I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Miles Davis. I was sitting in a friend’s dorm room in my freshman year of college. He put on the 1970 psychedelic album “Bitches Brew.”
I’d never heard anything like it. The sound was a combination of rock, jazz and some other magical ingredient I couldn’t put my finger on. Whatever it was, it transported me to another realm.
Davis was among the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, if not the greatest. Over six decades, he redefined the boundaries of jazz, rock and funk. His trumpet playing was unlike anyone else’s.
He was also a style icon who defined “cool” for generations.
He and his wife, dancer Frances Taylor Davis, were the Jay-Z and Beyoncé of their time. Everywhere they went, camera bulbs flashed.
When the pair got together in 1957, he told her, Now that I’ve found you, I’ll never let you go.”
He learned about flamenco from her, which inspired his album “Sketches of Spain.” When his record company put a photo of a white woman on the cover of his album “Someday My Prince Will Come,” he made them change it to a photo of his wife. It was both a political statement and a symbol of his love for her.
Davis put on the act of someone who had it all, but in fact he struggled with debilitating chronic pain. He had sickle cell anemia. This led to a degenerative condition that made his bones so brittle they chipped.
He tried to keep to the demands of a full schedule of rehearsals, recording and nightly gigs. However, this was too much for someone with his health issues.
As time went on, his pain became increasingly unbearable. His doctors gave him percodan, but it wasn’t enough to do the job.
As we learn in the PBS series “American Masters,” Davis took cocaine in an attempt to manage his pain on his own. The drug changed his personality.
Taylor Davis says the man she knew disappeared when he started taking it. She had landed a plum role in the hottest show on Broadway, “West Side Story.” One day, Davis picked her up and told her she couldn’t stay in the show.
“A woman should be there for her man,” he said.
After that, he became physically abusive. He’d never behaved this way before. She tried to stick it out, but it was too much. She left him in 1968.
Davis fell into a depression after his marriage broke up. One night, he fell asleep at the wheel of his Ferrari. The resulting crash sent his pain into the stratosphere. He took whatever he could to deal with it—booze, coke, heroin.
A Turn for the Worse
In 1975, Davis had a hip operation. However, instead of relieving the pain, it made it worse. Much worse,
After that, he stopped working. He slipped into a wretched state, not taking care of himself. This was his “lost period,” It lasted five years.
It was the actress Cicely Tyson who came to his rescue. She found him living alone in a filthy apartment. He was in such poor physical condition he was almost unrecognizable.
As is said of Tyson in the documentary The Miles Davis Story, “To her eternal credit, she succeeded in not only getting him on the road to recovery, but also starting him back in music again.”
What Might Have Been
We’ll never know what kind of man Davis would’ve been without his undertreated pain. He might have been controlling and abusive towards his wife and other women in his life.
Still, Taylor Davis was the love of Davis’s life. Would he have driven her away if he hadn’t been in such unrelenting pain?
His story leaves us with other unanswered questions as well.
For example, where were the doctors who performed that botched operation after things went wrong? They had a duty to care for him, and instead he ended up alone and in agony. This was malpractice and negligence.
Doctors still perform surgeries without taking the risks into account. They also still fail to monitor their patient’s pain levels and take action to help them.
And because of hysteria about opioids, people in pain nowadays are in constant danger of being labeled drug seekers. They may, like, Davis, get a low dose prescription that isn’t enough, or they may be forced off opioids altogether.
As his story shows, this can drive people to turn to street drugs. He had access and near unlimited funds, which put him in extra danger.
I myself was on the verge of suicide after my accident. The pain was that unbearable. And yes, I did try Percocet, but it was too weak for the pain I was in. Fortunately, I ended up hospitalized, where I got a prescription for morphine. It saved my life.
Of course, pain management should go beyond medications. I don’t know enough about Davis’s condition to say what would’ve worked. I do know that he was ultimately helped by swimming and dietary changes. Had someone worked with him from the start with these things it might’ve made all the difference.
If we learn anything from his story, it should be that we can and must do everything in our power to advocate for ourselves. We may risk being labeled drug seekers, but better that than to actually go out and get illegal drugs.
We also need to figure out what we can do to reduce our pain. This could be meditation, swimming, chiropractic, or something else. If our doctors aren’t helpful, we have the right to look for others.
Finally, it’s good to remind ourselves that pain affects us on many levels. It can skew our judgement. It can make us moody and prone to lashing out. We need to forgive ourselves. This is all normal. The question is, what are we doing about it?
Like Davis’s great love, those who care about us don’t have infinite patience. In other words, get help and support. Don’t wait until it’s too late,