The late Miles Davis (1926-1991) was an icon who changed the world of jazz and music forever. This Memorial Day, also the birthday of the beloved trumpeter, New York City will honor his legacy with a block party celebrating the official unveiling of “Miles Davis Way” (West 77th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue). This location is the site of Davis’ infamous, former brownstone, where he lived for nearly a quarter of a century and created some of his best music.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Miles Davis’ son Erin and nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr. for my podcast Whine At 9. The cousins shared their feelings about this special upcoming honor, their own music careers, and their family’s role in keeping the Miles Davis legacy alive.
When it comes to New York City’s block party celebration of his father, Miles’ son Erin admits, “We couldn’t be more excited–we’re just trying to wrap our heads around the whole situation.” He and cousin Vince, along with sister Cheryl Davis oversee Miles Davis Properties LLC and are intimately involved with maintaining the integrity and creativity of the music great’s legacy. The family plans to be in New York City to participate in this special honor.
Losing a parent and family member is devastating, but the family of Miles Davis has forged together and found comfort and satisfaction in working with his music. Says Erin, “Just today I received some vinyl from Fed Ex from Sony and I opened it up and he’s on the back cover. And it’s–every day I feel like this is a great thing. Part of the legacy he left me was that I got to work on his stuff with my cousin (Vince) and my sister (Cheryl Davis). And even before that, his sister and brother were a part of our estate as well–Vince’s mom and our uncle, Uncle Vernon. So we all used to work on it together and it would really bring us together. You know, we were all pretty tight as a family anyway, but we would all rally around these different ideas and causes and try to do things the way he wanted them done, or at least how we thought he would want them done. It’s a beautiful thing to do it everyday.”
Vince Wilburn, Jr., Miles Davis’ nephew, notes that Davis “set the precedent for what musicians should strive for. He didn’t rest on his laurels. He was always trying to evolve and change music. And it rubbed off on all of us–still to this day.” When asked about the most important music lesson he learned from his dad, Erin admits, “A lot of it has to do with sort of being true to yourself–making the music for yourself first. And not worrying about what someone might say, critics or whatever. And I hear this echoed in all the great artists.” Adds Erin, “The great ones (artists) will do all the work first and then edit it later, so you’re not constantly being your own worst critic. And I think his great strength was doing the music that he heard in his head and getting the right people for that job. And those are the lessons that translate in daily work for me.”
Fascinatingly, despite that strong family trumpet history, cousins Erin and Vince are both accomplished drummers (and music producers). The trumpet never seemed to be a draw for the younger generation. “I was the little drummer boy in kindergarten in a play. I used to stare at the drum sets in mail order catalogues. And anytime my uncle would come to Chicago (to play) where I grew up, I was always fixated on the drummer,” says Vince. Adds Erin, “When I was fourteen Miles invited me out on the road. I think he wanted to show me exactly what was going on out there. And the first thing I saw was Vince-Vince was in the band at the time, he was the drummer. And I’d already had a big attraction to the drums. I think I played the (drum) kit at The Brownstone actually when I was really little–his (Miles) brownstone in New York. And I saw Vince up there and I just thought, ‘Man that’s like the only thing I could think of doing’.”
When it came to music, Miles Davis was known for encouraging the talent of others and that wasn’t lost in the family environment. “We called Miles ‘Chief’ so when Chief would come home, I wouldn’t want to practice in the house because I thought he’d be like, ‘Oh man, this guy is terrible. He’s giving me headache.’ But he’d always be like ‘Why aren’t you practicing?’ And so I’d start playing. And he would just leave me alone. It wouldn’t bother him at all. I think to him it was totally normal,” says Erin. “As far as me and my development, he was very patient. He even had me in the band and I thought ‘Man this is not a good idea’. I wasn’t playing drums, I was playing percussion and I just really felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. But he was really patient about that and I appreciated that.”
A conversation with Erin Davis and Vince Wilburn, Jr. makes you feel like you’ve met two best friends–which probably comes in handy since they’re running a family business. “Erin and I are more like brothers than cousins,” notes Wilburn who is an executive producer for the upcoming film about his uncle which will star Don Cheadle who will also be making his directorial debut.
So how have the two crafted their own musical success while juggling the important legacy of a musical icon they loved dearly? “It’s a way of life,” says Vince. “It’s a life that Erin and I chose you know. With Uncle Miles’ music, that speaks for itself. There’s vaults and vaults of music. We just try to artistically and with integrity put the music out for the fans. And in terms of our individual careers, I mean we’re lovers of music. We wake up every day calling each other– ‘Did you get the new record? Did you see who was on Fallon last night or Letterman?’….. And we push each other in a loving brotherly way. We’re doing what we love to do, so how can you complain?”
Listen to Nancy’s interview with Erin Davis and Vince Wilburn, Jr. on iTunes.
article by Dr. Nancy Berk via parade.condenast.com