On this day in 1991: Jazz great and one-time Detroit resident Miles Davis dies 

By: - September 28, 2021 2:42 am

Miles Davis played at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit | Ken Coleman

On Sept. 28, 1991, jazz trumpet great Miles Davis died. He was 65.

Davis was born in Alton, Ill., grew up in nearby East St. Louis, and moved to New York City to study at the famed Juilliard School in 1944. He lived in Detroit during a pivotal point in his career in 1953 and 1954 in a neighborhood where several noted political officials were raised. 

One version of the story is that friends urged Davis to move from New York, arguably the epicenter of jazz music, to Detroit in an effort to beat heroin addiction.

However, in his 1989 autobiography, Davis owned his dependence on heroin and moved back to his parents’ home in East St. Louis where he quit.

“As soon as I kicked my habit, I went to Detroit. I didn’t trust myself being in New York where everything was available,” he wrote in “The Autobiography Miles with Quincy Troupe.” “I figured that even if I did backslide a little, then the heroin that I would get in Detroit wasn’t going to be as pure as what I would get in New York.”

‘If you were in the jazz field, everybody came to the Blue Bird’

Davis moved to the Motor City in the fall of 1953 and took a room at a hotel located at West Grand Boulevard and Grand River Avenue owned by prominent Black businessman “Sunnie” Wilson.

Charles Hill, a doorman at the Blue Bird Inn, recalled an incident at the club during that period that was recounted in “So What: The Life of Miles Davis” written by John Szwed.

Miles Davis | Wikimedia Commons photo

“It was winter and Miles walked from the hotel to the Blue Bird and the joint was packed; everybody was waiting for Miles Davis. So when he came in he had on this grimy white shirt and a navy blue sweater and Clarence [Eddins] told him to go home and put on a tie,” Szwed wrote. “… So Miles went outside and took a shoelace out of his shoe and tied it up under his shirt and said: ‘How do you like this, boss?’ and went on the bandstand and played.”

Wilbur Jackson, a younger brother of Alvin Jackson, a Blue Bird Inn house band bassist, and Milt Jackson, jazz vibraphone great who was a member of the noted Modern Jazz Quartet, remembered seeing Davis at the Blue Bird Inn during that period. Davis had performed with the likes of fellow bebop artists trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker. He collaborated with noted big band leader Gil Evans and they recorded the seminal “The Birth of the Cool” album.

“It was great,” Wilbur Jackson told the Advance of seeing Davis perform. 

Jackson said he began sneaking into the Blue Bird Inn at age 18.

“I used to sit in the back and wait for my brothers,” Jackson added. “If you were in the jazz field, everybody came to the Blue Bird at that time. Nat Cole to Ella Fitzgerald. Oh man!”

Wilbur Jackson | Ken Coleman photo

Jackson said that Davis was an easygoing guy and not the abrasive personality that some have described him over the years. His family had Davis at their lower eastside home for dinner during that period. 

“We got along fine. Miles had his ways with other people but it wasn’t like that with us,” said Jackson.

Troupe said that Davis’ days in Detroit helped the trumpeter to reinvent himself.

“He thought that Detroit was restorative for him,” recalled Troupe about his talks with Davis during the 1980s. 

Detroit jazz scene during the ‘50s

During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Detroit’s old west side was a booming neighborhood of working- and middle-class Blacks.

Between 1940 and 1950, Detroit’s Black population doubled from 149,000 to 300,000 and in 1950 the city’s overall population was 1.8 million making it the fifth largest in America.

Residents include a who’s who of political and entertainment figures, including Damon J. Keith, who would become a federal judge; Berry Sr. and Bertha Gordy, whose son Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records; John Conyers, the future U.S. House of Representatives member; Kermit Bailer, a Tuskegee Airman and John F. Kennedy administration lawyer; and Elliott Hall, also a noted attorney for the city of Detroit and Ford Motor Co.

Detroit had a strong jazz community, too. The Jones brothers, Thad, Elvin and Hank, were groundbreaking bebop musicians from Pontiac. Detroiters like saxophonist Billy Mitchell, pianist Tommy Flanagan and emerging musicians like bassist Paul Chambers and trumpeter Donald Byrd would become prominent players during the mid-1950s.

Wilbur Wright, 88, grew up in the Blue Bird Inn neighborhood and visited the club during the 1950s. The University of Michigan graduate, who would become a U.S. diplomat, recalled the vibrant jazz scene in Detroit during that time. 

Wilbur Wright photo

“The jazz audience in Detroit was very strong,” said Wright, who now resides in Washington, D.C. “There were real jazz lovers there and the players appreciated that.”

In September 1954, Davis played at the Blue Bird with pianist Barry Harris, bassists Alvin Jackson and Jimmy Richardson as advertised in the Detroit Tribune on Sept. 18, 1954, and in Michigan Chronicle on Sept. 25, 1954. Davis was described in the Tribune as “a modern exponent in the music world.”  

Davis’ career resumed with a huge rebound after his Detroit stay. In 1957, he signed with Columbia Records and recorded the classic “’Round Midnight.” By 1959, his seminal album, “Kind of Blue,” was released. It is the best-selling jazz recording of all time and included one-time Cass Technical High School student Paul Chambers on bass.

Lars Bjorn, co-author of “Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60,” said that Davis’ days in Detroit and playing at the Blue Bird Inn helped to provide the performer a nurturing environment to propel him to his next stage in his professional career.

“It was transitional for Miles,” Bjorn told the Advance. “After Detroit, he goes into his most mature period, I think.”  

Conyers, who died in 2019, lifted up Davis’ “Kind of Blue” recording when it turned 50 years old in 2009. 

“‘Kind of Blue’ both redefined the concept of jazz for musicians and changed the perceptions of jazz held by many fans,” Conyers said during a U.S. House floor statement.

Miles Davis played at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Blue Bird Inn 2.0

In 2020, the Blue Bird Inn was officially designated a Historic District by the city of Detroit.

An effort to reimagine the Blue Bird Inn’s stage is being carried out by a nonprofit called Detroit Sound Conservancy.

In 2016, the organization salvaged its stage and rebuilt it. Two years later, it received a grant from the Kresge Foundation providing the needed funds to purchase the abandoned property. The organization wants to redevelop the building.

Detroit Sound Conservancy Executive Director Michelle Jahra McKinney said, “We want the community to have access to the space.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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