Front & Center

Miles Davis

When LMN Editor Paul Moffett asked me to interview Miles Davis, I thought that perhaps his years of service with the Louisville Music News had finally taken its toll.

"Um, Paul...he's dead," I told him.

"Not this Miles Davis," he responded confidently.

"You mean there's another one?" I asked.

"Yup," he said, and since Paul's not often wrong when it comes to Louisville's musicians, I went ahead and set up the interview.

As it turns out, he was right -- Louisville does have its very own Miles Davis. This Miles Davis is a mean baritone sax and woodwinds player as well as the owner of Miles Ahead, a music instrument repair shop.

"My father played trumpet in the service," Davis told me recently over coffee at Twice Told Coffeehouse, "and he was a big Miles Davis fan. So with his last name being Davis, I guess he just couldn't resist [naming me Miles]!"

Davis also recounted the amusing responses from some people when they are introduced to him. "It's so funny, you know, sometimes people will meet me and I'll mention my name and they'll say 'You know, I think I've heard of you!'"

But being Miles' namesake had more of an impact than just an amusing gimmick. The music of Miles Davis and other jazz greats were major influences on Davis practically since birth.

"My dad did -- and still does -- listen to music constantly," Davis remembered, "and when I was growing up, I was exposed to not just jazz but classical music, too. It's just one of those things that was always there, all the time. If it wasn't my dad listening to records, my mom would have on the radio stations of [the jazz] era which would have typically a big band singer and an orchestra, so I think I learned a lot of tunes just by osmosis."

His father also taught him to really listen to music at a very early age. "He would ask me, 'now is that a trumpet or a saxophone?'" Davis said, "and once I could tell the different instruments, then he would say 'Well, is that Miles or is that so-and-so?' and I would just pick things up."

That early jazz training stood him in good stead when he went to study music merchandising at Eastern Kentucky University and, later, jazz at North Texas State University, a school with a nationally known jazz program. Davis described his early music career this way:

"I went to Texas because there were just all these players there in the early Eighties, but there was only Woody Herman's band and Buddy Rich's band -- the only two touring big bands that were really left. I wanted to play baritone sax in Woody Herman's big band but I looked around and said 'Man, there's ten of us at this one school that want to do this!' and it made me think that though I wanted to do that, there just wasn't much future in that. So I thought I would come back to Louisville and carve a niche out for myself. So I came back and started taking more flute and clarinet lessons and got started repairing instruments."

Though Davis admitted that he started repairing instruments as a secondary profession to performing, he eventually started taking a greater interest in the art of repair. He worked first at Mel Owen Music, and credited Owen with helping him learn the necessary skills to open his own business.

"He gave me my start in the business," Davis asserted, "his management style was great and he gave me a place to learn my craft." After working a while with Mel Owen Music, Davis decided to branch out on his own and in 1994 opened Miles Ahead Instrument Repair, a thriving business he operates out of his basement.

"I repair mostly band instruments. Woodwinds are my specialty, but I also do brass instruments, too. I've done flutes, clarinets, bassoons, piccolos, tubas, trombones . . . that sort of thing."

In the short time the business has been open, word of mouth has spread about Davis' service. "I've got customers in Cincinnati and Indianapolis as well as working with the colleges throughout the state. It started out pretty much local, but over the course of time I've gotten more and more people mailing me instruments, which is great, because that's really what I've been working toward -- the professional end of the market."

But despite Davis' great success with his business, he still has a love of playing and works as a free-lance player with several bands and Broadway shows.

"I'll be playing 'Big' at the Center for the Arts when that's here, and that's probably what I enjoy doing the most -- Broadway shows," Davis enthused. "It's really exciting: you get a call to play a Broadway show and you go, you have one rehearsal and then you go that night. That's probably where my heart is as far as playing."

And the love for the music of his youth has never left him, either. When I asked him what his "desert island" music choices would be, he went straight back to the classics.

"If I were stranded on a desert island and had to pick records to listen to, I'd have to say my namesake Miles Davis. Miles Ahead, that album is a great album, or Kind of Blue with John Coltrane on it. I love John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Nancy Wilson . . . I guess my taste leans toward . . . classic jazz."

With picks like that, Miles Davis' namesake would be proud.