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Was Miles Davis' cool born in East St. Louis?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 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. Today: East St. Louis

When she drives by the house at 17th Street and Kansas Avenue (Miles Davis Way) in East St. Louis where Miles Davis spent his boyhood, Anne Walker feels regret and hope at the same time.

As director of Freedom Trails, Legacies of Hope in East Louis, a group that promotes African-American history in the region, Walker has watched since 2002 as the city’s efforts to capitalize on the Miles Davis legacy take one step forward, then two back.

“It’s been a chain of errors on the part of everybody involved,” says Walker of failed attempts to restore and designate the Davis house. “But rather than finger-pointing as to who did what and what didn’t happen, we should be trying to move on.”

The idea, beginning in 2002, was that Walker would move Freedom Trails into the Davis home and operate out of it as the house gradually evolved into one of several East St. Louis tourist attractions. The trumpeter lived there between the ages of 2 and 18. It is where he got his first music lessons and determined to make jazz his life.

“The day I was going to sign and return the lease agreement, I decided to look at the site,” she says. “When I went in, I was shocked and immediately turned to the attorney and said, ‘Houston, we have a problem’.”

The house – then held in the name of Davis’ brother Vernon – had bars pulled from windows, some of which were broken, water coming in, etc.

“We had a wooden cutout (in the image of a man playing a trumpet) in front of the house that since has disappeared,” she says. “My reaction … was one of great disappointment and sadness. I am so hurt and aware of missed opportunities for the city.”

The lease never was signed, although in the interval the house has been fixed up - at the expense of the Davis family and foundation.

Attorneys, at the time, Walker says “appeared to be on one page, while Cheryl Davis (Miles’ daughter) was on another. Cheryl was cooperative and encouraging, but what I was getting from the attorneys was inconsistent at best. Sometimes I wondered if they were talking to each other.”

Now, Walker says, “instead of the house having to be repaired, it almost has to be restored. The question is to restore it to what, to what time frame.”

There was a time when the prospect of the Davis house being a crown jewel for visitors to East St. Louis seemed within reach.

1983 homecoming

For example, Walker says she remembers virtually everything about the Miles Davis Homecoming in 1983, which featured a music stage and show near city hall, a parade and a concert by Davis at the Fox Theater sponsored by Kool cigarettes.

Walker picked up Davis and his then-wife, Cicely Tyson, and entourage from Lambert Field.

She remembers Davis being “dressed casually, but had carefully color coordinated his large, square frame red glasses with his red shirt," Walker says. "The splashy design in the shirt color coordinated with the light grey leisure suit and snake skin shoes. He carried a brass accented, black walking cane. His hair was combed back, grazing over a thinning spot, and extending on his neck. His face was full and he looked healthy.

"Miles was always a character," Walker says. "He was East St. Louis, down-to-earth, comical, hysterical, mostly talented. Miles saw a young boy, James Belk, 9 years old, playing congas (at the downtown stage) and told us to have him at his concert. We could see him trying to reach back and he could identify talent.”

Asked how important Davis is to East St. Louis today, Walker says, “It depends on who you talk to. It varies greatly from people who are aware of his musical genius to those who seem to imply that Miles never cared much about or did anything for East St. Louis.”

“There is still hope,” says Walker, “and not just from a single source - because these things are still here, even though we are down to the nub. There are several icons from here we could be promoting. If we were developing concentric circles around where our icons lived, worked, did their stuff, we could end up enveloping the whole series of circles, like the Olympic circles.”

She cites dancer and dance company legend Katherine Dunham, Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and sports psychologist Harry Edwards, all of whom come from East St. Louis.

Walker says she is not up to speed on what is happening now – if anything – with the house.

“The last thing I read is that a group that included mostly artists was talking about the house, and an attorney who grew up in East St. Louis and is practicing in New York was interested in creating or uniting with the Miles Davis Foundation to help East St. Louis students with instruments, uniforms, etc.

She says, a movie on the life of Miles Davis “is in the hopper. There is interest from the Davis family and actor Don Cheadle in playing the lead. So there are always echoes of people trying to do things.

The Davis house, she says, “is a means to an end, the end being saving the city, saving our heritage, giving hope and inspiration and in some cases funding to these kids who aspire to be like Miles.

“We have to be serious about developing the city with the raw resources we have. I don’t buy into the totality of the stereotype that nobody is going to come to East St. Louis. I don’t buy it.

“Alton had the wherewithal to synthesize the resources to make it happen. (Committees have been formed to discuss how to commemorate Davis in Alton.) But much of what Alton is doing is a replication of what was planned in East. St. Louis.

“People say you could move the house. But if you move it, you lose the sense of history. You lose the link to history and the chance to develop the inner city.

“Black folks have an expression – do you know it? — ‘crabs in a bucket.’ “If you put crabs in a bucket, they climb over each other, get in each other’s way; they fight. Well, in East St. Louis, it’s time to bury that bucket.”