvey didn't do anything other than get all those black people together to do something for themselves, and that's the most black people have ever been together in this country. And this cocksucker is opposed to him. So fuck the motherfucker, fuck him and all his stupid ideas."
My mother was different; she was all for the uplifting of the black race, but she saw it like somebody in the NAACP would see it. She thought that my father was too radical, especially later when he started getting into politics. If I got my sense of style and clothes from my mother, I think I got most of my attitude, my sense of who I was, my confidence and race pride from my father. Not that my mother wasn't a very proud person, she was. But most of it I picked up from my father, the way I looked at certain things.
My father didn't take no shit off nobody. I remember one time when this white man came by his office for something. He was the one who sold my father gold and stuff. Anyway, my father's office was real crowded when this white man comes in. Now, my father had a sign behind the reception desk that read, "Do Not Disturb," which he used when he was working on somebody's mouth. The sign was up, but the white man, after waiting about a half an hour, says to me -- I was about fourteen or fifteen, working the receptionist's desk that day -- "I can't wait any longer, I'm going on in." I say to him, "The sign says 'Do Not Disturb,' can't you see what the sign says?" The man just ignores me and goes on in to my father's office where he does the teeth. Now, the office is full of black people who know my father don't tolerate that kind of shit. So, they just kind of smile and lay back, to see what was going to happen. No sooner did the gold man get into my father's office when I hear my father say to him, "What the fuck are you doing in here? Can't you read, motherfucker? You dumb white motherfucker! Get the fuck on out of here!" The white man came on out of there quick, looking at me like I was crazy or something. So I told the motherfucker as he was going out the door, "I told you not to go in there, stupid." That was the first time I ever cussed a white man who was older than me.
Another time my father went looking for a white man who had chased me and called me a nigger. He went looking for him with a loaded shotgun. He didn't find him, but I hate to think of what would have happened if he had. My father was something. He was a strong motherfucker, but he was weird in the way he looked at things, too. Like he wouldn't cross certain bridges going from East St. Louis to St. Louis because he said he knew who built them, said they were thieves and that they probably didn't build the bridges very strong because they were likely cheating on the money and the building materials. He actually believed that them bridges would fall into the Mississippi one day. And to the day he died he believed this was so and was always puzzled by the fact that they never did fall. He wasn't perfect. But he was a proud man and was probably way ahead of his time for a black man. Shit, he even liked to play golf way back then. I used to caddy for him over on the golf course in Forest Park in St. Louis.
He was one of the pillars of the black community in East St. Louis, because he was a doctor and got into politics. Him and Dr. Eubanks, his best friend, and a few other prominent black men. My father carried a lot of weight and influence in East St. Louis while I was growing up. So some of his importance was carried over to his kids and that's probably why a lot of people -- black people -- in East St. Louis treated my brother and sister and me as if we were kind of special. Now, they didn't kiss our asses or nothing like that. But they did treat us most times like we were different. They expected us to make something important of ourselves. I guess this kind of special treatment helped us have a positive attitude about ourselves. This kind of thing is important for black people, especially young black people -- who mostly hear all kinds of negative things about themselves.
My father was a strict man when it came to discipline. He made us all aware that we had to keep our shit together. I think I got my bad temper from him. But he never, ever whipped me. The maddest he ever got with me was once when I was about nine or ten and he had bought me a bike, I think my first bike. So me being mischievous, I used to ride the bike off the stairs. We were still living on 15th and Broadway, and hadn't yet moved to the house at 17th and Kansas. Anyway, I rode my bike down these real high stairs and had a curtain rod in my mouth. I was going so fast that I couldn't stop and ran into the front door of the garage behind our house. The curtain rod jammed back into my mouth and busted it wide open. Well, when he found out what had happened he got so mad I thought he was going to kill me.
Another time that he got very mad with me was when I set fire to the shed, or the garage, and almost burned the house down. He didn't say nothing, but if looks could kill I would have been dead. Then later when I got older and thought I knew how to drive, I backed the car all the way across the street and ran it into a telephone pole. Some of my friends had been teaching me how to drive, but my father wouldn't let me practice, because I didn't have a license. And me being like I was -- headstrong -- I wanted to see if I could drive. When he found out about my crashing the car, he didn't do nothing but shake his head.
The funniest thing I can remember happening when I did something wrong was when he took me over to St. Louis and bought me all of these clothes. I think I was about eleven or twelve and I was just getting into clothes. Anyway, it's Easter time and my father wants me and my sister and brother to look good in church. So he takes me over to St. Louis and buys me a pleated, gray double-breasted suit; some Thom McAn boots; a yellow, striped shirt; a hip beanie cap; and a leather change purse that he put thirty pennies in. Now I know I'm clean, right?
When we get back home my father goes upstairs to get something from his office. I got these thirty pennies burning a hole in the new change purse he just bought me. Now, you know I've just got to spend this money -- hip and clean as I am, right? So I go into Daut's Drugstore and tell Mr. Dominic, the owner, to give me twenty-five cents' worth of them juicy chocolate soldiers -- my favorite candy at that time. You could get three chocolate candy soldiers for a penny, so he sells me seventy-five of them. Now I got my big bag of candy, and I'm standing out in front of my father's office, sharp as a tack, and I'm eating the candy soldiers faster than nobody's business. I ate so many of them I got sick and just started spitting them out. My sister, Dorothy, sees me and thinks I'm spitting up blood, and runs and tells my father. So he comes downstairs and says, "Dewey, what are you doing? This is my place of business. People come to see me here and they'll think that I done killed somebody, think all this chocolate is dried-up blood, so get upstairs."
Another time around Easter, the next year, I think it was, my father bought me an outfit to go to church, a blue suit with short pants and socks. Along the way while me and my sister was going there, I saw some of my boys playing in the old factory house. They asked me to join them and I told my sister that I'd catch up with her. I went on in that factory house and all of a sudden it's so dark in there I can't see. I trip, fall, and I'm crawling around. I fall into this puddle of dirty water with my good new clothes on. And it's Easter. You know how I felt. So, I didn't go to church. I just went back home and my father didn't do anything. But he did tell me that if I so much as "ever stumble again like that, and you're not supposed to stumble, I'm going to kick your motherfucking ass." So that stopped me from doing really silly shit like that again. He said, "That could have been acid or anything you fell in. You could have been dead, going in a strange dark place like that. So don't you ever do it again." And I didn't.
Because it wasn't so much the clothes he was concerned about. It didn't bother him that I ruined them. It was me he was worried about. I never forgot that, that he was only concerned about me. So we always got along well. He was always behind me 100 percent, whatever I wanted to do, and I believe that his confidence in me made me have confidence in myself.
But my mother would whip the shit out of me at the drop of a hat. She was into whipping so much that one time, when she couldn't do it because she was sick or something, she told my father to do it. He took me into a room, closed the door, and told me to scream like he was beating me. "Make some noise, like you're getting beat," I remember him saying. And then me screaming at the top of my lungs and him sitting there looking at me all steely-eyed. That was some funny shit, man. But now that I think about it, I would have almost preferred his whipping me to the way he used to look right through me like I was nothing. When he did that he made me feel like I was nothing. That feeling was worse than a whipping could ever have been.
My mother and father never did get along well. They saw most things through different eyes. They had been at each other's throats since I was a little kid. The only thing I ever saw that really connected them up was later when I got my bad heroin habit. When that happened, they seemed to forget their differences and pulled together to try to save me. Other than that time, they always seemed to me to be fighting like cats and dogs.
I remember my mother picking up things and throwing them at my father and saying all kinds of off-the-wall, nasty things to him. Sometimes he would get so mad that he'd also pick up something and throw it at her, whatever he could get his hands on -- a radio, the dinner bell, anything. And she'd be screaming, "You're trying to kill me, Dewey!" I remember one time after an argument my father had gone outside to cool himself out. When he came back my mother wouldn't open the door and let him back in -- he had forgotten his key. He was standing out there screaming for her to open the door, and she wouldn't. It was one of those glass doors that you could see through. He got so mad with her he punched her right in the mouth through the glass. He knocked a couple of teeth right out of her mouth. They were best apart, but they gave each other grief until they finally got divorced.
I think part of their problem was that they had different temperaments. But it wasn't only that. They developed a typical doctor-wife relationship in that he was seldom ever at home. It didn't bother us kids too much because we were always doing something. But I think it bothered her a lot. And then when he got into politics he was there even less. Plus, they always seemed to be arguing about money, even though my father was considered wealthy. At least, he was for a black man.
I remember when he ran for State Representative of Illinois. He was running because he wanted to put a fire department out where he had his farm in Millstadt. Some white people wanted to give him money not to run, but he ran anyway and lost. My mother got on him for not taking the money. She said that they could have used that money to go on a vacation or something. Plus, she was mad at him later for losing most of his fortune gambling; my father lost over a million dollars gambling like he did. And she never did like all that radical political shit my father was into. But after they broke up she told me later that if she had it to do all over again, she would have treated my father differently. But by then, it was way too late.
None of our parents' problems seemed to affect the fun that me, my sister, and my brother were having, although looking back I guess it really did. It had to affect us somehow, although I don't really know how. I just thought it was a drag to watch them fighting all the time. Like I said, my mother and I didn't get along too well and so I guess I blamed her for all the problems. I know my father's sister, Corrine, blamed her; she never did like my mother.
My Aunt Corrine had a lot of money and shit, but everybody thought she was weirder than a motherfucker. I did too. But they were close, my father and his sister. And even though she was against my father marrying my mother, people said that when they got married my aunt said, "Lord, help that poor woman. Because she don't know the trouble she's getting into."
Aunt Corrine was a doctor of metaphysics or something like that. She had her office right next to my father's. There was a sign out in front saying "Dr. Corrine, Reader, Healer," with an open palm facing the viewer. She told people's fortunes. She'd be in her office lighting all them candles and shit and smoking them cigarettes. Man, she'd be up in her office behind all those clouds of smoke, talking weird shit. People were scared of her; some thought she was a witch, or some kind of voodoo queen. She liked me. But she must have thought that I was weird, because as soon as I walked in her office she started lighting those candles and smoking cigarettes. Ain't that a bitch; she thought I was weird.
All of us kids -- my brother and my sister and me -- liked artistic things when we were young, especially Vernon and me, but Dorothy, too. When I was growing up -- before I really got into music -- me and Dorothy and Vernon used to have our own talent shows. We were still living on 15th and Broadway when we started. I think I was about nine or ten. Anyway, I was just beginning to play trumpet, just getting into it. As I said, Uncle Johnny had given it to me. So, I would play trumpet -- as much as I could play back then -- and Dorothy would play piano. Vernon would dance. We had a lot of fun. Dorothy could play a few church songs. But other than that, she couldn't play. Mostly we would do little skits -- funny shit, you know -- talent shows with me being the judge. Man, I was hard on them. Vernon could always sing, draw, and dance. So, he'd be singing and Dorothy would be dancing. By this time my mother was sending her to dancing school. Anyway, that's the kind of shit we was doing. But as I got older, I got more serious, especially about my playing music.
The first time I really paid attention to music was when I used to listen to a radio show called "Harlem Rhythms." I was about seven or eight. The show used to come on at fifteen minutes to nine every day, so I was late to school a lot because I was listening to that program. But I had to hear that show, man, had to. Most of the time they played black bands, but sometimes when they had a white band on I would cut it off, unless the musician was Harry James or Bobby Hackett. But that program was really great. It had all them great black bands on there and I remember being fascinated by hearing the records of Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and a whole bunch of other bad motherfuckers on that program. Then when I was nine or ten I started taking some private music lessons.
But before the lessons, I also remember how the music used to sound down there in Arkansas, when I was visiting my grandfather, especially at the Saturday night church. Man, that shit was a motherfucker. I guess I was about six or seven. We'd be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. Anyway, we'd be on the side of the road -- whoever I was with, one of my uncles or my cousin James -- and I remember somebody would be playing a guitar the way B. B. King plays. And I remember a man and a woman singing and talking about getting down! Shit, that music was something, especially that woman singing. But I think that kind of stuff stayed with me, you know what I mean? That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting. So when I started taking music lessons I might have already had some idea of what I wanted my music to sound like.
Music is a funny thing when you really come to think about it. Because it's hard to pinpoint where it all began for me. But I think some of it had to have started on that Arkansas road and some on that "Harlem Rhythms" radio show. When I got into music I went all the way into music; I didn't have no time after that for nothing else.
Copyright © 1989 by Miles Davis