Miles Davis’s paintings: reinvigorating a jazz legend’s creativity

Jo Gelbard with Miles Davis, Uninvited. Jo Gelbard with Miles Davis, Uninvited. Sold for $960 via Julien’s Auction (May 2014).

“My future starts when I wake up every morning. Every day I find something creative to do with my life,” Miles Davis

Say the name Miles Davis and a trumpet and a wild lifestyle come to mind. As one of the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz it’s hard to view him any other way. But his hospitalization in the mid-’80s, and a chance meeting with a young artist in his apartment complex would showcase the other side of Miles Davis’s artistic creativity – this time on canvas.

Miles Davis by Palumbo

Miles Davis by Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons.

“His sketches are light and airy and minimal, but when he took his brush and paint, he was deadly – he was like a child with paints in kindergarten. He would pour it on and mix it until it got too muddy and over-paint. He just loved the texture and the feel. It got all over his clothes and his hands and his hair and it was just fun for him.”

Jo Gelbard

Miles Davis’s status as a jazz icon is assured. In his life, he released 55 albums, earned eight Grammy awards and redefined jazz music in America with his development of jazz fusion and modal jazz to create his own distinct, smooth and emotive style. Miles Davis the painter, however, is less well known.

A minor stroke in 1982 drove Miles Davis’s to painting and drawing after he was advised by doctors to hold a pencil to help his recuperation from a frozen hand. He began by sketching; not only would this help with his recuperation, it would ultimately change his life.  

Two years after he was hospitalized, Davis met his muse, Jo Gelbard in a chance encounter in their shared apartment block. Gelbard was an artist and sculptor. On the way to becoming romantically involved with Davis, she succumbed to his request for artistic advice on his often surreal, bright and geometric paintings with influences from African art, as well as from the likes of Kandinsky, Picasso and Basquiat

Early sketches

Miles Davis’s sketches were where his re-invention as an artist began. The jazz icon had had plenty of opportunity to practice drawing and painting when he had been hospitalized earlier in his life (in the early ’70s, due to a car crash in which he broke both his legs). At the time, he had been in the throes of cocaine addiction, and took a year away from performing to recuperate – while sketching.

Davis again reached for the notepad to aid his recovery in 1984. His paintings also provided him with an unexpected icebreaker. “He was sketching and he asked me to help him,” explained Gelbard of her meeting with Davis in 1984. “So I visited his apartment upstairs and I looked at his art and told him what I thought of it.” Gelbard revealed in an interview after his death that she was taken in by the delicateness of his sketches, and urged him to transfer his art to canvas. 

Neo-abstraction 

As might be expected from a single-minded musician who redefined the sound of the trumpet solo, Miles Davis painted with an obsessive creativity. The evocative visual works he created showcase his varied talent and his fondness for bold, colorful and confident work that held a candle to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Neo-expressionist movement that was dominating the New York art scene at the time.

African inflection

Miles Davis, Roots.

Miles Davis, Roots. Sold for $1,300 via Black Art Auction (February 2021)

Never afraid to express himself, Miles Davis was a vocal supporter of the Black Power and civil rights movements, while he was also a noted fundraiser for The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

So, it’s no surprise to see this reflected in some of Miles Davis’s paintings. Set alongside his typically bright, bold and abstract style, Davis included images of black empowerment and struggle, which offer a thoughtful and powerful social commentary that provides a glimpse of the man, alongside his artistic output. This is perhaps best demonstrated in his painting, Roots.

New Ezz-thetic

Miles Davis, EZZ-THETIC limited edition lithograph.

Miles Davis, EZZ-THETIC limited edition lithograph. Sold for £400 via Elstob and Elstob (December 2021).

By the 1970s the once lauded Miles Davis was at a low ebb. The decade had started positively with the jazz-fusion of his album Bitches Brew, but the final five years of the decade marked an artistic hiatus, as he underwent hip surgery in 1975 and later admitted to heavy alcohol and cocaine use.

A decade later though, and his fortunes seemingly changed. His creative zest had returned. He released seven albums in the eighties and a lightness can be seen in his bright and bold paintings; his 1989 Amandla album features his artwork. “If you fall in love with somebody, the birds come out in spring and you re-invent yourself – that’s what happened,” explained Gelber. “Miles fell in love very late in life”.

Miles Davis’s paintings with Jo Gelbard

Jo Gelbard with Miles Davis, Pacific Coast Airlift.

Jo Gelbard with Miles Davis, Pacific Coast Airlift. Sold for $1,280 via Julien’s Auction (May 2014).

Painting was a savior for Davis. “Painting is like therapy for me, and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music.” Unlike his work as a musician – a staunch solo artist – Davis found a collaborator and more in Gelbard. She added refinement and the eye of a painter to the creativity overflowing from Davis. As is perhaps to be expected, their approach to the canvas was typically unconventional, but surprisingly productive.

“We would take a canvas or a paper and somebody would do something – put down a color, or a line or a face or whatever – and the next person would say – without actually saying it verbally, but by doing it – ‘I think it needs this’. And the next would say, ‘I don’t know, maybe this would be better,’” said Gerber of their artistic collaboration. “And it would just go on without speaking until it was done. We never really knew where it was going.”

Sadly the collaboration responsible for Miles Davis’s paintings would be short lived, as Davis died on 28 September 1991.