Miles Davis's memories of how Billy Eckstine's orchestra changed his life have been unearthed by NEC jazz chair Ken Schaphorst, who adds his own comments on the music from the Eckstine songbook that he conducts with the NEC Jazz Orchestra on October 17.
Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life—with my clothes on—was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944. 1 was eighteen years old and had just graduated from Lincoln High School. It was just across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois.
When I heard Diz and Bird in B’s band, I said, “What? What is this!?” . . . I mean, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Buddy Anderson, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, and Art Blakey all together in one band and not to mention B: Billy Eckstine himself …
B’s band changed my life. I decided right then and there that I had to leave St. Louis and live in New York City where all these bad musicians were …
… I’ve come close to matching the feeling of that night in 1944 in music, when I first heard Diz and Bird, but I’ve never quite got there. I’ve gotten close, but not all the way there. I’m always looking for it, listening and feeling for it, though, trying to always feel it in and through the music I play every day. I still remember when I was just a kid, still wet behind the ears, hanging out with all these great musicians, my idols even until this day.
Sucking in everything. Man, it was something.
—Miles Davis (The Autobiography of Miles Davis, with Quincy Troupe)
Vaughn Monroe and Billy Eckstine (1914–1993) are both best known as vocalists. But like Vaughn Monroe, Billy Eckstine also played the trumpet and valve trombone and was famous for his exacting musicianship. “I was a singer but I always thought of myself as a musician,” Eckstine explained to writer Stanley Dance. Eckstine first gained recognition in the late '30s and early '40s as the vocalist with Earl “Fatha” Hines’s band, recording the first of several versions of his blues classic, Jelly, Jelly. Eckstine formed his own band in 1944, luring both Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker away from Hines. Before Eckstine’s band broke up in 1947, it featured many of the most influential jazz players of the time, including Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Stitt, and Sarah Vaughan. It was one of the first big bands to perform the new, revolutionary style of jazz that later became known as bebop. Many staples of the later Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, including Cool Breeze, Good Bait, Oop Bop Sh-Bam, and Our Delight, received their first performances in Billy Eckstine’s ensemble. Unfortunately, the start of the Eckstine Band coincided with the AFM musicians’ strike/recording ban of 1942–1944. So, the band that Miles Davis heard in St. Louis was never recorded. But the legendary Eckstine band will go down in jazz history as one of the most fruitful and significant bands of all time.