Miles from Home

Local apathy over one of St. Louis' most noted exports, Miles Davis, isn't stopping his fans from organizing a bang-up commemoration of what would have been his 75th birthday

 Mark McGwire's cool and all that, but, really -- the Mark McGwire Highway? C'mon, man. He's not from St. Louis, until very recently he didnt own real estate in St. Louis and, when he retires, he'll return to Cali, where he belongs. Really.

The Miles Davis Highway seems more appropriate. If not that, then the St. Louis Miles Davis Arch. Or maybe the Miles Davis Memorial Mississippi River. Give the honoraria and plaques to those who truly deserve it. Thomas Eagleton won't be remembered by the masses a century from now; Miles Davis will. Give him the federal building.

You know, he's from here, you know. Yeah, sure, you know that, but you probably don't care; when out-of-towners ask you about St. Louis, they mention that arc thing, or the Cardinals, or maybe, these days, Nelly. They should be mentioning Miles Davis way up there, but they don't. Fun fact: In the most recent issue of Billboard, on the "Pop Catalog" chart, which tracks older albums still selling, the No. 2 slot is taken by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The album is the perennial top-selling jazz album on the charts, 42 years after its release on March 2, 1959.

"I'm not from St. Louis, and about all I knew about St. Louis when I came here was that the Cardinals play here, and I knew that Miles Davis came from here," says Ben Cawthra, special-projects historian with the Missouri Historical Society, "and, like a lot of people who were fans, I was taken aback by the kind of indifference to that fact here. And I don't think it's a St. Louis thing; I think it's common in other places as well that sometimes you don't recognize your own native sons, for whatever reason. I think here it's complicated by the issue of race, by the fact that East St. Louis is not considered by many to be part of St. Louis, for reasons we can speculate about. And then there's Miles Davis himself, a very controversial figure and one who didn't necessarily compromise to middle-class propriety or notions of taste and respectability, didn't mince words when it came to discussing his hometown. All those together made his image here less prominent than one might expect, given his achievements."

So we should celebrate the citywide Miles Davis 2001 celebration taking place now through the end of 2001, because it's a welcome opportunity to honor a man who changed jazz and rock and funk and has inspired musical minds all over the world. The celebration will feature an exhibit at the Historical Society boasting Davis memorabilia -- trumpets, Grammy Awards, original manuscript material written with Gil Evans, a baritone saxophone from Gerry Mulligan that was played in the 1950s Birth of the Cool era, and -- one of the strangest pieces, says Cawthra -- "an Esquire award for Best Young Trumpet Player from the 1940s, and it's an extraordinary trophy, because the trumpet player on the trophy is really a racial caricature. It's an extraordinary period piece."

Even better, says Cawthra, are the interviews and music selected to accompany the exhibit: "Really, three-dimensional artifacts are not the most important Miles Davis artifacts. Even though he was very famous for his clothes, and the trumpets are great, the most important artifact is the music, and if you're not conveying the music, you're really missing it. It becomes something outside of what Miles Davis was about. So we really thought about, 'OK, how do we get that across without making it seem really clumsy and making people sit down and listen to Kind of Blue from beginning to end, even though it's good for them and they really ought to?'" The solution: music and sound, everywhere in the show.

Another aspect is the Miles Davis Arts Festival -- set for Memorial Day Weekend on the East Side of the Mississippi -- which city officials are hoping will help revitalize downtown East St. Louis. Although it'll take more than a Davis memorial to accomplish such a task, it's a nice start. Explains Gene Dobbs Bradford, chairman of the collective Miles 2001 Festival: "One of the things we wanted to do with the Miles Davis celebration was to focus some positive attention on East St. Louis. They really take it on the chin in the press, but there are so many good people in East St. Louis and so many great stories. This is a chance for East St. Louis to really shine."

More than 20 events are planned throughout this year, the 75th anniversary of Davis' birth (including a exhibit of his paintings and drawings at the Forum for Contemporary Art). Check for dates and planned events.

A few tidbits: Roy St. John, perennial winner of the "Best Radio Personality" category in the RFT's "Best of St. Louis" poll, has resigned his morning slot on KDHX-FM, effective immediately. St. John, who is in England and therefore unavailable for comment, turned in his resignation on Feb. 23, just before leaving the country. As of press time, there was no news on a replacement for that prime slot, though there will be substitutes over the next few weeks. (Rumor has it a member of the Radar Station staff will fill in on Tuesday, March 20, leaving the techno box at home and bringing a pile of soul and rock records.) Sources say St. John had been unhappy at the station for a while, but no other details are forthcoming. It's safe to say, though, that his calm, thoughtful demeanor and exquisite taste in soul and rock & roll will be sorely missed.

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