So the Story Goes: Bobby McFerrin’s Fateful Night in Hollywood

Bobby McFerrin by Carol Friedman

News | Jul, 27th 2017

If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room together, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road. In this original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of those great stories. (See other entries in this series.)

Multi-Grammy award winning singer Bobby McFerrin has always pushed musical boundaries. His virtuosic ability and unique style—often incorporating large melodic leaps, percussive vocal improvisation and a cappella performances—earns him a place among the most sensational musicians of the past century. It’s certainly no coincidence, then, that his journey to musical greatness began with Miles Davis, perhaps the person who best represents an artist’s ability to break down barriers and transcend genre. It was Davis’s unprecedented musical approach that sparked McFerrin’s lifelong dedication to the art of improvisation.

In an interview with Jazz Stories on Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio, McFerrin recalls the night that Miles Davis changed his life forever.

I’m taking my date to see Miles Davis at a club called Shelly’s Manne-Hole in Hollywood, February of 1971. I’m standing in line and I can’t get in. The place is packed. There’s just no room. So I’m standing in the line and I’m waiting and waiting, hoping I can get in some kind of miraculous way and it turns out that as I’m standing there this woman walks out of the club and walks directly to me and says, “I’ve got two tickets that I’m not using,” or something. I had never met this woman before; I had no idea who she was. She gave me these two tickets. Me and my girlfriend got to go in and our seats were right next to the bandstand, right behind Keith Jarrett’s piano with a clear view of everybody in the band: Michael Henderson on bass, Gary Bartz on soprano sax, Jack DeJohnette on drums, Airto [Moreira] on percussion. And I walked out of that club that night molecularly changed.

I had never in my life heard music like that. I knew what improvisation was, but I didn’t understand it… until that moment. And I think that was the moment when I completely dedicated myself to doing improvisation, because Miles did it in such a way that was so unique and deep that I was floating for weeks after that. I didn’t really know what to do, I mean, my whole musical life and concept of music was altered that very moment.

You ever have moments like that in your life where something just changes you forever and you know you’ll never be able to see yourself as a musician the same way again? Where everything is changed? Anyway, it was just one of those moments in my life that changed me forever. But I just thought it was interesting and kind of miraculous that this woman just walked directly up to me to give me these tickets when I had no hope of getting in. I was just standing in line hoping I could get in but the place was already packed; there was no room. But there were these two tickets with these two seats right next to the bandstand. It was the perfect spot! It couldn’t have been a better spot. And I walked out of the club thinking “What was that? What was that?!

The interplay between the musicians, I think, is one of the things that fascinated me; the fact that they would play these 20-30 minute improvs without interruption of any kind. Miles would start some kind of a piece, play a very simple riff.  He’d be on stage for about five minutes and then he would leave the stage and the band would just jam. I had never seen that kind of group improv, each understanding, “Now it’s my turn to play,” or, “I’ve got the solo spot.” It was just like listening to what the music was saying to them and then being channels for whatever the moment needed.

I had the good fortune to be sitting right next to Keith Jarrett, which was really amazing. I had an unhindered view of his dance behind the piano. He was playing Fender Rhodes and Vox organ. He was playing these simultaneous lines with great speed and dexterity, and so imaginative. I remember looking out at the club and all eyes were on him when he played. And Miles was wearing black leather pants, a black shirt and he was playing a black trumpet hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, and so he’s just squeaking and squawking and playing all over the place—Jack DeJohnette on drums.

It was just mind-blowing because I was a 21-year-old composition student in college and I was used to writing everything out, even writing out some solos that I wanted musicians to playinto controlling the music. Now here were these musicians letting the music control them and I really saw that for the first time. And that changed my life.

Listen to more episodes of Jazz Stories


Photograph by Carol Friedman.

read more

Jon Hendricks is sometimes called the "Father of Vocalese" for being the first to write lyrics for well-known instrumental melodies. In this installment of "So the Story Goes," he reveals why a burger joint became the style's birthplace.

read more

Prepare for Harris's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola sets by listening to a 2002 broadcast of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR, in which he provided some insight into how one of jazz’s longest-running educational workshops came to be.


Dianne Reeves's V-Day Mixtape

A hand-picked list of songs for "late-into-the-night, romantic rendezvous" courtesy five-time Grammy Award-winner Dianne Reeves. Featuring Nina Simone, Geri Allen, Al Green, and many more!

read more
Study up on jazz piano history!

Playlist: Get Ready for Handful of Keys with the Evolution of Jazz Piano!

Study up for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis's new album Handful of Keys, featuring special guests Joey Alexander, Dick Hyman, Myra Melford, and more!

read more
Listen to a playlist featuring some of John Lewis's greatest music!

Playlist: Get to Know

Enrich your listening experience of "The Music of John Lewis," the new album from the JLCO with Wynton Marsalis ft. Jon Batiste, with an excerpt from its liner notes and a playlist exploring Lewis's oeuvre!

read more
Ingrid Jensen in RECOLLECT

Crate-dig with Jimmy Cobb, Sheila Jordan & more in RECOLLECT

Our new original video series RECOLLECT takes you record shopping with some of the world's greatest jazz artists, including Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, and many more!

read more
Chick Corea - photo by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

Chick Corea: Five Essential Albums

Chick Corea is one of the most influential figures in jazz and one of the greatest living jazz pianists. In advance of his trio’s July 4 performance in Highland Park, IL, at the Ravinia Festival alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, here are five essential albums from his discography.

read more
Wynton Marsalis performs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Celebrating Spaces and The Abyssinian Mass with Colbert on The Late Show

Wynton Marsalis appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to perform with Jon Batiste, Stay Human, and acclaimed dancer Lil Buck. Check out video and behind-the-scenes content from their performance.

read more

10 Essential Jazz Albums

New to jazz and don't know where to start? With many artists and extensive catalogues of music, a new jazz listener can feel intimidated. We're here to help! Check out our list of 10 albums to get you started on your jazz journey and introduce yourself to some of jazz's great artists.

read more

A Visit to Clark Terry

On December 7, 2014 the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drove 8 hours on an off day to play for Clark Terry on his 94th birthday. Victor Goines, James Chirillo, Ted Nash, Vincent Gardner, and Walter Blanding recall the day and the impact that Clark had on jazz.

read more


Watch Helen Sung and Isaiah J. Thompson perform Handful of Keys live!

To celebrate the latest release from Blue Engine records, two world-class jazz pianists showed off their chops live from Paste Magazine's NYC studios.

read more
Grassella Oliphant

Lessons from Our Masters: Grassella Oliphant on Keeping Jazz's Legacy Alive

Grassella Oliphant kicks off the Lessons from Our Masters series on his 88th birthday, opening our Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival. Oliphant played with Ahmad Jamal in 1952, Sarah Vaughan through the late 1950s, and released acclaimed albums featuring heavyweights like Bobby Hutcherson, Clark Terry, and Grant Green. It’ll be a festive evening of music as we celebrate Oliphant’s birthday and launch our 2017 Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival!

read more
Buddy Rich

So the Story Goes: Buddy Rich on Music and Magic

In the latest installment of So the Story Goes, Buddy Rich—sometimes regarded as "the world's greatest drummer"—gets rhapsodic about the power of music and recounts that one time he played for the Queen of England.

read more
Joe Temperley, by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

Notes from the Road: Remembering Joe Temperley

Before his passing in May, Joe Temperley spent 29 unforgettable years as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's baritone saxophonist and its beloved elder statesman. Between performances on their recent mini-tour of Canada, several JLCO members shared their memories of Temperley, who left behind an indelible legacy and a whole lot of stories.

read more

6 Underappreciated Jazz Artists You Should Check Out

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so we thought we'd celebrate by delving into the careers of a handful of underappreciated jazz artists. Explore the careers of six musicians who deserve more accolades and learn the best places to start with their discographies.

read more