Jon Stevens was introduced to the music of Miles Davis when he was a teenager and became an instant fan. A musician himself, Jon was a professional jazz drummer, playing jazz clubs and concerts in New York and Miami starting at the age of fourteen. Below are some never before seen photographs he took of Miles Davis.
How did you meet Miles Davis?
I met Miles through Quincy Troupe… Quincy brought me in to photograph Miles and him for the book they were writing together, a biography of Miles Davis entitled “Miles” which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1990. It made The New York Times Best Seller List.
And this was after you had worked with Quincy Troupe on the Harlem stage show “Nyam?”
Yes.Quincy had appreciated my work on that and brought me in to photograph them for the book.Once we finished the photographs for the book, Miles asked me, did I want to photograph him by himself? I had like 40 minutes, it was great.
And these are unpublished photographs?
All except this one (“Miles Smiled”), that one’s in the book. Quincy couldn’t believe I got him to smile, he never smiles in photographs. All cultural icons have a stock pose, his was this one with the finger over his mouth (as seen in “Miles Davis 2”). As soon as he put his finger to his lips, I whispered to him, “In a Silent Way,” the name of one of his albums. This made him laugh, because he knew I knew and appreciated his work. That’s how I got the smile.
Let’s start with the first photo (“Miles Smiled!”), tell me about it. And about the painting in the background.
Ok. All the photographs were taken at Miles’ apartment in the Essex house in New York, he was working on this painting, it was interesting, his paints were on his desk, his red, metal trumpet was on his desk, his attaché case from Africa was leaning against it.And a bunch of bananas.
You remember the bananas?
They’re there, in the next photograph (“Miles Davis 2”).
So that painting in the background of the first 2 photos, Miles painted that?
Yes, the paintings you see in this sequence of photographs… Miles took me on a tour of not only of his paintings, but also some painting by one of his wives, Cicely Tyson. But these are all Miles’.
Wow, lucky you.
Yes… and you can see in this picture here (“Miles Smiled!”)… Miles was a big fashion aficionado throughout his career…When I went to photograph him, knowing that, I wore my purple leather blazer and turquoise bolo tie… when Miles first came out he was wearing y’know, just boring black, but when he saw me he went and changed into this silver paisley outfit –
He wanted to impress you?
Well I don’t know about that… yeah, maybe. He appreciated fashion.
Let’s talk about the inflatable jacket. Was it his?
Oh yes. I like this first photo (“Miles Inflating Jacket”), look at his hands, his hands are in the same position like he’s playing the trumpet.
And the next one?
Now this photograph (“Miles Inflatable Jacket”), the Art Director for the autobiography saw it, he said, ‘Oh I wish we could use it on the cover of the book, but we already paid the other photographer!’ (laughs)
I bet you wished they would’ve used it, too.
Yes! Oh well. (smiles)
This painting in “Miles Davis 6,” he painted that, too?
Oh yes. It’s interesting, Miles was known as the Picasso of sound, and there was this painting in the style of Picasso, I had to photograph it, I loved the painting… At one point Miles was admiring my jacket, he asked me, “Can I try it on?’… And he did, Miles Davis was wearing my jacket, what a thrill!So then I asked him do you want to trade the jacket for the painting?
What did he say?
(raspy voice:)‘No man.’ (laughing) This is how he spoke.
This one (“Miles in Warhol Vision”), tell me about that.
When Miles came out in that inflatable jacket, after the shoot with Quincy, I took that photo.And… I don’t know what happened, when I was printing, I must have pressed a button, that’s how it came out of the printer.I don’t know how it happened.
It was an accident?
Yes, but look at it, it’s so right.It’s how Warhol would have painted him.
A happy accident.
So this photograph here (“Miles Davis 9”), where he and Quincy are touching each others’ heads, there must be a story there.
Yes, Miles was a boxer, of course he was, what else would he be?Miles had an aversion to having his head touched, I don’t where it came from.In Bali, in SouthEast Asia, you never touched anyone’s head like that... it’s disrespectful… so I don’t know, maybe it’s that, or maybe because he was a boxer. Now Quincy is a big man, like 6’5” … I think he was trying to get a reaction from Miles.That’s why he did it.
But look, his hand is just hovering there, he’s not actually touching him.
I never noticed that. Hmmm.
Maybe he was afraid.
And this one (Miles Davis 8)?The story behind this picture, where Miles has his tongue sticking out, and I’m thinking, what a silly picture, but then I realized, this tongue, this was the highest paid tongue in music!
If you got it, show it!
Exactly.That tongue… there it is! (he laughs).
And this painting (in “Miles Davis 10”), this is one of Miles’ paintings, too?If the photos are any indication, you played it very cool. They’re fabulous.
Yes, a close up of one of his paintings. When I was first brought in to photograph Miles, he was my favorite musician, what I call a pop icon, but being a documentary stills photographer, you can’t go in saying “Miles! I collected more of your records than anybody!” You can’t, you have to play it cool.
Thank you. Thank you so much.