Miles Davis Hated the Steve Miller Band, so This Is What He Did When He Opened for Them

While jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was cutting his first LPs with Columbia Records in the mid-1950s, rock and roll icons of the 1970s, like Steve Miller and Neil Young, were still in high school. By the time these still-aspiring guitarists made it to the big time, Davis was transitioning from post-bop jazz to electric rock and roll.

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Consequently, Davis—who, despite being a musical legend in his own right, was a relative newcomer to the primarily white rock and roll crowd—landed the opener slot for Fillmore East appearances headlined by his younger, long-haired counterparts.

If anyone at the time was unaware of Davis’ infamously brash, unapologetic attitude, the trumpeter certainly made it known when it came to one headlining band in particular.

Miles Davis Wasn’t One To Mince Words

The groundbreaking jazz artist recounted his days promoting his electronic record ‘B****es Brew’ in his 1986 autobiography Miles. To broaden Davis’ audience from jazz cats to young rockers, Columbia Records put Davis in touch with rock promoter Bill Graham. Graham founded iconic venues such as the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom of San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City.

In 1970, Graham hosted a string of shows at the Fillmore East, featuring Miles Davis and his band opening for contemporary rockstars Steve Miller Band and Neil Young/Crazy Horse. The famously opinionated trumpeter didn’t hold back in his memoir.

“I was opening for this sorry-a** cat named Steve Miller,” Davis recalls. “I think Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were on that program, and they were a little better. Anyway, Steve Miller didn’t have s*** going for him. So, I’m p***ed because I got to open for this non-playing mother****er just because he had one or two sorry-a** records out.” 

How He Managed To Become the Shows’ Headliner

Opening for what he considered musically inferior acts 20+ years his junior chafed Miles Davis. Nevertheless, his Columbia Records contract bound him to the promotional run for ‘B****es Brew.’ So, the trumpeter developed a not-so-subtle workaround to his unfavorable billing. “I would come late, and he would have to go on first,” Davis wrote. “Then, when we got there, we just smoked the motherf***ing place, and everybody dug it, including Bill [Graham]!”

Davis recalled Graham’s impatience, annoyance, and, later, anger over the jazz musician’s actions. He wrote about the last show of the Fillmore East series wherein Graham was waiting for the late (as usual) musician outside of the venue. Graham scolded Davis for his “disrespectful” actions toward Miller and his band, to which the King of Cool replied, “Hey, baby, just like the other nights. And you know they worked out just fine, right?”

The Rock Realm Miles Davis Was Willing To Enter

Miles Davis presented the crux of his anti-Miller argument in his book. “Most rock musicians didn’t know anything about music,” he wrote. “They didn’t study it, couldn’t play different styles—and don’t even talk about reading music. But they were popular and sold a lot of records because they were giving the public a certain sound.” Still, whether Miles Davis liked Steve Miller or not, the trumpeter’s music was undeniably venturing out of his native jazz into the rock universe that gave him so much pause.

To a certain extent, Davis was a newbie—the lowest on the totem pole and, thus, the least paid. Audiences didn’t immediately take to the less commercially sensible jazz-rock fusion Davis presented them. Luckily, Davis found a salve for his Steve Miller sting soon enough. In a more positive example of Graham and Davis’ working relationship, the promoter connected the jazz icon with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia

Davis and Garcia immediately bonded over their love of jazz and knowledge of the musical craft. The trumpeter and his band opened for the Grateful Dead several times. He writes about the blending of their two audiences in Miles, warmly describing the way their collaborations garnered each act new, unexpected fans. (Some of which, if we’re honest, probably love a Steve Miller Band track or two.)

(Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)

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