Miles Davis is Attacked, Beaten & Arrested by the NYPD Outside Birdland, Eight Days After the Release of Kind of Blue (1959)

It is hard, on the oth­er hand, to blame the police­man, blank, good-natured, thought­less, and insu­per­a­bly inno­cent, for being such a per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple he serves. He, too, believes in good inten­tions and is astound­ed and offend­ed when they are not tak­en for the deed. 

—James Bald­win

James Baldwin’s 1960 essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” is rich with heartrend­ing ironies and razor-sharp refu­ta­tions of the usu­al apolo­gies for racist vio­lence in Amer­i­ca. It does not mat­ter, Bald­win argues, whether indi­vid­u­als are “good” or “bad” apples in a sys­tem designed to enforce seg­re­ga­tion, whether by force of law or brute force of will. “None of the police commissioner’s men,” writes Bald­win, “even with the best will in the world, have any way of under­stand­ing the lives led by the peo­ple they swag­ger about in twos and threes con­trol­ling.”

This bru­tal igno­rance extends wide­ly to rad­i­cals, dis­si­dents, peace­ful pro­test­ers, and hap­less bystanders dur­ing times of mass polit­i­cal unrest. (As Ed Kil­go­re points out at New York mag­a­zine, the term “police riot” orig­i­nat­ed in the 1968 Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­ven­tion.) The bru­tal­i­ty we’ve seen vis­it­ed on elder­ly white activists, jour­nal­ists, and even local politi­cians dur­ing recent protests (against bru­tal­i­ty) has been a dai­ly real­i­ty for mil­lions of black Amer­i­cans, even Amer­i­cans as famous as Miles Davis.

In 1959—eight days after the release of Kind of Blue and just after record­ing a broad­cast for armed forces radio—Davis was harassed and then vicious­ly attacked by the police out­side Bird­land in Mid­town Man­hat­tan. Then he was arrest­ed for resist­ing arrest and dragged to the police sta­tion for book­ing and fur­ther harass­ment. You can hear the sto­ry in a clip above from The Miles Davis Sto­ry. Davis him­self recount­ed the event in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy:

I had just fin­ished doing an Armed Forces Day broad­cast, you know, Voice of Amer­i­ca and all that bull­shit. I had just walked this pret­ty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m stand­ing there in front of Bird­land wring­ing wet because it’s a hot, steam­ing, mug­gy night in August. 

This white police­man comes up to me and tells me to move on. I said, “Move on, for what? I’m work­ing down­stairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I point­ed to my name on the mar­quee all up in lights.

He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”

I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his hand­cuffs, but he was step­ping back…I kind of leaned in clos­er because I wasn’t going to give him no dis­tance so he could hit me on the head… A crowd had gath­ered all of a sud­den from out of nowhere, and this white detec­tive runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I nev­er saw him com­ing. Blood was run­ning down the kha­ki suit I had on.

Davis, who grew up wealthy in St. Louis, came from vast­ly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances than Bald­win. He under­stood the vio­lence of the South, but not of North­ern cities. Nonethe­less, his expe­ri­ence with the police was iden­ti­cal, whether in Mis­souri or New York. “Now I would have expect­ed this kind of bull about resist­ing arrest and all back in East St Louis,” he wrote, “but not here in New York City, which is sup­posed to be the slick­est, hippest city in the world. But then, again, I was sur­round­ed by white folks and I have learned that when that hap­pens, if you’re black, there is no jus­tice. None.”

He speaks from bit­ter expe­ri­ence. Davis lat­er sued the NYPD, but his case was dis­missed, “despite a moun­tain of evi­dence in his favour,” writes Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty researcher Mitchell Crouse, “includ­ing mul­ti­ple wit­ness state­ments, pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence, and the fact that at least one of the offi­cers was drunk.”

Bald­win and Davis both wrote of what Jamelle Bouie describes in The New York Times as the raw knowl­edge afford­ed those who live under con­stant sur­veil­lance and threats of assault, arrest, or mur­der by agents of the state: “African-Amer­i­can observers have nev­er had any illu­sions about who the police are meant to serve.” See the many pho­tographs of a bloody Miles tak­en dur­ing and after his arrest at the 1959 Project.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Miles Davis Icon­ic 1959 Album Kind of Blue Turns 60: Revis­it the Album That Changed Amer­i­can Music

Miles Davis’ Bitch­es Brew Turns 50: Cel­e­brate the Funk-Jazz-Psych-Rock Mas­ter­piece

Miles Davis Dish­es Dirt on His Fel­low Jazz Musi­cians: “The Trom­bone Play­er Should be Shot”; That Ornette is “F‑ing Up the Trum­pet”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.