The Icon and the Upstart: On Miles Davis’s Legendary Feud With Wynton Marsalis: James Kaplan Remembers One of Jazz’s Great Generational Battles (James Kaplan, March 6, 2024, LitHub)

The young trumpeter was highly opinionated and highly quotable, and from the beginning the music press, sniffing a possible feud, gave Marsalis’s venting about Miles—he even critiqued the outlandish outfits Miles had taken to wearing onstage, calling them “dresses”—plenty of column inches. The first time the two met, Miles said, “So here’s the police.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, George Butler, the vice president for jazz A&R (artists and repertoire) of Davis and Marsalis’s mutual record label, Columbia, tried vigorously to get Davis to bestow his blessing on the up‑and‑comer, to little avail.

“George [kept] trying to make friends out of [me and] Wynton Marsalis,” Miles told me. “Like, I’d be sketching, right? And the phone would ring. Cicely [Tyson] says, ‘It’s George.’

“So I said, ‘What does he want? Can he tell you?’ She said no. So I answer the phone. Say, ‘George, what it is?’

“He says, ‘Why don’t you call Wynton up?’ “I say, ‘For what?’

“He says, ‘Because it’s his birthday. He’s in St. Louis.’ “I say, ‘Oh, George—’ ”

I laughed.

“See, you laughing,” Miles said. “But when that shit comes at you like that, you’re like, What? And Wynton and I get together and talk about music; he tells me he’s tired of playing classical. I said, ‘But you’re the only one playing it. Of our race. And you play it good.’ ”

This is what Miles said he said to Marsalis. But in various public contexts he’d also potshotted right back, often asserting what he’d said after Marsalis recorded his first baroque concerto album in 1982 (and would repeat for posterity in his autobiography): “They got Wynton playing some old dead European music.”

And in June of 1986 there had been an incident.

The episode, at the first Vancouver Jazz Festival, was the most exciting thing that had happened in jazz for years, throwing a spotlight on a genre that, in American culture at large, had long since contracted into niche status. The event quickly took on folkloric dimensions. In some accounts, there had even been a threat of physical violence between the frail sixty‑year‑old Davis and the twenty‑four‑year‑old Marsalis. In Wynton’s 2015 retelling, it all started with the goading of the three musicians who played with him at the festival—the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, the bassist Robert Hurst, and the pianist Marcus Roberts.


The four were in a car approaching Vancouver, Marsalis recalled, when Roberts, Watts, and Hurst began teasing him about some belittling remarks Miles had made to the press about Wynton and his musical family, New Orleans jazz royalty (his father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., and his three brothers, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, were all renowned jazz musicians). How long was Wynton going to stand for this? they asked, jokingly. Was he scared of little old Miles? Davis was going to play that night, they pointed out, and they were off. Why not jump onstage with your horn, barge in on his act?

When Wynton replied, seriously, that he had too much respect for Miles to do that, the others began laughing at him and playfully betting that he was too scared to face off with the great man. Marsalis laughed along with them as they raised the ante. When the bet reached $100 apiece, and Wynton saw that his bandmates were serious, he said he would do it. And so he did.

According to a wire‑service report,

Wynton Marsalis surprised everyone—especially Miles Davis—when he walked onstage with his horn, uninvited and unannounced, as Davis and band were in the midst of a blues number. The upstart Marsalis approached the veteran Davis but Miles shook his head in a negative fashion. Instead of leaving, Marsalis walked to a microphone and began playing, which resulted in Davis stopping the music. The abashed Marsalis, who has always revered Davis, then walked off. “I don’t know why he was up there,” Miles said. “We have things that we do and we time everything. If he wants to jam, why doesn’t he go out to a club? I wonder what would happen if I did that?”

As Miles recalled the incident in his autobiography, he and his band were playing to a standing‑room‑only crowd at an outdoor amphitheater. Engrossed in his music, he suddenly sensed a presence in his periphery, and saw the audience reacting strongly—and then Marsalis was standing right next to him and whispering in his ear, “They told me to come up here.” Miles was furious. “Get the [***] off the stage,” he said. Marsalis looked shocked. “Man, what the [***] are you doing up here on stage?” Davis said.

“Get the [***] off the stage!”

Miles stopped the band, he writes, because Marsalis “wouldn’t have fit in. Wynton can’t play the kind of [***] we were playing.”

Marsalis claimed that Davis was playing the organ when he walked onto the bandstand, and that the music was too loud for him to hear anything Miles said. Once the band stopped, Wynton recalled, Miles said a few words to him, but “[***]” wasn’t one of them. And even though Davis was physically fragile, Marsalis, remembering that the great trumpeter had once trained as a boxer, watched his hands carefully, certain that any kind of physical altercation would go in his, Wynton’s, favor, and wind up making him look like nothing but a bully.

The story, Marsalis said, blew up out of all proportion to what had really happened or what he and his band ever thought it would be. And, he said, he never collected his $300.