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.

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Photograph by Carol Friedman.

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