There are comebacks, and then there are comebacks. Thirty-four years ago, in June 1981, Miles Davis staged a memorable comeback performance in Boston that ended five years of self-imposed silence. The four-night barrage stood the jazz world on its ear, and although the music was formidable, what made it all so head-turning was that it was such an event.
Miles had been out of the public eye for five years, enduring physical maladies and having little desire to play. But he was ready to go again in 1981, and his group had just recorded a new album, The Man With the Horn, and he was going to play at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in early July. But Davis wanted a tune-up first, and he wanted to do it in a club. So Davis contacted Fred Taylor, for whom he had worked more than ten times at the Jazz Workshop or Paul’s Mall between 1967 and 1977. Simply put, Miles Davis trusted Taylor.
Although Taylor was out of the nightclub business—he was running the Harvard Square Theater at the time—he knew of a 400-seat club that might work for Davis, on the edge of Kenmore Square, called Kix. It was a disco in a converted garage that formerly housed a rock venue called the Psychedelic Supermarket. Taylor booked it for four nights in June, the 26th through the 29th.
Taylor hired Sue Auclair to manage the publicity, and news of the upcoming shows was made public in mid June… Miles Davis in Boston for four nights… two shows per night… ticket price $12.50. The news created a tidal wave of interest, and media people from as far away as Japan turned up in Boston for the opening. Meanwhile, Auclair recruited Boston mayor Kevin White to issue a proclamation declaring the four days in June to be Miles Davis Weekend.
On opening night, Miles drove to the club in his yellow Ferrari, accompanied by his wife-to-be, actress Cicely Tyson. There was Miles, now with a mustache and beard, stylish as always in a black jump suit… and the place went crazy, with chants of “We want Miles!”
Inside, Kix was electric with anticipation, and Miles stepped on stage to a sustained standing ovation. These were the first public performances for this new band, some of whom were virtual unknowns. With Miles were Bill Evans, soprano saxophone; Marcus Miller, electric bass; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Al Foster, drums; and Mino Cinelu, percussion. Miles chose to work without a keyboardist this time around.
The Boston Globe review the next day was unabashedly positive. “Last night Miles Davis gave solid evidence that he was back to stay, that the chops are still as impressive as ever and the famed mystique has not dimmed an iota… Davis alternated brooding, elongated lines with brief, swinging interludes. Evans, on soprano, was superb and the group interplay seemed contagious, taking its lead from Davis who, despite five years of inactivity, was playing with seasoned assuredness as he continually inserted pauses like a nervous suitor.”
Mike Stern was the sideman best known to Boston. He studied at Berklee and worked around town in the mid-1970s; he was a regular at Michael’s Jazz Club, and a member of Tiger Okoshi’s group, Tiger’s Baku. Stern told writer George Cole for his book, The Last Miles: “Kix was perfect and the audience was just ready to enjoy it and they did! It was the kind of band where we got off on the energy of it.”
It was Boston’s good fortune that Miles Davis played his comeback engagement here. A lengthy interview by Ernie Santosuosso was published in the Globe on July 5. Santuosso asked why Davis chose Boston. Said Davis, “’Cause I love Boston. I just happen to have a thing with Boston. Every time I have a new band and a good band, I just come to Boston. Also, I wouldn’t do it for anybody else but Freddie Taylor. I like Boston people. It isn’t a question of how many jazz clubs you have here. It’s the attitude of the students. The students are thinking, you know what I mean? They are not afraid to look beyond today’s music or anything else.”
The double album We Want Miles includes music recorded at Kix and in Japan in October 1981. “Back Seat Betty” was one of the tunes played at Kix, and here is a version of it recorded in London in 1982 with the same band.
Another tune played at Kix was a reworking of “My Man’s Gone Now,” which Miles Davis first recorded with Gil Evans on the Porgy and Bess album. Here it is, played in London.