What My Father, Miles Davis, Taught Me

"A lot of people think of my father as this prince of darkness, who was just moody and dark, especially onstage. But, in my experience, that wasn't him at all."

Mallory1180/Wikimedia; Fatherly Illustration

Erin Davis is the son of influential trumpeter and jazz legend Miles Davis. And, while Erin admits his dad evolved as a father through the years as much as he did as a musician, he says he and his dad had a good relationship. Erin didn’t live with his dad until he was 15 years old but would come over often or visit Miles in the studio. Eventually, he joined his dad on tour every summer from the age of 14-years-old. Those tours were Erin’s summer job, more or less and an education in Miles. He started as a roadie before graduating to percussionist in his father’s band. Those days, he says, were some of the best.

Today, Erin is a father to two daughters, who are five and 10 years old. Along with his sister and cousin, he’s also a conservator to his father’s estate where he works to keep his father’s work alive — and to help maintain his legacy as a jazz pioneer but also as a horse lover, painter, and father.

In his own words, Erin discusses touring with his dad, the misperceptions much of the world had of Miles, and what it was like to share his father with the world.

I think a lot of people think of my father as this prince of darkness, who was just moody and dark, especially onstage. He’d turn his back on the audience, or he wouldn’t show up on time for the show, or whatever. But, in my experience, that wasn’t him at all.

When we played, he would often turn and face us in the band, for a myriad of reasons, but mainly because I think more than anything, going out and playing the music live was the most crucial thing to his artistry. It wasn’t so much about going into the studio and making records. He had all these great dudes on stage. For him, it was all about the live show. The songs always morphed into different configurations during the tour. One song would start out one way at the beginning of the tour, and then by the end it would be faster, or slower, or it had a different groove or he’d add something to it. It was just about creating all that stuff onstage, during the tour, for the audience. For himself, for audiences, for the band.

I think a lot of people think of my father as this prince of darkness, who was just moody and dark, especially onstage. But, in my experience, that wasn’t him at all.

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I don’t think that people understand is that to do that, you have to have a lot of contact with musicians. You can’t just go out in front and smile at the crowd. You have to turn around, you got to have eye contact, you have to have everybody in the band watching you.

I started going on the road with him when I was 14, in the summers. I already knew that he was famous, because I would come visit him and we would go to the studio. Finally, he was like, “Do you want to come on the road this summer?” I started the tours doing nothing, just hanging out. And then I started working on the road crew, because he realized they couldn’t bring me and have me do nothing. I never hung out with my friends in the summer because I was always on the road, on tour with my dad.

Him letting me on stage was him giving me a chance. I kept telling him I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to play drums, I wanted to have my own band. He let me see what it was like on the big stage. He knew I knew all the material from working on the crew all those summers. I don’t even think I got any rehearsals. I think I watched the guy who did it before me for a couple of shows, and then I was just kind of on it, in the seat. It was my gig. It was a good experience, nerve-wracking for me. But kids don’t always get what their parents are trying to teach them at the time they’re trying to teach it to them.

He wasn’t like, your typical dad, who was going to go play catch with you. But we did spend a lot of time practicing boxing. He taught me how to protect myself, how to fight, the science of boxing and how it all works.

I performed with my dad. I went on two tours in the band with him. I played electronic percussion. It was kind of a made up thing. He used to have a percussionist, but he wanted it to sound more modern. So instead of having real percussionists, he had more samples of them, and I would play them through an octapad or some triggering device. I was trying to figure all that out, and trying to figure out how to do solos with this stuff. I pretty much had butterflies every time we played.

My dad had a great sense of humor. And he loved boxing. He had his horses, in Malibu, he had his artwork. He loved doing his paintings and his sketches. He was a great chef. He had his own recipe book, that we never found. I don’t know where it is. I wish I had it. He made a great chili and a great bouillabaisse.

He wasn’t like, your typical dad, who was going to go play catch with you. But we did spend a lot of time practicing boxing. He taught me how to protect myself, how to fight, the science of boxing and how it all works. He tried to show me a lot about music, but he wasn’t going to just hand over the keys and be like, “I’m gonna tell you everything I know.” It was more like, he wanted to see how interested I really was in it. How much I was going to apply myself to it. I think that’s why he let me come into the band.

That’s the kind of dad he was. He wasn’t your television dad — like, you know, we had in the ’80s. But he was still there, looking out for me, trying to see and show me the right way to go about life. A lot of this stuff I missed, and I didn’t “get it” until I was old, until he was already gone. But I appreciate all of it. I wish I could have applied it more when he was around. But it never works like that with kids.

He wasn’t your television dad. But he was still there, looking out for me, trying to see and show me the right way to go about life. A lot of this stuff I missed, and I didn’t “get it” until I was old, until he was already gone

I never felt resentful, or that I had to share him with the rest of the world. I wonder if my sister does. She grew up and he was not the famous musician yet. He was getting there, he became that while she was growing up. But with me, he was already famous, and I didn’t grow up with him. We started hanging out more often when I was 10 or 11 and then I moved in with him when I was 15. So I kind of understood what his responsibilities were, what his goals were, how he got those goals.

He wasn’t around a lot during the school year. He was touring a lot. All over the world. I understood that. I wasn’t expecting anything different. It’s a good thing I understood that, because I can see how some people don’t like to share their parents with the world. People would always come up to tell me how much they loved him. I could see people crying in the audience during his shows, just so overwhelmed. I always thought that was amazing. Who wouldn’t understand that?

I remember, very well, the first time I saw him play. I was 14. The first time he let me on the road, that tour — that was the first time I really realized how far he’d come. And what he meant to people.

He wasn’t around a lot during the school year. He was touring a lot. I understood that. It’s a good thing I understood that, because I can see how some people don’t like to share their parents with the world.

He really doted on me a lot, more than I realized. I’m not sure that he did that with all of his kids. I think that when he was trying to be who he became, it was a lot harder for him. He didn’t have time for his kids. Whereas for me, he’d already kind of gotten to a level of success. When I was around, it was about him taking music in a different direction — and satisfying his own musical urges.

What I really liked about him was how he could break down in his mind what was going on in any musical performance or composition — and find something to take away from it. I remember once, I was watching the old Headbangers Ball on MTV, and Slayer came on, and I was like, Oh my god, dad’s going to hate this. He was looking at it, and he goes. “Huh. That drummer is really laying it down, isn’t he?” Then he just walked off.

As Told To Lizzy Francis