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Hometown recognition for Miles Davis is still kinda blue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2012 - This spring the U.S. and French postal services issued a pair of stamps honoring Miles Davis and Edith Piaf. In light of this national recognition, we checked in at the places that claim Davis – Alton and East St. Louis – to see what is happening with plans in those cities to commemorate the jazz legend.

Born in Alton

Thomas Raglin, a retired teacher living in Alton, believes his downtown should have a statue of Miles Davis. And when the day arrives, he says it should be life size, in bronze and “he should be shown playing the trumpet.”

Charlotte Johnson, a historian and also a retired teacher, once taught a high school jazz class that included a section on Davis. “What I stressed (regarding Davis),” says Johnson, “is education, training and working. And when you have a dream, go for it. I think about Davis’ parents and how they encouraged him.”

Johnson says she does not embrace Miles Davis “the person,” but that his legacy “is extremely important for Alton tourism.”

Davis was born in Alton in 1926 a house at 1112 Milnor St. He lived there until only age 2 when his father Henry Miles Davis, a dentist, and mother Cleo moved the family to East St. Louis where Miles lived through his high school years.  

Considered by many the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time, Davis died in 1991 in San Diego, Calif. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Plans to honor Davis with a statue, in Alton’s entertainment district on Third Street were announced at the Miles Davis Jazz Festival in May. Some artists have been asked to submit their ideas, but a growing consensus is reportedly to have it resemble the image on the Davis stamp.

Optimistic estimates put the cost of the statue at $50,000 to $100,000, with a two-three year timetable, But Brett Stawar, president of the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes it could cost $200,000 and take up to five years to raise the money and finish the sculpture.

“It will have to be,” says Stawar, “a labor of love, unless there is a huge donation.”

On and off for something like 10 years, Alton and East St. Louis have talked about using the two houses where Davis spent his youth to commemorate him. The theory goes that jazz lovers and history enthusiasts will visit the sites and help inject economic life into the two struggling communities.

“The Miles Davis house is one of the most underutilized assets we have in our tourism bag,” says Don Huber, five-term Alton Township supervisor and history and jazz buff.

“But after the recent announcement (about the statue) we encountered a little bit of backlash from some local people. There is an underlying current of ‘Who cares’?

“I hate to be that negative, but I do think Miles’ race and image stand in the way of some people accepting him. He once was one of the most recognizable faces in the world, and that includes people like Muhammad Ali. I think he is underappreciated in our country. I think there is a reluctance (among some) to claim him, although he was born here in Alton,” Huber said.

Alton’s Miles Davis Jazz Festival – held during the second weekend each May – is seven years running. It typically draws 100 to 150 people with some proceeds going for two scholarships for students from Alton High School.

“It’s a way to keep his legacy alive,” says Abe Lee Barham, a volunteer with the Alton Museum. “It’s a way to bring in different musicians from around the area, and it’s a tribute to him. It’s not all Miles Davis music, but music in general.”

Huber, who has studied Alton’s history, says “the neighborhood where he lived has always been sort of in-between. I think people just lost track of where he lived. I grew up four or five blocks from where his house is. And I had no idea …”

Davis’ roots in Alton, Huber says, are only part of the area’s rich history that could be better exploited. “A lot of significant things have happened here, such as the (Elijah) Lovejoy (abolitionist/newspaper publisher) murder. It was a real strong gateway for the underground railroad. Our Lincoln heritage is pretty good.” Alton has one national landmark, the Lyman Trumbull House on Henry Street. A friend of Lincoln, Trumbell co-wrote the 13th Amendment.

Patricia Ackman, a volunteer with PRIDE and the jazz festival commission, says she was inspired to work on the Davis project by St. Louis’ rock and roll legend Chuck Berry’s statue on Delmar and the urging of her sons.

Ackman’s sons, David and Tom, are musicians, who she says, “ have asked me why isn’t there anything comparable to the Chuck Berry statue (for Davis) in Alton.

“I got to thinking about it. He is one of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the whole world who contributed so much to music. With him being born here in Alton, we are privileged to able to say that.”

She endorses a statue much like the stamp, depicting Davis, tilted backward in a white, sleeveless shirt, trumpet in hand, “his body looking like it’s in movement.”

Johnson, Raglin, Huber and Barham continue to play Davis’ music; Johnson on cassette tape from her uncle’s collection and Huber on vinyl. They recognize, however, that “not a whole lot of kids know about Miles Davis,” says Johnson. Then, Huber says, there is the matter of Davis’ personal reputation.

“His bad-boy attitude, the way, in many cases, he acted. ... His image is such that there are a lot of people who will not jump up and down, get on the bandwagon. It’s not going to enjoy universal acceptance. When we were putting up the statue of Robert Wadlow, everybody was into that. His background is as the gentle giant — no controversy involved there.” 

Huber says that when it comes to Miles Davis fund-raisers and volunteers “the less they know about the guy and the better they like his music, the better off they are.”

That said, he said he thinks Alton as a whole is recognizing that tourism can help the area and provide jobs. 

Barham says, “Our biggest challenge is to keep to people’s enthusiasm going. They can’t keep enough stamps. They’re buying them out. We have to strike while the iron is hot.”

Miles Davis, says Barham, “brings music to life. And not only that, he brings a connection to my community. It’s a part of me.”