My love affair with Miles Davis started with a kiss. Of course I didn’t actually kiss the legendary trumpeter myself (though that would have been an even better story), but rather my girlfriend, Lisa. I was fourteen and had just made it up to her bedroom for the first time. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what to do next. But Lisa did. She calmly turned on her favorite music, then sat down next to me on the bed. We turned towards each other. At first I was too shy to look her in the eyes but there was something in those notes that just inspired me. So I went for it. As our lips touched, it felt like an explosion. I was sure that this must be what love feels like. But I was wrong–it was the just first notes of “The Buzzard Song” from Miles’s rendition of Porgy and Bess.
All of the energy of that song went into that kiss, and the next, and the next. By the time we stopped to breathe, Miles was halfway into “Summertime” and showed no promise of slowing down. We were immediately back at it, and our make-out session crescendoed as the gorgeous sound of horns enshrouded our very being. My heartstrings were aflutter from the ineffable mixture of romance and jazz. Afterwards I went home with a sense of having discovered something greater than myself, no small order for the narcissist I was.
The next day I felt compelled to go out and buy some of Miles’s classics. My finances at the time were quite limited, but I was able to borrow fifty dollars from my parents, claiming I needed it for a project for music class. The rest of the weekend I spent wandering luscious sonic landscapes. Kind of Blue was understandably terrific, but I also enjoyed the darker recordings, particularly In a Silent Way. But how can I really compare such masterpieces?
Lisa called me that evening wanting to meet, but I was able to deflect the attention with some claims about a school project. She was no jazz aficionado; indeed she didn’t care much for it at all. But she was a true lover of Gershwin in general and Porgy and Bess in particular. Having exhausted all the standard renditions, she moved on to the jazz versions, starting off with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s. She had just discovered the magic of Miles’s flugelhorns when I chanced upon her. It turned out well for my love of jazz, but not so much for the longevity of our relationship.
Lisa and I had originally met in music class, in which we both played the piano. Rather than competing, as we might have had we been of the same gender, we formed a close relationship and helped each other practice. Neither of us was amazing, but we got by. Perhaps all those evenings spent “practicing” could have been put to better use.
Probably things would have remained that way had I been introduced to jazz through Herbie Hancock or Jelly Roll Morton. But instead it was Miles Davis, and Miles played the trumpet, not the piano. Although I had yet to show any sign of being a musical prodigy, I still decided that I would learn to play some of his compositions. So I switched instruments.
No one else in our school was a trumpet player. The only trumpet we had clearly showed the wear of years of neglect by teenagers. It wasn’t particularly old, but apparently its previous owners had used it more often as a weapon than musical instrument. Still, I practiced diligently that week, and by Friday I could consistently play a C and sometimes even an F or G.
Progress can be a wonderful thing sometimes, but that wasn’t the case for my relationship with Lisa. She took my abandonment of the piano as a personal affront, saying that my love affair with the trumpet was more egregious than had I had one with any of the other girls in the school. So she broke it off.
I was sad at first, but not for long. Before I had met her music was the main way I escaped the waves of melancholy that I would often feel, unsure where my life was headed. And afterwards I went back to it with renewed passion. I would now have more time to practice, and when I became the second coming of Miles I just knew that willing women would flock to my side. So it was to my dismay that my progress started slowing down. I knew by then how to play all the individual notes, but I couldn’t coherently combine them into anything that sounded even remotely like music. Far from being the next great jazz trumpeter it seemed that I wasn’t even on track to pass music class. My teacher, Mr. Sharpe, tried to help me, but when it came down to brass tracks, it was clear that he didn’t know enough to do more than passively encourage me to practice.
In the meantime, out of all of us Lisa had suddenly become the star musician. She specialized in playing piano arrangements of pop songs and video game music, which was hardly fair. After all, who would honestly prefer to listen to my off-key blaring rather than Lisa’s renditions of “Quit Playing Games” or “Aeris’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII?
The final class project was a public performance in front of the school. Each of us would choose any composition and play it on the instrument of our choice. And student applause (or lack thereof) entirely determined our grade. Actually, that last part wasn’t true, but it definitely felt like the feelings of our peers mattered much more than the panel of judges that evaluated our performance. Of course, if, like me, all you could emit was twelve sporadic notes in the wrong sequence then both groups were likely to prove hostile.
Lisa was moved by my ineptitude to forgive her grievances. She caught up to me in the hall one day and flat out told me to give up the trumpet, not for her, but so I didn’t have to repeat the class. I knew she was right–even without the past few months of practice I was still a far better pianist. But by that point she was dating Gary, a ukelelist I despised, and I couldn’t admit that I was wrong, to her of all people.
My lack of progress became so severe that I gave up practicing altogether. While my parents thought I was playing the trumpet I instead laid on my bed in a gloomy state, playing Miles’s records on endless loop. It felt like being covered by lead for an x-ray, but all over my body. And the heaviness only increased as the remaining days passed one by one.
The day before the concert even my clueless parents realized that I wasn’t my usual self. But their remedies were hopelessly worthless. “Cheer up,” they said, and “I’m sure you’ll do well”, and “We’re so excited to see your first concert.” It would have made me laugh if the heaviness hadn’t crushed all the joy out of my soul.
I felt a little better that night. At least, I thought, it will be over soon. And whatever happens, it’s just a music class. It doesn’t really matter in the big picture. This is what I told myself. But I didn’t really believe that. It just seemed like something an outsider would say that had never felt as I did.
I was about to put on Kind of Blue to help me fall asleep when I was struck with an odd idea. I had never been at all religious, had never prayed or gone to church. But holding that CD with its beautiful album cover I felt compelled to call upon a force greater than just myself. Instead of placing it in my CD player I gently lowered it on my chair, then got down on my knees in from of it. I thought I wouldn’t know what to say but as soon as I clasped the sides of the chair the words started to flow out in a whisper.
“Miles,” I said. “Excuse me, but I’m just a lonely boy who found a bit of solace in your wonderful music. If you are in heaven, up there, smiling, can you spare some of your inspiration for your most ardent admirer? I just need it for tomorrow, for the concert. I know I’ll never be one millionth of the musician you are, but one millionth is all I need to be to pass that class. I’ve never felt this way about anything or anyone–.” I saw quick image of Lisa, walking in front of me in her usual white sweater and jeans, looking back to give me a smile, but I shrugged it off. “So just grant me that one millionth part and I promise I’ll be your devoted follower forever,” I continued.
I may have said more, but that’s all I remember. That morning I woke up on the floor next to the chair, the CD still arranged neatly in the center of it. Somehow sleeping on the floor made me feel a renewed motivation to do well at the concert. I got dressed, ate a hurried breakfast, and was about to head out the door when my mom stopped me.
“Wow, you really like to cut it close, don’t you?” she said.
“What are you talking about? This is when I always leave.” I replied. Although it’s true that I was always at least five minutes late, but she didn’t know that (I hoped).
My mom shook her head. “No, you got this delivery early this morning. The doorbell woke me up,” she scowled.
I looked to her hands, which held a beautiful silver trumpet, so new that it appeared to shine with an eerie light. I walked over to take it but she moved it out of my reach. “Where did you get this?” she said, “It looks very expensive.”
I had no idea what to say, but I just knew I had to have that trumpet. I felt it must be connected to the events of the previous night, and I couldn’t let my struggle be for nothing. “I won it,” I said, “in a contest for musicians at my school. I guess they felt bad that I had to play on that beat-up old thing. I’m just glad it arrived in time for today.”
Mom seemed to buy this explanation. She smiled. “That’s amazing,” she said. “I’m even more excited to see you play today.” She gave me the trumpet.
As soon as it touched my fingers I felt an electric discharge. I knew immediately it was exactly as I felt that night with Lisa, our first kiss coinciding so perfectly with the beginning of “The Buzzard’s Song”. I didn’t know what to believe, but I knew that something special had happened.
I made my way through that school day in a dreamlike fugue. All I could think about was playing my new trumpet at the concert. It was the last week of school so the teachers were already mostly checked out, so no one seemed to notice much. Finally, the last bell sounded, and I made my way to the auditorium backstage.
I had been avoiding Lisa and Gary for the previous few months, seeing them only in music class, in which they sat apart. But now I immediately saw them, holding hands while sitting on the piano bench. I recognized in her eyes the same look she gave me that night, that look of excitement mixed with yearning. Until that point it had been the first day in a long time I hadn’t felt the heaviness, but now I felt it again descending. Quickly, I reached into my bag and took out my trumpet. It was very visible glowing now, even more than it had been this morning. I expected everyone around to turn and look at the source, but no one else seemed to notice. Still, to be cautious, I put it away again.
A few minutes later it was time to begin. Mr. Sharpe drew our names from a hat, and as we were chosen we went up to the stage to play. There was a “recommended” time of three to five minutes for each performance but it was clear that every student was trying to skirt the bottom of that range. The first chosen was Ben, a harpist who played a tolerably-good rendition of Donizetti’s Harp solo from Lucia di Lammermoor but got only scattered applause (probably from his parents). It seemed the crowd was especially hostile today.
Second up was Lisa. She was already fairly popular at school, and even played one of the student “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, which resulted in medium applause. She smiled as she got off stage and sat down right next to Gary. “You were phenomenal,” I heard him say. I wish I had closed my eyes at that moment, or looked away, or at least blinked. But I did none of those things and so I saw him give her a kiss in front of all of us. This was followed by whistles from several members of the class. I expected Mr. Sharpe to say something, but he just smiled and gave a knowing nod.
After that the heaviness hit me like a train. I took out the trumpet and held it tenderly, hoping its magic would help me. I don’t remember what anyone else played, I just sat there trying to make it through. I must have been completely out of it, since the next thing I remember is Mr. Sharpe tapping me on the shoulder. He kept repeating my name, and I realized that I was the last one, that it was my turn to play.
I looked down at the trumpet again, and saw it glowing brighter than ever. The whole room was filled with its pale silver light. Seeing that illumination suddenly filled me with a peace I’d never felt before. I saw it grow brighter and brighter until it was blinding. I couldn’t see anything, but somehow I stood up and wordlessly walked out on stage. Or at least, that’s what they told me afterwards. I don’t remember any from that point on.
“You were sensational.” Mom couldn’t contain her words as I showed up downstairs for breakfast. “I mean I knew you spent a lot of time practicing, but I never believed–just amazing. I didn’t know what to expect but when I heard those first notes I felt like I was back at my first Miles Davis concert. I used to be quite a jazz aficionado,” she said. “When I was younger,” she added wistfully.
But I wasn’t listening. Sensational? Could it really be? I truly had no memory of anything after the glow took me in, but how could I have played that well. I had barely strung together two notes in practice–did the prayer really work? But I quickly realized that there was something important I had forgotten. Mom was still going on about my performance.
“The trumpet,” I interrupted. “Where is it?”
“Oh, I think you can take a break from practicing today. I know you love it, but you’ve been working so hard these past few months.”
“No, mom, I need to return it.”
“Return it? But you said you won it.”
“I meant, I won it only for that night. It was a rental.”
Just then I saw it lying on the counter behind her. The glow had all but disappeared, but there was still a faint trace of it. I walked over and picked it up. “I’ll be back soon,” I said.
I had made a deal with Miles, and now I’d have to live up to my side of the bargain. I needed to return the trumpet to him. But how? I walked away from my house, just looking for something that would help me figure it out.
After half an hour of walking, I saw the gleaming water of the nearby reservoir. As I approached the reflection of sunlight blinded me and I instantly knew what to do. I walked up to the edge, held the trumpet out at arm’s length, and let go.
When I got home, Mom was waiting for me. “I was thinking… I know that a good trumpet is very expensive, but I want to support you. I wasn’t sure before yesterday, but…”
“No,” I interrupted. “That was the end. No more music for me.”
“That’s so sudden,” she said. “But if you’re sure…”
“I am. Next year I’m going to join math club instead. And then maybe Lisa and I can go back to being friends.”
Mom gave me a puzzled look. “Don’t you remember we all had dinner together last night? And her parents mentioned moving away next week. They want to live closer to the rest of their family.” Her puzzle turned into a smile. “You must have been so wrapped up in your own music, you weren’t even paying attention.”
But I didn’t remember any of that.
The next time I saw Lisa was ten years later. It was after I had finished high school with an unimpressive record. After I had gone to college to major in music but then abandoned it (to my parents’ delight) for actuarial science. “Something practical” my father said, when I told him the happy news. Based on the smile on his face you would have thought I had won the lottery. But I think he just expected me to help with his taxes, not understanding the difference between being an actuary and an accountant.
I was walking home after work, through a park, a different route than the one I would usually take, when I saw her sitting on a bench, reading a book. “Lisa,” I said, and sat down next to her. She looked over and I saw confusion turn into surprise and recognition on her face. She turned to put the book away into her bag and I saw a diamond ring on her finger. “Wow,” I said, “is that–?” She held it up for me to see, and immediately I was struck how the light filtering through the diamond looked the same as the glow of that trumpet all those years ago. “I can’t keep it secret anymore,” she laughed, “I’m engaged.”
“Is it–” I started to ask.
“Gary?” she laughed again. “No that was ages ago.” She paused. “We were so young back then.” Another pause. “You know, I never even really liked him.”
“But–” I must have given her a strange look.
She put her hand on my shoulder. “It was always you,” she said. Then must have realized what she had said and quickly pulled back. “I mean, back then,” she added.
“But you were the one who broke it off,” I said.
“You really hurt me, you must know. I thought it was so special, that first time we kissed. But then you started disappearing for days at a time to practice. I felt I was losing you. I needed a clean break. But I was so happy it worked out for you–at that concert. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“I knew I couldn’t live with myself if you failed that class. I felt it was my fault you couldn’t play well. It took all my savings and I had to borrow from my parents against my future allowance, but it was worth it. Buying you that trumpet was the best thing I did that whole year.”