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“The New Duke Ellington of Our Time”: Miles Davis on Prince

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In his famed autobiography, Miles Davis is often sparing in his praise. But the jazz trumpeter can’t speak highly enough of Prince, whose music he encountered after emerging from the period of seclusion that is fictionalized in the film Miles Ahead. “He can be the new Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it,” Davis and co-author Quincy Troupe wrote in Miles: The Autobiography, published in 1990. As he began to play again in the ’80s, Davis’s decisions were largely shaped by listening to Prince. He not only admired and studied Prince but recognized him as the face of popular music to come. And even though he’d witnessed only the first period of Prince’s career, Davis nailed exactly what made him so singular. “His shit was the most exciting music I was hearing in 1982,” Davis writes. “Here was someone who was doing something different, so I decided to keep an eye on him.”

They were labelmates at Warner Bros., and at some point Davis learned that he was one of Prince’s musical heroes. “I was happy and honored that he looked at me in that way,” Davis notes. The men played together just once, according to Miles: Prince’s New Year’s 1988 celebration at the artist’s Paisley Park compound, where they performed “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. But Miles’s curiosity led him to devote several pages of the autobiography to the study of Prince.

For one thing, Davis immediately saw Prince’s musical lineage. “Prince is from the school of James Brown, and I love James Brown because of all the great rhythms he plays,” he wrote. “But Prince got some Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix and Sly in him, also, even Little Richard. He’s a mixture of all those guys and Duke Ellington.”

Davis, who experimented with different musical styles and media throughout his career, was profoundly affected by Prince’s artistic range. “Prince does so many things, it’s almost like he can do it all; write and sing and produce and play music, act in films, produce and direct them, and both him and Michael [Jackson] can really dance. … They are both motherfuckers, but I like Prince a little better as an all-around musical force. Plus he plays his ass off as well as sings and writes.”

Davis also delves into the particulars of Prince’s music. He points to similarities across musical idioms, like how Sonny Rollins’s tenor sax phrasing (which he calls “pecking”) could be likened to Prince’s vocal delivery. Elsewhere, he anticipates the shift in pop from tinny, high-register production to a fuller bass sound, thanks to Prince’s use of keyboards doubling the electric bass’s lines down low. “Today, Prince might be bringing that low sound back, because he has that double bass.” (Unfortunately, the autobiography does not include Davis’s thoughts on that most striking of bass-less pop songs, Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”)

Miles and Prince grew close over the final decade of Davis’s life. Prince almost appeared on Davis’s 1986 record Tutu, and the two men talked about collaborating on a full album and maybe even taking their bands out on tour together. Now with both of these iconoclasts gone, we can only imagine what that collaboration would’ve sounded like. But at least we’re left with Miles’s ultimate tribute: “He comes in on the beat and plays on top of the beat. I think when Prince makes love he hears drums instead of Ravel.”

Read more from Slate on Prince.