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Another Edition of Jazz Gems

An overview of Miles Davis’s music from 1947 – 1961.
Broadcast on CHFR Radio – 96.5FM, Hornby Island on March 16th, 2014

If I Were A Bell

The centre of Bristol is a maze of small streets crammed into an area that can be roamed about on foot, all our requirements conveniently located in a circle around our favourite pub – The Naval Volunteer. A block to the north was Brown’s music shop where we congregated on Saturday mornings, hopeful that a new Blue Note, Riverside or Savoy record – the three labels that released music of our heroes – had found its way into their sparsely filled bins. The store specialised in musical instruments, the record department, located at the very back of the store, an afterthought.






One Saturday morning in the summer of 1958 in that dusty back room of Brown’s we were bubbling over with excitement, a Prestige record of our hero – Miles Davis – was in the latest shipment. There were too many of us anxiously wanting to relish this rare treat, the tiny listening booth, scarcely large enough to accomodate three jazz fans, so the doors of the booth were opened wide, an unusual occurrence that the store owners, who were not jazz fans, frowned on, and out from the tiny tinny speakers came the beautiful sounds of “If I Were A Bell” from the recording “Relaxin’”, performed by the man himself, tenorist John Coltrane, and a rhythm section of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on drums – the Miles Davis Quintet. I was twenty years of age and ready to be amazed.

My neighbourhood pub was the Plume of Feathers. The Plume, as it was referred to by locals, was located in the dead-ended Paul Street, a street that apart from our pub was filled end to end with narrow cramped terraced houses. On those long-ago evenings, damp and dreary, this was our refuge, its glass-windowed double-entrance doors etched with its name and a simple replication of the plume of feathers, welcoming us into the intimate, snug, one roomed bar. On the left was the always blazing fire, above which hung an embossed oval mirror, scattered about were a few wooden round tables and chairs, and directly in front was the bar behind which the publicans, Harry, a wiry little fellow or his amply proportioned wife Florence, could be relied on to pull a good pint of bitter. There were rarely more than a dozen customers, certainly not enough to support Harry and Flo’s family, requiring that Harry supplement his income with his trade as a mechanic. Alongside the pub was an archwayed stone passageway that lead to his workshop out back where he plied his trade, fixing cars that were past their prime.

Among the pub’s diverse clientele could be found the nurses, doctors, students and professors from the nearby hospital and university, the local bookie always ready to accept a bet on your chosen horse in tomorrow’s 3:30 at Epson Downs, the village shopkeepers and just folks who lived along the street. And happily a jazz fan by the name of Stan.


We both loved Dizzy G, Monk, Mingus, Bird and all, but the fanatical focus of our dreams was directed to Miles Davis. Our knowledge of him, at this point in our lives, was based mostly on four recordings from the Prestige label, all from 1956, featuring that most marvellous band: Miles, Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. In fact those four recordings (Workin’ – Cookin’ – Steamin’ – Relaxin’) provided us with our yardstick by which we judged our affinity with everything else. Not just the music consumed us, but the whole cool persona of what these five players represented in our inexperienced minds.

Me and Stan went everywhere together, working the door Monday nights at the White Swan down in Stokes Croft – inept minders, taking tickets, unloading drums from the van, anything to be close to the music. Once, after a gig, invited to a student party, we’d taken a copy of Fontessa by the MJQ, thinking that the quiet sophistication of “Versailles”, “Angel Eyes”, “Over the Rainbow”, “Bluesology”… would be perfect, snuggle into some off-duty nurse, get set-up for the night, a couple of Bennies from the medicine cabinet. “Take that shit off”… is the immediate response, “let’s dance”.

In the autumn of 1960 it was announced that the Miles Davis Quintet would tour Britain, and on Friday the 30th of September a concert was scheduled at the Colston Hall in Bristol. We talked of nothing else except this forthcoming night of joy. I cannot remember another musical event in the years since, that has generated so much genuine excitement.

Miles with Sonny Stitt, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb up on the stage; the sorcerer impeccably attired, poised, raised his green anodized trumpet to his lips – “If I Were A Bell”, and Stan unable to contain himself, reaches forward to touch the Prince of Darkness’ trouser cuff. “Out you go sonny”, quick like that, the usher not digging the moment. Likely not a jazz fan, just a uniformed flunky working for minimum wage.

So many times Miles was part of our lives, hipness personified. Super cool y’know, his horn a delicacy, so light, a man walking on eggshells; and so handsome, his threads, man, to die for. He was the epitome of sartorial splendour, prompting not one, but two eminent magazines to recognise his style. George Frazier – not the boxer, although that would have been pertinent given Miles’ predilection for the sport – was a debonair magazine writer and jazz critic who wrote in an Esquire article titled “The Art Of Wearing Clothes”, that Miles Davis – the thirty-four year-old genius of “progressive jazz” trumpet is an individualist who favors skin-tight trousers, Italian-cut jackets. His seersucker coats, which have side vents, are custom made. His tailor: Emsley of New York, charges $185 a suit. And that’s not all, man, dig, Gentleman’s Quarterly named him Best Dressed Man of the year. Wearing clothing that reflects future fashion trends observed another. Cool man, dig, and you know we were soon wearing those Italian jobs: narrow lapelled three button high jackets, stovepipe trousers, slim jim ties poking out from a button-down collar, and elastic-sided boots. Birth of our cool man! Dig!

Miles Davis @ Newport – bill smith
Bill Smith – photographer unknown

Paintings on my wall:
Jazz Cat Alley III – Will Rafuse
Miles Davis – Vass Eva