Miles had a little Mercedes 190SL. and one night he said to me, “Cannon, I’d like you to take a ride with me.” Which is dangerous. — Cannonball Adderley
Sergei Rachmaninoff wasn’t the only prominent musician who was willing to put himself in financial harm’s way to own the car of his dreams.
Once upon a time, being a famous musician didn’t automatically equate to money in the bank, particularly if you were African-American and primarily famous to a rather select group. One day in 1955, a very far from wealthy Miles Davis dragged his quintet into the Prestige Records studio and recorded five albums in a row for the purpose of satisfying his obligations to the label. Although Davis himself had turned away from the worst of his heroin addiction, his crew was all hooked on something — from John Coltrane, who had conspicuous tracks up both his arms, to “Philly” Joe Jones, who showed up to the session with just one drum and a hi-hat because he’d pawned the rest to get high — and nobody could have predicted that the group would settle down and turn out some of the greatest music in recorded history.
Miles hated Prestige. They famously paid $300 a record and didn’t seem to be familiar with the concept of residuals. The moment he had a chance to jump the fence to Columbia, he did so, and he celebrated by buying a Mercedes 190SL with pretty much all the money he had at the time.
A new 190SL cost about four grand — easily four times what Davis had just cleared on the Prestige session — and it was not exactly a rapid automobile. Most of them wheezed perhaps 85 horsepower back to the swing-axled rear wheels to push the 2600lb mass. The real hot ride was the 300SL, famous today as the “Gullwing” but far more popular as a convertible back in the day, but Miles would have had a hard time buying one and a harder time keeping it maintained.
Miles eventually fell in with the proverbial “fast crowd”, which included the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter-Rothschild. She rolled in a Bentley, and she was well known among the community. PIanist Hampton Hawes recalls,
[Theolnius] Monk and his wife and Nica and I driving down Seventh Avenue in the Bentley at three or four in the morning… and Miles pulling alongside in the Mercedes, calling through the window in his little hoarse voice… ‘Want to race?’ Nica nodding, then turning to tell us in her prim British tones: ‘This time I believe I’m going to beat the motherfucker.’
It’s almost certain Nica was the Johnny Tran to Miles’ Jesse in that particular street race, since even the slowest Bentleys had plenty of pace compared to a 190SL. As time went on and Miles started to effectively milk the income from his talent and reputation, his stable became considerably more interesting, culminating in his infamous Miura. He would eventually crash the Miura, and the aftermath would have a disastrous effect on his musical output.
If Miles was the first jazz man to be associated with high-end automobiles, he was also one of the last. Jazz (and blues) don’t pull the kind of money they used to, and modern players like James Carter and Joshua Redman are far more likely to be found riding the subway or holding court in the back of a cab somewhere than they would be to be tearing across 110th Street in a Murcielago. Even my brother, who has played on more than a few dozen blues and jazz records, rolls in a Pontiac G8 GT and a Chevy Equinox now instead of the Infinitis and RX-8s he used to drive. These days, being the hippest guy in the Village doesn’t do anything more for you than it did in 1953.